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A new life, step by step

Promise carries Chinese girl down road to healing

Zhou Lin, badly burned when kerosene exploded in her home in China, displayed her new prosthetic feet, with Brecken Chinn Swartz nearby. Swartz, who shared a special moment with the girl (below), has been dedicated to Zhou Lin and her recovery.
Zhou Lin, badly burned when kerosene exploded in her home in China, displayed her new prosthetic feet, with Brecken Chinn Swartz nearby. Swartz, who shared a special moment with the girl (below), has been dedicated to Zhou Lin and her recovery. (Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff)

SPRINGFIELD -- They met halfway around the world. The girl was sitting next to her mother outside a Beijing television station, begging strangers for help.

A child so beautiful yet palpably disfigured that only two choices presented themselves. Stop or look away.

Brecken Chinn Swartz stopped and knelt down.

"What happened to you?" she asked in Mandarin.

And because the girl spoke better Mandarin than her mother did, 12-year-old Zhou Lin told Swartz her story.

About the kerosene fire that exploded one night at her home in Sichuan Province while the family celebrated the Chinese New Year, engulfing Zhou Lin and her younger sister. How her father rushed to help her sister, while Zhou Lin, pants ablaze, staggered outside and tugged on her garments before losing consciousness, burning and burning until skin and clothing melted together.

She talked more. About the faulty fuel mix that caused the blaze and the local officials bought off by the fuel company. The money her parents borrowed for her care and desperately wanted to repay. The amputations and skin grafts already endured: cash up-front, no anesthesia.

Swartz touched the girl's legs. No stranger had done that before. They felt like charred hot dogs.

"I will help you," Swartz promised.

It is two years, almost to the day, since they first met.

Zhou Lin (pronounced Jo-leen) sits on a bed at Shriners Hospital for Children in Springfield. Swartz hovers nearby. The girl is now 14. She has undergone multiple operations since June, when she checked into Shriners' Boston facility. What remained of both of her feet has been surgically removed. In their place has been implanted hope.

Swartz, a graduate student when she met Zhou Lin, has become the girl's legal guardian. Everything in Swartz's life, every step forward for a 37-year-old married woman with a doctorate in communications and a university teaching job awaiting her, is on hold. This is what she -- what they -- live for now. The next milepost. The next step on a journey the two have embarked upon together, final destination unknown.

The girl pulls on a pair of shiny, new prosthetic feet. They fit over the nubs of her heel pads snugly, like a pair of cowboy boots, but there is pain. Zhou Lin grimaces. Prosthetist Brock McConkey makes a few adjustments.

"Ready?" he asks.

Yes, the girl nods.

She steers her wheelchair to a walkway used for physical therapy and raises herself upright. Tentatively at first, then more firmly, she plants one foot in front of the other and walks.

At the end of the ramp, she slowly pirouettes and starts back. Her smile could light up downtown Springfield. Round trip completed, she rests briefly before starting again. Up and back she goes. Once, twice, a dozen times. Sweat trickles down her face.

After 20 minutes, McConkey and Swartz remove Zhou Lin's leg wrappings and examine her skin for signs of rupture. Her skin is the consistency of tissue paper. Any tear could set her therapy back weeks, McConkey explains. They find nothing serious. On a scale of 1 to 10, McConkey asks, how much pain are you in? Five, Zhou Lin says.

A stocky man with an ample beard and ponytail, McConkey says his goal is enabling Zhou Lin to resume all of her normal activities. "The bigger goal," he says, "is getting her back to being a kid again."

This hospital serves scores of damaged children hoping to resume normal lives. What does that mean for Zhou Lin?

Back in the girl's room, Swartz pops a DVD into her computer. Up comes a grainy shot of Zhou Lin's home in Wusheng County, hundreds of miles from Beijing, where her family took the girl looking for someone -- anyone -- to help her.

The video captures scenes from a life left behind in more ways than one. There is the family's one-room concrete-walled dwelling and the schoolhouse that Zhou Lin's mother carried her to, on her back, every day, 20 minutes each way. The desk in back of the classroom where Zhou Lin was forced to sit, because disabled children in China are often ostracized. Zhou Lin moving herself around with the aid of two small wooden stools: a poor child's prostheses.

"Zhou Lin feels guilty that her mother had to carry her to school," Swartz says while the video runs.

It's miraculous she's made it this far, a reporter suggests. But why is Swartz here?

She was a scholar doing research on the Chinese media when she and Zhou Lin met. Not someone looking to save the world.

"Nothing in my life has been as clear to me as my needing to work with this child," Swartz says. "I don't know why. I can't explain it. We're from vastly different backgrounds. I've met countless people on the street, all over the world, and never promised my life to someone, until Zhou Lin.

"Now I'm all she's got," she says. "And she's all I've got."

