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Bionic Wang — better, stronger, faster

(Photo courtesy of David Chen)

From David Chen, husband of Theresa Wang, who is recovering from injuries sustained in the Nov. 19 car crash that also injured Colt Brennan:

Aloha to our Ohana,

A swarm of dark eagles was swooping down as I futilely looked around for any kind of shelter. Just as they flew close enough to reveal their menacing faces clearly, my early morning wake-up call arrived 15 minutes sooner than anticipated.

As I awoke from the slumber and forced myself to focus on the alarm clock, it gradually became evident to my sleep-shrouded mind that 4:45 a.m. is way too early to get up, especially following a late evening meal that ended not seven hours before. It was our last night together on this visit and although the clock had struck 7 p.m., Theresa did not want the evening to end — and certainly not with a slice of Costco pizza.

Since we had such a good time at our first Basque dining experience a few weeks ago, that was her intention for tonight. Theresa pulled from her planner a handwritten list of Basque restaurant names with stars beside those that she heard were good (this should no longer amaze me given her improving memory and cognition but it still does and I am ever so thankful to our Lord for these not-so-small signs of healing.)

After driving crosstown to reach Old Town Kern, created in 1874 when the Southern Pacific Railway bypassed Bakersfield due to a dispute over how much right-of-way to cede, it’s where two of the more famous Basque restaurants are located.

Although we didn’t have reservations, that shouldn’t have been a problem given the half-empty parking lot that greeted us. Theresa was so looking forward to dinner that upon exiting the car, she told me not to bother with setting up the wheelchair and just hand over her cane.

But upon entering the James Beard award-winning Noriega Hotel & Restaurant, the nice hostess told us dinner had started at 7 p.m. and they were already serving the third course. With only one seating per evening, you have to be there on time; we didn’t know this, but will for our next visit.

At Wool Growers Restaurant, the other Basque establishment a couple of blocks away, the story was different but the end result was the same — they’re closed on Sunday.

Rather than be upset, all of this driving and walking was building up an appetite so I suggested to Theresa as we headed back toward her residence that she should keep an eye out for any eatery that appeals to her as long as it isn’t Mexican food.

I don’t have anything against the people, but having sampled their style of cooking in Texas, California, New Mexico and even Tijuana, Cancun and Tulum, I must conclude Mexican cuisine just won’t make it onto my list of “last five meals to enjoy before departing this world.”

Besides, it’s kind of an unwritten rule that when we do have Mexican food, it must be early enough to allow for a few hours to digest before bedtime. With 8 p.m. fast approaching and our dining options acting like it was triple witching hour, Theresa scanned the restaurant district and dismissed Red Lobster, Marie Callender, In ‘N’ Out, El Pollo Loco and a few others.

Finally on California Ave., her eyes lit up when we passed a place called Pho Hut. Now normally, any restaurant that takes the Pizza Hut logo and Photoshops in its own name would be questionable, but we were getting desperate.

By now, Theresa was too tired to walk so we reverted to the wheelchair, which always draws stares of sympathy wherever she enters. Not that we take advantage of the situation (except for the handicap parking pass) but probably in a month or so, I expect the wheelchair will be a remnant of our past and for that we continue to offer praise to God.

Theresa’s instincts were right as usual and the food and service were wonderful at Pho Hut, a great first addition to our Bakersfield late night eateries.

The return flight to Kona was uneventful although it involved another mad dash between gates, except this time I made it, but just barely. The reward was that as the last one to board, there was no room for my carry-on so it was gate checked at no additional cost. The pleasantries continued as my row of three was open, allowing me to stretch out for the six hour flight to follow.

Upon landing and catching the Air Taxi straight to the hotel, I picked up a text from Theresa thanking me for the visit, grateful to our Lord for choosing me as her husband, and wishing that she could have come home with me. I know in my heart that Theresa will be returning to Hawaii and with God’s Grace, it will be sooner than anyone expects.

For the next couple of weeks, Theresa kept in touch with me by phone, voicemail and text. The good news is that the intensive rehab therapy schedule continues to produce marked improvements both physically and cognitively.

The day after I left, the PT put Theresa on the treadmill but she could not keep up at even the slowest speed of 0.8 mph. By the second week, Theresa reports that she is able to walk on the treadmill for 2 x 10 minute sessions and the next goal is to slowly increase the speed up to 2.5 mph which is considered normal walking pace when outside.

OT is working with Theresa to improve her arm reach, strength and dexterity, and the cognitive and educational therapists are challenging her with ever more difficult and distracting puzzles, math and reading assignments.

