Un­ning back to sun­shine

Some peo­ple never over­come losses but a group of am­putees in Hong Kong has found a new lease on life — by learn­ing to run. Dara Wang re­ports.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FOCUS - Con­tact the writer at dara@chi­nadai­lyhk.com

Irene Yu Kuk-ying, 59, has be­come an in­spi­ra­tion be­cause of her de­ter­mi­na­tion — com­ing back from the tragedy that changed her life and made her the fighter she is. Some peo­ple never re­cover af­ter cruel set­backs. Yu lost her leg when she was 18, just start­ing in col­lege. To­day, she’s run­ning — maybe only 200 me­ters a day but that’s OK, as long as it gets done.

Yu shares her pho­tos on so­cial me­dia ev­ery day, which have earned her 2,400 fans on Facebook. Her fol­low­ers praise her as out­go­ing, re­silient and cheer­ful.

Yu started run­ning in Fe­bru­ary. She’d never run af­ter the ac­ci­dent on Valen­tine’s Day decades ago. It was the day she was to have re­ported to Guangxi Univer­sity. Ad­mis­sions had been resched­uled for the next day, so she strolled the cam­pus, think­ing about the fu­ture, and what col­lege life was go­ing to be like.

The cam­pus had a wa­ter tower. Some stu­dents were stand­ing wash­ing their hands. As Yu walked past, the tower crashed to the ground. In­stinc­tively, she pushed aside a young man ahead of her, but was buried in the ru­ins her­self.

Yu fell into a coma un­til she woke up in a clinic. She couldn’t feel any­thing, but a re­lent­less dream of two friends call­ing her from some­where. She did not know then that her friends, who were also at the scene, were dead, buried in the col­lapse of the tower.

When she re­gained con­scious­ness, she saw blood gush­ing from her leg. “I did not cry. I re­as­sured my fam­ily and told them not to be afraid, then lost con­scious­ness again,” Yu said.

Pe­onies were her fa­vorite flow­ers, the red-pur­ple ones. To her, they were a sym­bol of life with their lav­ish, blood red petals. When the time came for the surgery to am­pu­tate her shat­tered leg, some­body brought her a pe­ony. Her mother re­called that she had gripped the blos­som un­til the liq­uid ran down her arms but Yu hung on and shed no tears.

It took nearly two months be­fore Yu could make any sense of the world again. The first thing she re­mem­bered was pe­onies, ev­ery­where, in ev­ery part of her room. Then she rec­og­nized she had no right leg.

“If the win­dow were not be­yond my reach, I would have com­mit­ted sui­cide,” Yu said.

What hap­pens to a per­son who loses a leg? Of course, it put a hard limit on Yu’s mo­bil­ity but it also took away her con­fi­dence. They fit­ted her with an ar­ti­fi­cial leg. It seemed pretty close to the real thing, but it wasn’t the same.

Once she started liv­ing again, she started a ca­reer in sales and ex­celled at it, but her dreams were all gone. Mem­o­ries of what hap­pened to her and her friends hung over her like a dark cloud, wher­ever she went.

“I’m not will­ing to go in dis­guise, as an am­putee. I just can’t do that,” Yu said.

The clouds hung for years that turned into decades. Then just this year, she sum­moned the courage to take the three-day Run­ning Clinic. It wasn’t un­til the last day that she ran, for the first time in over 40 years. She called that day “one of the most mean­ing­ful days in life”.

Run­ning is the panacea

The Run­ning Clinic, by Ger­man pros­thet­ics com­pany Ot­to­bock, en­rolled 16 am­putees this year. En­rollees were taught to walk and run as if they had no im­pair­ment at all.

The clinic’s trainer was Hein­rich Popow, a Ger­man Par­a­lympics gold medal sprinter. He knows that lack of self-con­fi­dence is the big­gest stum­bling block for am­putees to learn to walk and run nor­mally. “They just don’t be­lieve they can do it like other peo­ple,” Popow said. But he be­lieves run­ning is a panacea for them.

“If you can fin­ish a sprint, there is no difficulty go­ing shop­ping with your wife and kids. Sports are some­thing above daily life. It is es­pe­cially crit­i­cal for am­putees to re­gain the con­fi­dence,” Popow said.

He asks trainees to set a goal and run ev­ery day and don’t start rais­ing ques­tions or doubts that may de­stroy their ini­tia­tive.

