As a teenager growing up in North Korea, Ella was already taking care of both her disabled mother, Joanna, and elderly grandmother by herself. Her father had passed away in 2008 from liver failure and subsequently, her mother’s mental and physical health deteriorated greatly. Ella had to help Joanna with everything from eating, walking, and even going to the bathroom. Mere survival was hard for their family because they were no longer receiving government rations, so her uncle in the U.S. had to occasionally send money. When he suggested they defect and try to join him, Ella was eager to have the opportunity to finally get her mother proper nutrition and medical treatment; she also wanted to have more opportunities for her own future. After escaping and spending a short amount of time with family friends in China, Ella and Joanna finally made their way to LiNK’s shelter in Southeast Asia, despite Joanna’s physical condition, and started preparations in the hopes of joining her uncle in America. Ella began learning English while her mother received medical attention and began recovering from the difficult journey.
The severity of Joanna’s condition, however, became increasingly evident at the shelter, and it was clear that she needed specialized medical care soon. Years of doctors treating symptoms while not knowing her precise medical conditions had finally come to a head. It was a difficult decision for Ella, but after some thought and a conversation with her uncle, she decided to go to South Korea where Joanna could receive timely medical attention. Joanna burst into tears and wailed when she finally talked to her younger brother on the phone for the first time in years after arriving at the shelter, because she had to relinquish her dreams of finally living with him again. It was an emotional farewell at the shelter when they left but everyone knew that Joanna would finally get the medical care she had needed for so long.
Shortly after their arrival in South Korea, Joanna was admitted to a hospital and underwent a series of tests; it was soon revealed that she had Stage 1 pancreatic cancer and early stages of Alzheimer’s. After an operation and physical therapy sessions, she became the energetic and lucid mother that Ella had remembered in North Korea. She’ll continue to take medication, undergo regular tests, and go through therapy for a long time, but her quality of life has unequivocally improved. Ella has been busy working at a local hospital and attending school to prepare to pursue a degree in nursing. Joanna has experienced incredible healing and medical support in South Korea, while Ella continues to work hard to fully leverage all of the opportunities she now has.