One Life as a Gift for Many

We first met Bok-Shin in January 2012 while treating patients in the Northeast Development Zone of North Korea known as Rason. Bok-Shin had spastic, quadriplegic cerebral palsy. Being unable to even move her fingers, Bok-Shin was carried piggy-back style on the back of her grandmother to the hospital where Dr. Stephen Yoon worked. Many children with severe cerebral palsy in North Korea do not survive, but her grandmother had been sustaining her granddaughter’s life by chewing her granddaughter’s food in her own mouth first and then transferring it to Bok-Shin’s mouth in order for her to swallow and eat.


Just after a few days of treatment, Bok-Shin already began showing signs of improvement. She regained the ability to move her fingers and clench her hands into a fist. Her facial expressions relaxed, depicting a new found peace.

But at that time, our family was in the midst of transitioning from the Northeast Region of Rason to the capital city of Pyongyang. Our greatest hesitation for moving to Pyongyang was leaving behind little Bok-Shin. We knew that if we left this five year-old girl in Rason there would be little chance for her to receive the treatment she desperately needed to improve the quality of her life.

Therefore, once we arrived in Pyongyang, one of the first questions we asked the hospital administrator was to bring this little girl with spastic, quadriplegic cerebral palsy to the tertiary hospital in the capital city. His response was, “But we have no cerebral palsy in our country! How did you find this girl?” Not wanting to argue with him, we simply stated that she was already our patient, and could we please bring her to Pyongyang. Despite his objections, he consented.

Bok-Shin relocated to Pyongyang with her grandmother in April 2013. At that time, the Pyongyang Spine Rehabilitation (PYSRC) team started concentrating on treatment for children with cerebral palsy. Our team rejoiced in the continual improvements Bok-Shin demonstrated over the span of her treatment. She began sitting up, rolling over, and relaxing her previously spastic muscles.


However, there arose a problem with the hospital room that she was sharing with eight other children and their caretakers. It was difficult for others to observe Bok-Shin’s grandmother changing her then six year-old granddaughter’s diapers and chewing her food for her. Due to many complaints and much peer pressure, Bok-Shin’s grandmother quit Bok-Shin’s treatment and returned to Rason with Bok-Shin in June of 2013. Her grandmother’s only request was that we provide a private hospital room for Bok-Shin so that she could have privacy and peace while receiving treatment in Pyongyang. Unfortunately, at that time, there were no private rooms in the Pediatric Ward.

As a result, we changed our Pyongyang Spine Rehabilitation Center’s (PYSRC) blueprint to create private rooms for quadriplegic patients such as Bok-Shin. While our Ignis team was in the Northeast area of Rason, we met Bok-Shin’s father to tell him the good news in December of 2013. We encouraged her father stating that the PYSRC is striving to make a private room for Bok-Shin in our new facility, which was under construction. We pleaded with him to wait just a little bit longer and send Bok-Shin back to Pyongyang for treatment. But, with tears running down his face, Bok-Shin’s father exclaimed in anguish, “Bok-Shin is no longer with us!”

Because of our encounter with Bok-Shin, a new concentration in Pediatric Cerebral Palsy Therapy was birthed as part of the PYSRC. Her life gave hope to many down the road to receive the treatment that could have given her hope for a better life. Now, instead of parents loosing hope for their child, children like Bok-Shin can have hope for a brighter future. This new specialty in the PYSRC has also received official approval from the North Korean government. Even though we were only able to serve little Bok-Shin for a short time of time, she left this world a better place for the next generation.

As we were treating Bok-Shin, we learned how to give Bok-Shin the great gift of health and life. But in contrast, it was Bok-Shin who gave us the greatest gift of all. She gave us the gift of opening our eyes to the hearts of those with needs all around us, being the catalyst to bring more healing and restoration to children with cerebral palsy and other developmental disabilities throughout the entire nation of North Korea. We are forever in Bok-Shin’s debt, for because of her, thousands of children with cerebral palsy in North Korea now have hope for a better life and future.

Joy Yoon