Kindness of strangers

Child: A local minister opens his home and tries to raise money for a Korean boy seeking treatment at Hopkins Hospital for cancer.

October 02, 1999|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

At last Sunday morning's church service, the Rev. Kiyul Chung took a bold step down from the pulpit and waded into the congregation.

"Dutch," he said, moving toward the back.

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger may be a powerful political figure, but at Timonium United Methodist Church, he is just another servant in a pew.

Chung did not hesitate.

"Dutch," he said. "I need your help."

Three days before, at 2: 30 a.m., a young visitor had entered the minister's home. An 8-year-old Korean boy with a prodigious intellect and a life-threatening disease had come to stay.

"I try to put myself in his father's shoes, and it is unbearable," Chung said.

As the minister told the story, Ruppersberger glanced down the pew at a squirming little fellow with a baseball cap tugged down to his eyebrows.

The child, Yongwoo Lee, and his mother, Jeong Lan Lee, 31, had entered the life of the minister and his family as Chung's wife recovered from a radical mastectomy and a year after their 5-year-old daughter died in a car crash.

The Korean boy and his mother had come unexpectedly, after a late-night call in mid-September, when friends asked Chung to open his home so Yongwoo could come here to be tested for pediatric renal cell carcinoma at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"Since our daughter's death, life has become more precious and, in some ways, more beautiful," Chung said yesterday, recalling Sunday's message to the congregation. "Now our home is again full of energy and laughter and hope. All of a sudden we feel that our daughter's spirit has returned."

In Kwangju, South Korea, where Yongwoo's father, Kyungrul Lee, devotes his life to the movement to reunite the long-divided region, political activists have raised thousands of dollars since August for the medical process they hope will improve the boy's chances for survival.

Bringing his father here may be difficult. He has been jailed twice because of his political protests.

In March, the boy went to Seoul National University Hospital, and his parents were told he had Wilms' Tumor, a cancer most often diagnosed in children. On May 17, surgeons removed his right kidney.

Three months later, his mother found a lump on Yongwoo's back. This time, doctors made no diagnosis.

Mrs. Lee conducted research on cancer over the Internet and then, by e-mail, queried experts at the National Institutes of Health, the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins. A slightly encouraging response came from Johns Hopkins.

Financial obstacles appeared immediately, she said. Because international patients are required to pay costs upfront, they would be required to pay up to $200,000 if Yongwoo needs a kidney transplant, Chung said.

When Lee and Yongwoo flew to Dulles Airport on Sept. 23, she had almost half the money, more than $70,000, raised by friends in South Korea. Blood tests and CT scans began at Hopkins' Children's Cancer Center.

The Hopkins doctors determined the boy has renal cell carcinoma and the cancer is spreading. They do not have a prognosis.

Chung's plea to the county executive led to a meeting with a member of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's staff. Through the Maryland Democrat's office, political contacts at the American embassy in Seoul are trying to persuade the government there to give Yongwoo's father a visa.

The minister has appealed for help to the Korean community in the Washington area through articles in the Korean Times.

At the Chungs' home in Columbia yesterday, Yongwoo played, zipped in and out of the kitchen, pleaded to go shopping with his mother and, since he reads at a college level, continued plowing through the minister's bookshelf.

"At first, my wife and I wondered if we could meet this challenge," Chung said. "We wondered if, after her cancer and the loss of our daughter, this would be an unwanted burden. But things have snowballed. We believe God has given us this. Through our daughter's own death, we have been prepared to help."

Pub Date: 10/02/99

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