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Hope Takes Flight

Andrea Brown, Courier & Press correspondent

When Puhui Thomas was diagnosed with cancer last spring, she began making origami cranes to lift her spirits.  "Cranes are a symbol of hope," says Thomas, who came here from South Korea in 1975.

"Cranes are like your angels."

She also uses the cranes to encourage others. On her weekly appointments at the Evansville Cancer Center, she fills a basket with brightly colored paper cranes for other patients.

Strands of her cranes hang in the clinic's chemotherapy room and above the front desk.

For Thomas, the cranes are a connection between her past and her future.  

"The Asian story is that if you make a thousand cranes, your wish will come true."

"My wish is to cure my cancer, and to share the wish with other people, so they will be cured from cancer."

Over the years, Thomas had been busy raising a family in Henderson, KY, with her American-born husband, Roger, and running her store, B-Won Oriental Food & Gift Shop in Evansville.  She hadn't made paper cranes since grade school.

"In Korea, I was taught in kindergarten, American kids cut out colored paper and make decorations;  Korean kids do origami stuff."

Origami wasn't part of the curriculum for her Americanized daughters, Pamela, 17, a high school senior, and Jennifer, 21, a finance major at the University of Kentucky, but they knew the story behind the cranes.

When Thomas was diagnosed with cancer, Jennifer gave her mother a four-leaf clover and, using an origami book for guidance, made her a strand of cranes.

"She made it so pretty and perfect," says Thomas.  "She put a thread through it and hung it in my bedroom."

It gave Thomas the idea to share the beauty and legendary healing qualities of cranes.

"A lot of people bring things for other cancer patients.  Some bring hats, I love the hats, I don't wear wigs.  I say, 'Well, I'll make paper cranes to give the people.'  At the time, I was kind of sick and couldn't make them, so my girls made them."

Her daughters and a  friend continue to help produce cranes, because her arm still gets sore from the surgery to remove the mass in her underarm region.

Using special Japanese paper it takes her about five minutes to make a crane.

Starting with a square sheet of paper, she makes fold after fold.  The final fold brings the paper to origami life:  A bird with outstretched wings and a long, pointed bill emerges.

The cranes are keepsakes.

"People latch onto things like that," says the clinic's staff psychologist, Al Spillman.  "There is such an aesthetic quality to her cranes."

Spillman says attitude and hope are important components of treatment.

"There have been studies that strongly suggest the impact on the immune system.  It really is important the people not only have the information to empower them, but also have the spirit of hope.  If you don't have that hope, that essence to live, it really can drain you, not only physically but mentally," he says.

Hope plays a role, whether the disease is terminal or treatable.

"It just isn't hope to be cured, but hope in the sense that this is going to change life some way for the better.  Sometimes, it just takes a wake-up call of monstrous proportions to get our attention," says Spillman.

Thomas is on leave of absence from her store to focus on getting well.  The shop had consumed her since she had opened it in 1991.  She worked long hours, stocking products for a number of nationalities and introducing locals to ethnic foods.

Though she suspected the fluctuating lump under her arm was malignant, she tried to tell herself it was from all the lifting she did, rationalizing that cancer couldn't happen to her.

"Nobody had cancer before in my family," she says.  "I was never sick.  I didn't even catch cold." She says she was too independent and stubborn to ask for help, and slow in accepting that this was something she could not solve on her own.

When she finally went to the doctor, she was ashamed she had waited so long. "At first I was really afraid; I was very nervous.  The tumor was big.  They told me they could not do surgery right away. They treated me with chemo first.  It started shrinking smaller, and then I was happy."

She credits her oncologist, Dr. Rick Ballou, and the clinic staff with excellent medical care, and says she also relied on the powers within.

"It isn't just chemo that helps shrink my tumor; my mind helps, too.  My attitude helps me shrink it, too." It hasn't been easy dealing with some effects of the treatment, such as fatigue and hair loss, which she says "makes me look like a Buddhist monk."

She is getting traces of eyebrows and the start of eyelashes.  She is starting to look and feel like her old self.

She will continue chemotherapy at least until the end of the month, but her crane-making days are far from over.

"A thousand cranes is a long way to go," she says.

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