Theresa said one assignment involves balancing a mock checking account and it took a few tries, but she got it right. Pretty impressive considering she hasn’t had to balance a checkbook in real life since about 1999 when I joined her in Wisconsin.

In some ways, this new improved version of Theresa reminds me of the Bionic Woman — better, stronger, faster.

On the residential front, a 1-bedroom apartment became available recently and Theresa gladly participated in the move, personally ensuring her orchids were successfully transplanted and decorating the empty living room wall with the Get Well Aunty Theresa poster made by our church’s keiki (children).

Although the relocation was exhausting, the new unit allows more privacy and better rest at night as Theresa is no longer awakened every few hours by a roommate heading outside to smoke.

With the quieter surroundings, Theresa is reading books, magazines and even some medical journals I brought last time. She’s also writing thank you cards to those that sent greetings so don’t be surprised if you receive one soon.

The other week, Theresa told me of a new patient who only speaks Mandarin Chinese. During clinic hours, there is a translator to assist with the communication, but back at the residence, the rehab aides are pretty much left to figure out how to talk to the new patient, or as a last resort to use the telephone translation service.

One of the aides noticed Theresa speaking to the new arrival so now they ask Theresa to translate when they can’t get through. Theresa’s comment to me was that she’d be happy to translate and would only charge half of what the AT&T operator does.

I don’t know if she’s kidding or it’s a sign that Theresa’s entrepreneurial spirit has returned but I’ll praise our Lord either way.

At CNS, the daily living therapy includes managing the weekly grocery budget plus a separate fund for outings like movies, salons, restaurants, take-out, etc. But once that outing budget is spent, the patient has to wait until the next week to receive additional funds.

Theresa’s first attempt at increasing her outing budget was to buy a box of cheap pens and sell them at a small profit to the rehab aides, who are always looking for a pen to document the patient activities. At 17 cents profit per pen, it was taking a long time to save up even the $6 for a movie so Theresa has taken on a new tack.

There are nicer pens equipped with cushion grips at the clinic so when she sees one, she compliments the staff member and asks if it’s OK to keep it. They invariably say yes and by the end of the day, Theresa has accumulated a few of these nicer pens.

She then takes them back to the residence and sells them for up to $1 each. When I mentioned that this wasn’t entirely ethical, her reply was that she does give the occasional pen away for free, probably to increase her sales with more exposure.

Perhaps I just need to remind Theresa about her experience with the Valentine’s Day chocolate giveaway since that took place during her post-traumatic amnesia phase. The Lord always provides so whatever you give away, you will be blessed to receive many times over.

In early June, I found it necessary to return to Bakersfield as the health insurer was once again balking at extending coverage for Theresa’s ongoing rehab at CNS. This time, their tactic was to imply she could receive comparable treatment in Honolulu or even on an out-patient basis in Kona.

Having experienced both in- and out-patient rehab therapy during Theresa’s prior recovery in 2009, we have intimate knowledge of the difference between CNS and what’s available in Hawaii, and both have their purposes.

For now, Theresa can still benefit from CNS (& Craig Hospital’s) intensive rehab therapy which is so important in the first few months post-traumatic brain injury and when that phase of healing is completed, she can continue with out-patient rehab back home. This is not a difficult concept to grasp, but it seems to elude the health insurer.

If Theresa were not making the progress she has, I could understand not wasting valuable resources and just sending her to a nursing home to live out her days, but she is improving steadily day by day and cutting us off at this critical time of healing clearly sends a message of valuing finances over proper healthcare.

Again, it is out of our hands however the health insurer decides but it does not weaken our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

On a more positive note, this unexpected visit allowed Theresa and me to see each other sooner than planned and we spent another wonderful long weekend together.

This time we did get to dine at Noriega’s and the wait was well worth the lifetime experience of sharing a 50′ long table with 100 other patrons. Not only was the endless food and wine beyond our expectations, but we learned a lot from the couple sitting across who’ve been coming for dinner regularly for the past 20 years.

Other Basque restaurants may have more exposure or better PR, but their verdict is that Noriega’s has the best food and true family service. We are in complete agreement and will definitely return as each day of the week has different food and wine pairings.

Last Sunday, we took advantage of the first clear day that week and headed out to nearby Lake Isabella. It was a beautiful drive along the curving canyon road and the raging river with the late spring runoff was a site to behold.

Upon arriving at the town near the lake, we took a wrong turn and ended up climbing a mountain pass rather than going to the lakeside. So instead of getting a photo by the lake, the view we had was from a narrow winding road atop the nearby mountain.

Beautiful in its own right and another sign that God is indeed Great!


— Find out more

Lake Isabella (Photo courtesy of David Chen)

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