Stand by me and be my friend

By Yu Ran (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-02-02 10:05
Large Medium Small

Stand by me and be my friend

Colin Pemp, 27, has been working hard to support his ex-Chinese girlfriend for two years, after an accident paralyzed her.

"The hard times have passed, she's getting better day by day. My dream is to see her walking again. I know that will happen soon," says Pemp, from Idaho, United States, who studies Chinese at Suzhou University.

Chen Yahuan, 32, comes from Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. Two years ago, she was a salesperson at a clothing store in Suzhou, Jiangsu province.

The accident happened when Chen walked out of a pub with two friends.

"A tricycle hit my friend who bumped me and my head hit a rock," Chen recalls.

Three hours of surgery at No 1 Suzhou Hospital saved her life but left her with a 6.4 cm hole on the right side of her head. She stayed at the hospital for a month and Pemp paid the 4,000 yuan ($586) a day in hospital fees. He was only allowed to see her for 5 minutes everyday.

Chen woke up from her coma more than a month later, but she couldn't move the left side of her body. She was sent to No 5 Hospital for rehabilitation.

Chen's father died when she was young and her mother remarried. Her half sister earned only 117 yuan a month.

"I'm the only one who could pay for her medical bills," Pemp says. But the 3-month stay in hospital drained Pemp's purse and his visa was about to expire. He had to obtain a student visa to stay.

"I consulted everyone I knew. People at the visa office in Suzhou were sympathetic but they couldn't issue me a valid visa," Pemp says. "I couldn't leave her alone, unconscious."

Pemp came to China in 2005, after graduating with a history degree from California University, to work for a year in Taiyuan, Shanxi province. He met Chen at a friend's birthday party. They shared the same interest in traveling and skateboarding and fell in love. One year later, they moved to Suzhou.

"I read stories about Suzhou, which is the Venice of China," Pemp says.

He worked as a private English tutor to pay the medical bills.

"I was going crazy at that time. I had to work, study and take care of her. Luckily, I got 150 yuan per hour for teaching English, which was a great rate in Suzhou."

With the help of a nanny, Chen could sit in a wheelchair. But they couldn't afford the surgery to close up the hole on her head.

"I decided to break up with Colin around that time," Chen says. "He should have his own life. He respected my decision and sent me to a rehabilitation hospital in Guangzhou. In fact, I stayed in my sister's apartment after staying in the hospital for a few days."

A few months later, Pemp found out Chen had been sleeping on the floor of her half-sister's tiny apartment. He realized that sending her away was a bad decision.

He had earned enough money by then, and he insisted on bringing Chen back to Suzhou for surgery. Her recovery was fast.

Pemp rented an apartment for Chen and got a treadmill for her to practice walking. He visits her every day and walks with her for about an hour.

Though Pemp and Chen have broken up - a "natural ending" as Pemp puts it - he has supported her through thick and thin.

"She will become stronger if I'm no longer her boyfriend. She used to be very dependent on me during her rehabilitation because I was taking care of everything. Now she's working very hard to be stronger and recover faster," Pemp says.

"She's my sister now," says Pemp, who will return to the United States when he finishes his studies.

"I'm trying very hard to do exercises every day. I'm using a walking stick now and I will try my best to walk again. My friend will help me to open a clothing store after I'm able to walk and speak more fluently," Chen says.

Chen doesn't have social insurance because she's no longer working and she doesn't have a residence registration (hukou) in Suzhou. Even so, a few weeks ago the Suzhou government gave her a cash handout and a doctor was appointed to assess her condition.