Yu, with­out much hes­i­ta­tion, set her goal at 500 me­ters. She started in the play­ground with Popow. “I al­most cried when my legs started to run. Feel­ings that had been lost for so many years came back and be­came un­for­get­table,” Yu said.

She found peers and even role mod­els at the Run­ning Clinic. She met Camel Fung Kam-hung, 65. He was the first in Hong Kong to be fit­ted with run­ning blades, af­ter they were in­tro­duced in the city some 10 years ago.

Fung was a pri­mary school phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion teacher. A traf­fic in­ci­dent 38 years ago ended that ca­reer. He lost his left leg. “As a per­son in a sports-re­lated oc­cu­pa­tion, I prob­a­bly ex­pe­ri­enced more frus­tra­tion than most af­ter the am­pu­ta­tion,” Fung said. “I had to give up my ca­reer and be­come a clerk. I felt I was be­ing wasted.”

It took him more than two decades be­fore he found the blades. “The light, elas­tic blade makes run­ning eas­ier. I start­ing tak­ing up sports ac­tiv­i­ties,” Fung said many times, as he told his story.

Dis­tance run­ning be­came Fung’s so­lace and com­pen­sa­tion. His legs no longer felt use­less. Bet­ter still, he learned he could mea­sure up to full-bod­ied peo­ple, maybe do bet­ter.

When he re­tired, Fung joined a 100-kilo­me­ter hike. He fin­ished a half-marathon. Then he signed up for a com­pe­ti­tion — a seven-day, 250-kilo­me­ter trek across Chile’s Ata­cama Desert, team­ing up with his wife and a friend. Fung was the first-ever am­putee to fin­ish the Ata­cama Cross­ing. He and his two com­pan­ions also won the team com­pe­ti­tion. Peo­ple talked about how Fung showed ter­rific re­silience fac­ing many tri­als over the long walk. They hadn’t gone far be­fore Fung found a crack be­tween his pros­the­sis and the sole of his hik­ing boots. They’d gone some 40 kilo­me­ters with a long, long way to go. “I had to go all the way to over­come my lim­i­ta­tions. Though my per­for­mance wasn’t up to what I’d hoped, af­ter that, I had to con­tinue,” said Fung. He trekked over peaks and through val­leys for more than 200 kilo­me­ters, on his pros­the­sis, held to­gether with glue and tape.

As an ex­pe­ri­enced racer, Fung agrees, de­ter­mi­na­tion is a big thing but there’s a lot more. To com­pete hard, rac­ers need sys­tem­atic train­ing, stretch­ing to the edge of their lim­its. They have to pace them­selves and stay within their lim­its.

“The more I train, the more I trust my pros­thetic leg. Am­putees are like other peo­ple in sports. They need train­ing and sports­man­ship,” Fung said.

Run­ning gave Fung a new life. Fung, his wife and their friend called their team “Five Legs Never Quit”. Not only did they stay the course, they re­turned and made the long march across the Gobi Desert in north­west­ern China last month. They’re go­ing to com­pete in next year’s desert cross­ing.

Fung said he couldn’t stop run­ning once he got back into it. Yu kept her prom­ise to keep on run­ning. She’s been out ev­ery day since join­ing the work­shop.

Yu ac­knowl­edges the pain. “Am­putees suf­fer from fric­tion be­tween the stump and the pros­thetic limb.” But she takes the pain and keeps on. “As long as I can run, I will keep run­ning. It is a way for me to train the body and mind­set liv­ing in a re­spect­ful way. It’s be­come an es­sen­tial part of my life,” Yu said.

Ev­ery­one lives through some kind of loss and suf­fers the pain. Some­times, time heals all wounds, some­times not. Yu and

Fung feel whole again, hav­ing found a new way of life through run­ning. The pain still hurts — but it’s ac­com­pa­nied by joy and pride of ac­com­plish­ment.

PHO­TOS BY DARA WANG / CHINA DAILY

Camel Fung Kam-hung in­sisted long-dis­tance walk­ing and run­ning ev­ery day af­ter hav­ing a pros­thetic blade for some 10 years.

4DESERTS.COM/ATACAMACROSSING

Camel Fung (left) crosses the Ata­cama Desert in Chile with his blade in 2015.

shares cheer­ful, positive images on Facebook ev­ery day.

Hein­rich Popow (mid­dle) trains am­putees to walk and run in the right way with pros­the­ses.

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