Sun, Mar 03, 2002 - Page 17 News List

Eyes that can talk

Imprisoned in his body, photographer, journalistand teacher Chen Hung continues his work

By Rick Chu  / 

Chen Hung blinks his eyes to indicate characters on a Chinese phonetic chart in order to dictate his thoughts. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis has left Chen paralyzed, and only able to use his eyes to communicate.

PHOTO: GEORGE TSORNG, TAIPEI TIMES

On Feb. 14, I visited Chen Hung (陳宏) in the hospital and gave him a "bo-po-mo-fo" (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ) board I had just made for him -- an unusual gift to give a respected journalist. Lying in his hospital bed, a smile began stretching across his face and I knew the gift had made him very happy.

Chen was my photography teacher in college and later became the editorial writer for the Great China Evening News (大華晚報). He suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig's Disease after the baseball hall of famer who succumbed to it in 1941. It is a devastating neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, destroying their ability to control the muscles of the body. Patients in the latter stages of the disease become paralyzed, though their minds remain unaffected.

By next month, Chen will have spent two years in bed, unable to move nearly any muscle in his body save a few facial muscles. His condition is similar to that of Jean-Dominique Bauby, former chief editor of French Elle magazine who suffered from "locked-in syndrome" and was able only to blink a single eye. Despite his condition, Bauby managed to dictate an entire book telling his story, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. He died very shortly after the book was published.

The main difference between Bauby and Chen is in how they dictate their thoughts. Chen uses the Chinese "bo-po-mo-fo" system under which one first spells the consonant, then the vowel and finally chooses a tone for the character. As a result, to phonetically spell one Chinese character, Chen needs to blink at least a dozen times.

He first chooses the row, then column on the board in order to select the phonetic symbol he wants. Two or three phonetic symbols -- plus their tone -- form a character. Two Chinese characters form a noun or a verb. A few words put together form a sentence. It often takes Chen more than 10 minutes to write one short sentence. Where in the past it took him about an hour to write a thousand-word article, it now takes him two or three weeks. The difficulty of the process beggars belief.

Chen was still a little frustrated the few times that he was misunderstood. I told him using photography terminology that if he can slow down the speed with which he blinks his eye -- like a camera's shutter speed from 1/125 second to 1/30 second -- his nurse could see more clearly which character he was indicating. He smiled and blinked his eyes in agreement.

I never thought the story in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly would happen in Taiwan, not to mention to the teacher who introduced me to journalism.

I graduated from college in 1977 and joined the China Times (中國時報) as a photographer. Chen was the first teacher to congratulate me, but also offered words of caution: "Always remember, journalism can easily inflate one's sense of worth," he said. "Just because the newspaper [you work for] is big doesn't mean that you're big, too."

I'm very fortunate that I was able to receive the teaching of such a mentor as I entered journalism. I have kept his reminder in my heart and it has been most useful to me. My reminder to young people beginning in the profession today is that "only humility can make a reporter respected."

Chen is a successful businessman. His company produced water heaters that were sold to all parts of Taiwan. In middle age, he liked to shoot pictures in his spare time and participated in the "Chinese Photography Association" chaired by Taiwan's famous photographer Long Chin-san (郎靜山). He repeatedly won major awards in competitions both in Taiwan and overseas.

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