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Irreversibly brain damaged, how Dr. Ding learned to live and love again

After a severe stroke, an accomplished doctor was left unable to walk, to talk, or even to recognize his own wife. Dr. Ding and Dr. Yang faced the new challenge the way they faced everything: together.

After a severe stroke, an accomplished doctor was left unable to walk, to talk, or even to recognize his own wife. Dr. Ding and Dr. Yang faced the new challenge the way they faced everything: together.

Her husband’s sudden breathlessness and overwhelming fatigue compelled Dr. Bingzhi Yang to bring him to the emergency room at the Baylor Heart Hospital in Plano in October 2013. There, tests revealed the need for an immediate triple heart bypass surgery for Dr. Jiahuan Ding. The operation had been successful, but a blood clot from a blocked carotid artery broke loose the next morning, causing him to suffer a severe stroke. Dr. Ding, a man of brilliant accomplishments, was left unable to walk, to talk, or even to recognize his own wife of 43 years. A portion of his brain had been irreversibly damaged by the stroke, and the memories of a lifetime completely wiped away. All he had left in his favor was an intrinsically strong desire to regain what he had lost, and a wife who would not lose faith in his ability to do so.

After a stay of almost two weeks at the hospital, Dr. Ding transferred to the Health South Rehabilitation Center in Plano. There an able team of doctors and therapists worked with him to stand, to transfer to his wheelchair, and to take tiny, assisted steps down the hallways. A scant two weeks later, he was released to their home in Murphy, a place that Dr. Ding could no longer remember how to navigate.

The English he had learned years ago was gone, but Jiahuan could recognize pieces of his native language. Day after day, Bingzhi constantly talked to him in Chinese, inviting him to repeat the sounds of  familiar objects, almost like teaching a toddler his first words. Within a month of returning home, he began to speak in Chinese, much to the chagrin of his English-speaking speech therapist. But it was nevertheless a vital step in his recovery to be able communicate with the world.

The two gifted doctors had long prized their ability to share with others the fruits of their combined knowledge. Both had been born in Kaifeng, China, a city whose history reaches back a thousand years to the Song Dynasty. They met while attending Henan Medical University, where each earned a medical degree. The couple had married in 1970 and they were brought together by love and their shared interest in the intricate workings of the human body. There Bingzhi excelled as head of the Division of Hematology and Radiation Disease while Jiahuan was the top student in the field of genetics. His talents attracted international attention, and in 1983, he won the Young Scientist Award at the 15th International Genetic Congress in New Delhi, India. A year later, he completed his Ph.D. at the Beijing Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences.

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Their lives changed abruptly when Jiahuan was selected as one of two medical professionals to come to America in 1984 as part of the Sino-American Human Genetics Exchange Program. Leaving his family behind in China, he journeyed to the United States to work for a year as a Visiting Fellow at the National Institute of Health (NIH).  

His American supervisor, aware of Jiahuan’s desire to reunite with Bingzhi, appealed to the Chinese government to allow her to join her husband as his professional assistant. A year later, the government also granted permission for their two children to join them. The young family was ecstatic to be reunited and determined to remain in America.

Following his NIH fellowship, Juihuan received a job offer to work as a research assistant at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Bingzhi, or Bing for short, was still struggling to learn the English language and constantly carried a Chinese-American dictionary with her. Ultimately, she decided to enroll in the University of North Carolina to study English. But an unforeseen opportunity suddenly changed her plans. After finishing only one semester of study, she received an offer from Duke University to join Juihuan as his new research assistant.

Over the next eight years, the couple forged a unique partnership within the Division of Genetics and Metabolism at the university. Using their complementary medical and research skills, they explored genetic ties to cancer, heart and blood maladies, and an inherited disorder called glycogen storage disease (GSDs). Together they produced dozens of scholarly articles, book chapters and abstracts detailing the role of human genetics. But their crowning research was the discovery of a genetic link in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), often known as MCAD deficiency. That research proved to be scientifically ground-breaking.

A wealthy benefactor in Dallas, whose own family had been terribly touched by SIDS, contacted Drs. Ding and Yang in 1995 about coming to Dallas to establish a research center devoted to further study. Accepting the offer led to the creation of the Institute of Metabolic Disease at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas (BUMC), with the two doctors serving as directors and principal investigators. Their team, including the senior director of the Center, Dr. Charles Roe, developed protocols to identify parents who both carried the dangerously recessive gene. Treatment options, based on the doctors’ original research, remarkably reduced the number of deaths among infants born to such couples. While not a cure-all to all SIDS deaths, the genetic link research proved to be a huge stride forward in containing this cruel disease.

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Over the next decade, the two exceptional scientists continued their work of discovery in Dallas while also serving as traveling professors at the Baylor University Institute of Biomedical Studies in Waco. Then, after sixteen years of extraordinary professional accomplishments, Jiahuan retired from his appointment at BUMC. He expected to embrace new challenges in retirement but never anticipated that a severe stroke would be one of them.

Although initially disabled by the event, Jiahuan was determined to regain as much of his mobility as possible. Step by painstaking step he progressed from wheelchair to walker to cane. For hours he practiced lifting his arm to reclaim  the muscle memory. He also constantly moved his head from side to side, partly to compensate for his lack of peripheral vision. His repetitive work eventually paid off in improved balance and the ability to walk unassisted. Hoping to increase his power to focus and his physical coordination, Bing installed an automatic ping-pong machine at home. Thousands of balls later, Jiahuan became proficient enough to enter ping-pong competitions, and later Pickleball contests at local community centers, even earning awards in the process.

A surprising form of therapy began in 2014 as the couple attended the weekly ballroom dances at the Plano Senior Recreation Center. They had taken dance lessons before retirement, and Bing hoped that the melodic tones might open mental pathways blocked by the stroke. In the beginning, Jiahuan could only stand and sway to the music emanating from the band. But slowly the rhythm connected in his head, and he began to remember a variety of ballroom and Latin dance routines. Today, the casual observer would never suspect that Jiahuan, in his tailor-made tuxedo, had ever suffered a devastating stroke. Instead, anyone watching this amazing couple glide across the floor as one unit, performing everything from rhythmic rumbas to fancy foxtrots to breathtaking waltzes, is instantly hypnotized by their grace and precision.

This gifted couple has also used their newfound talent to regularly perform at memory and retirement centers, much to the delight of senior audiences. Along with each performance comes a dose of encouragement to those with health issues to remain active. It is advice they live daily as Jiahuan struggles with memory loss, the continuous re-learning of lost skills, and the possibility of seizures. But this remarkable couple refuses to let health issues curtail their activities, particularly while serving their Chinese community. And together they breed a sense of optimism in their future together. As Bing so succinctly put it, “Keep the faith and focus on better days ahead. They will come.”