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"The Iowa-China Connection" - May 27, 2013

"The Iowa-China Connection: A Hawkeye from Harbin"

By: Sejla Numic


Intelligence is defined as the ability to learn, understand, or to deal with new or trying situations.  Eagerness is marked by enthusiastic desire or interest. Perseverance is a continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition. All of these terms are personified in Zongze Chen!


Zongze Chen is a 25 year old from Harbin, China, who came to the United States in 2008 to pursue his dreams of becoming a banker, working with hedge funds and risk investment. He obtained his Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering with Business Management from Beijing University of Posts & Telecommunications: Queen Mary University of London, and his Master's Degree in Telecommunication and Networking from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2010, Zongze's new journey began at the University of Iowa where he sought to obtain a Ph.D. in Business and Management Science.


As Zongze became accustomed to American lifestyle and culture, he attained the nickname, "Eugene" from the Disney Movie "Tangled." Just like the Disney character, Eugene's charisma and fortitude truly charmed all who have had the privilege of knowing him.


June 12, 2011, was mostly sunny and 87 degrees. On this sunny day, Eugene was on the way to a barbecue at Lake McBride outside of Coralville when his car was t-boned on the driver's side and rolled over. He was found unresponsive at the scene and was taken to the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics in a coma from traumatic brain injury. He had also sustained many severe fractures.


Eugene's mother, Lingling, and father, Tienan, were in China. "I remember getting that horrendous phone call from the doctors at the University of Iowa Hospital. It was about 5 a.m. My husband answered the phone. All I heard was 'What? Why? When? How?' I knew something was seriously wrong," explained Lingling. Her husband did not want to tell her the horrible news at first, but she could tell by the way he was pacing back and forth in the living room, refusing food and drink, that something bad had happened. Eugene's father told Lingling that Zongze was ill. "We need to go see him. He misses us." It took days for him to hell her the tragic truth.


To help the family expedite the lengthy process to secure visas, students and professors from the University of Iowa contacts the Chinese Consulate in Chicago, and elucidated Eugene's story. Within two weeks of the accident, Eugene's mother was on her way to the United States. Tears roll down her face when she describes the heartbreaking separation from her son during those two weeks and seeing him for the first time.


"I ran into Zongze's room at the hospital. My heart was shattered. My poor son, lying in bed helpless. His eyes were closed. I called his name over and over again. I held his face. It is hard to reminisce and put into words what I felt. Then, there it was, a tear. A tear from Zongze's right eye, running down his cheek. He knew it was me," said Lingling.


When doctors referred Eugene to On With Life, a specialty brain injury rehabilitation center, his family was hesitant. They were used to the University of Iowa Hospital, where Eugene's classmates took two hour shifts to stay with him during his entire stay there. Doctors assured Eugene's family that "On With Life is one of the best brain injury rehabilitation facilities in the nation." On July 11, 2011, Eugene was transferred to On With Life to begin intensive rehabilitation. When he came out of his coma, he did not believe that he was involved in a motor vehicle accident. He had no memory of that day was confused and agitated.


Eugene's mother demonstrated that love and support from family can conquer almost any adversity. Traumatic brain injury affects every person differently. Eugene went through many different stages during his stay at On With Life, and Lingling was next her son day and night. "At one point, Zongze was so dependent on me that he would want me to read him bedtime stories, lay next to him in bed, hold his hand, and sing to him, just like a little baby." Other stages were not pleasant. Eugene was very infuriated, hostile and aggressive, claiming that his mother was mean and that she didn't love him anymore. "It was truly heartbreaking," said Lingling.


Cultural differences, language barriers, and the absence of extended family made this rehabilitation process extremely challenging for Eugene's parents. The staff at On With Life took them under their win, to make On With Life a home away from home. Staff members furnished their apartment to make it a comfortable and stable place of residence, even though it was temporary. Social workers found community volunteers to transport Eugene's family twice a day. Deb Lundstrom, a volunteer from a local Catholic church who transported the family, become known as "Lingling's American sister."


Eugene's mother also said that it felt good to have that solid feeling in her heart knowing she had people she could truly depend upon. "Every single person at On With Life wears a smile. They all greet you with respect. They all give you hope and comfort, even in the absence of words. It was very impressive."


By October, Eugene had made phenomenal progress. He went from not being able to communicate effectively to being a wonderful conversationalist again. He changed from not being able to demonstrate emotion, having what is called a "flat affect," to smiling, laughing and joking. "If anyone would have told me that this place [On With Life] would have changed my life this much, I wouldn't have believed them--but I believe now," stated Lingling.


Eugene's discharge party was full to the brim with people who spoke about the inspiration and fun that Eugene brought to them during his time at On With Life. "One of the things I love about Eugene is his appreciation for language, and his getting a kick out of English idioms," noted Dr. Dave Demarest, OWL's Neuropsychologist. As his memory improved, he would remember English idioms and use them. He laughed once when I said, 'Doggone it!' and enjoyed the expression. The next day, when we were talking about something that wasn't going as well as it could, Eugene said to me, 'Doggone it!' He truly is a lovable person and we'll miss him." added Dr. Demarest. As a result of his love for computers and technology, Eugene befriended the IT staff, who he teasingly called his "geniuses." He taught staff many common Mandarin Chinese words and phrases. At Eugene's discharge party, CNA, Melanie, surprised everyone by reciting On With Life's mission in Chinese and sharing how Eugene brought it to life.


"I depended so much on On With Life for comfort, hope , encouragement, solidarity, and love; they provided me with all of that. If I could ever recommend On With Life to anyone, I would. I would tell them to trust their choice, because there is no place like this. They have forever changed my life and taught me so much. I will forever be giving and I will forever wear a smile, every day, as they did...because too often in my life, I forgot to smile," said Lingling as tears rolled down her face.


Eugene's plans are different now. He still plans to continue his education, although it will be delayed for a while. He explained that he enjoyed being part of the Hawkeye family, and regardless of his residence, he will forever be a Hawkeye! His advice to all persons served and family members is, "Never lose heart. A traumatic brain injury can take so much away from a person, but it can never take away your heart. Always be the master of your own destiny."


To Eugene we all say, "Hao Yun" which, in Mandarin Chinese, means "Good luck!"