Friends have warned her not to "waste my life on a Chinese beggar girl," Swartz continues, but it's not that simple. While Zhou Lin's body is being rebuilt, it's as though her own life is being reconstructed, too.

"We're both undergoing reconstructive therapy," Swartz says, staring at the computer screen.

Swartz was en route to meet Chinese television executives when she saw the girl. She had been in Beijing many times and had spent 1997-98 teaching international relations at a university there. Her language skills -- Chinese, Japanese, Spanish -- were formidable, leading to a job as a researcher for the Voice of America's Mandarin Chinese service.

Meanwhile, Swartz was completing doctoral work at the University of Maryland, with a focus on international broadcasting. Many things in her life seemed unsettled and uncertain, including the challenge of maintaining a long-distance marriage. Her promise to help the girl was not one of those things.

A day later, Swartz handed Zhou Lin's family $200 and her business card. The money came from HandReach, an organization Swartz cofounded with fellow University of Maryland scholars to help Chinese students pay for school. The $200 would fund two years of schooling for Zhou Lin and her sister. The card? It was more like a wild card, a tool Swartz hoped they would use to contact her back in America.

"She seemed really nice, I thought, like a normal person," says Zhou Lin. "My family felt like they could trust her. Still, I did not know if I would ever see Brecken again."

For three months, Swartz heard nothing. Then, in January 2005, an e-mail arrived from a teacher who had met Zhou Lin's family and also wished to assist them.

"Are you still interested in helping?" it asked.

"I am," Swartz wrote back, heart racing.

Swartz began sending books, supplies, and money. Wherever she traveled, she carried pictures of the beautiful girl and her badly scarred body.

In October 2005, Swartz was working for Voice of America in Albuquerque, covering a balloon festival. Searching for a family to profile, Swartz knocked on a trailer door and chatted with a man inside. When he mentioned he was a Shriner, Swartz asked what the fraternal organization did.

We run free burn hospitals for children, the man said.

Just children from America, or also overseas? she asked.

Both, he said.

In December, Swartz forwarded Zhou Lin's medical records to Dr. Robert Sheridan , a surgeon at Shriners Boston. She resumed writing her thesis, due this past May, but the girl was seldom far from her thoughts. In January, Sheridan notified Swartz that Zhou Lin had been accepted for treatment. All her care would be free, Sheridan explained, leaving only transportation and housing costs to be covered by other means. In June, Zhou Lin boarded an American Airlines flight with her mother and teacher and departed Shanghai for Boston.

Swartz had no road map for what lay ahead. This September, she was supposed to be in Beijing, setting up a new communications department at Chinese Foreign Affairs University. Nothing had the urgency that caring for Zhou Lin did, though. Swartz moved into a one-room apartment in Boston for the summer, sharing the space with Zhou Lin's mother and teacher. Her routine became the girl's routine. Her life the girl's life.

Teams of specialists evaluated Zhou Lin at Shriners.

More problems than anticipated were discovered.

"Is there any way without cutting off my feet?" she asked doctors before the initial surgery, a six-hour operation to amputate her feet. It was June 27, her 14th birthday. If she wanted to walk again, the answer was no. More operations followed.

"A lot of these kids just die," Sheridan says, referring to pediatric burn patients from countries with substandard medical care. "There's a huge psychological morbidity involved because their condition and treatment requires long periods of isolation. She is one tough girl, however."

In the hospital, Zhou Lin studied English and math. She learned to play the dulcimer and wrote a song about her hometown. A talented artist, she painted pictures that were later sold to raise money for her family.

As Zhou Lin regained strength, she made trips to the Museum of Fine Arts, Quincy Market, and other Boston attractions. In Chinatown, she purchased traditional herbal remedies to help manage her chronic pain. Adapting to American food -- pizza became a favorite -- and learning to read Dr. Seuss books became part of her regimen, too.

In August, Zhou Lin's mother and teacher flew home. Swartz had her own bags packed to go to Beijing for her new job. But with Zhou Lin still facing months of therapy, Swartz knew she could not leave.

She notified university authorities and made plans to stay with Zhou Lin for the duration of her treatment. Whenever she showed signs of uncertainty or emotional distress, Swartz says, it was Zhou Lin who would read her mood and buck her up.

Swartz and Zhou Lin settled in Springfield earlier this month. Every day has brought new challenges, from learning how to cut an apple to learning how to walk again. Like a normal girl.

As Thanksgiving neared, Swartz received a couple of early holiday gifts. News came that Zhou Lin would be discharged from the hospital by mid-December.

The visa allowing her to remain in this country was extended to June, at least. And Zhou Lin's parents said they'd be happy if Swartz could make the guardianship permanent and keep the girl with her.

The latest steps in an extraordinary journey that began two years ago, on a sidewalk halfway around the world.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached by e-mail at jkahn@globe.com.

Pop-up AUDIO SLIDESHOW: The long journey of Zhou Lin
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