zhang kaini, paralysed, mouth artist, inspiring
Photography Veronica Tay Art Direction & Styling Ang Poh Lee Hair Adrian Tan/VC Hair Makeup Yu Hui Outfit Banana Republic

“My husband Vincent and I were heading out for breakfast on a Sunday morning almost nine years ago. Just as he turned out of the carpark, he tried shooing away a fly in the car with one hand and he lost control of the vehicle. He wasn’t even speeding. The car went up a curb, hit a lamp post, and flipped onto the passenger side. I felt a sharp pain in my neck and then couldn’t feel anything below my shoulders. At that point, I realised I was going to be paralysed. 

I remained conscious and calm as my husband crawled out of the car – he only had a tiny scratch on his arm – and righted it with the help of passers-by. ‘I’m sorry,’ he told me as he pulled me out. 

He didn’t seem to know what to do. Calmly, I told him to phone our helper at home to let her know that we wouldn’t be back so soon, and to take care of our daughters – Olivia, four months old and Isabelle, three years old – who were still asleep. We were lucky they weren’t with us. 

Changing gears 

At the hospital, the doctor who examined me confirmed what I’d suspected: I was now paralysed from the shoulders down. My husband burst into tears. I didn’t have time to break down. I was busy thinking of how I could adjust to my new situation for my daughters’ sakes. 

My tears would come later – two or three times when I was alone in hospital and couldn’t sleep. Or sometimes, during my husband’s daily visits to the hospital, when we talked about how we had to be strong for each other. He kept reassuring me that he would always love me and I kept reassuring him that I was okay. If I didn’t put up a strong front, he would blame himself even more for the accident, which no one was blaming him for. 

A wife’s and mum’s worries 

I went through two risky operations to fix my collarbone and to remove bone fragments from the nerves around my neck. I was in the intensive care unit for one-and-half months before I was moved to a normal ward for a month. After that, I spent three-and-a-half months in a rehabilitation centre.
In the first month in hospital, I had bad dreams – if I managed to sleep at all. I dreamt that no one rescued me when I was stuck in the car. I also dreamt about other things, like someone pushing me off a building, or I’d be screaming for help but people around were not able to hear me. The doctor said it was a reaction to the trauma I’d been through. 

During this time, my biggest worries were for my children. My sister came from China to look after my children, followed by my fatherin- law from Hong Kong. Both of them could only stay for a month. We had no family in Singapore and had to depend on our helper. I called her every day to check in on her and to remind her to be good to my children. My husband told our threeyear- old that I was in hospital because I was sick. I spoke to my elder daughter every day. 

Vincent took leave from work for the first two months after the accident, and reduced his six-day work week to five, so he could spend more time with the family. 

I would – and still – worry about my husband’s safety and health, since I can no longer work as a Chinese teacher in a primary school to help support the family.

It would be five months after the accident before I saw my daughters again. I burst into tears when they came to visit me at the rehab centre. My younger daughter, then nine months old, had grown so much from the baby I last saw. She was scared of me. Her elder sister was, too – perhaps because I looked different; I had lost 20kg since she last saw me. 

Running the home from my bed 

When I finally went home, six months after the accident, I was bedridden for a year. It took me that long to be able to sit up in a wheelchair for even an hour – I felt giddy if I was upright for too long. Because of the accident, my heart isn’t as strong as before; I suffer from low blood pressure. 

In a way, the accident forced me to spend time at home with my daughters. I asked my helper to put them on my bed, where I would get to know them again as we watched cartoons and I read to them. 

From my bed, I also managed the household. I taught my helper how to cook nutritious meals for the family, and I organised parties for the girls. When I was eventually able to use a wheelchair, with help, we would go on outings like picnics. 

We also hired an additional helper. We needed one to look after the children, and one to help me with my daily functions. 

I eventually learnt to use my right hand to operate my motorised wheelchair, but I could no longer use my hands to show my helpers how to operate the washing machine or change my baby’s diapers. 

Initially, there were lots of misunderstandings. But I learnt how to give verbal instructions effectively: I would look my helpers in the eye, speak slowly, give clear and specific instructions, and repeat them a few times. I’d also ask my helpers to repeat my instructions to see if they’d understood them. When I switched to Indonesian helpers, I learnt Bahasa Indonesia from them so I would be able to communicate with them. 

Time with my girls 

But our helpers don’t do everything. My daughters, now nine and 12 years old, and I, have a monthly routine of having afternoon tea in my bedroom. It started last year when we set a date to talk about a problem, free from the distractions of homework. The girls enjoyed it so much that it has become a regular occurance. They’ll feed me the cakes, biscuits and tea they’ve prepared by themselves – without help from our helpers. We use these sessions to talk about friendship, school and any problems they have. 

My girls are also starting to learn to care for me in simple ways that don’t require much strength, like brushing my teeth or putting on my shoes.

In all that I do, I want to show my daughters that their mum is not disabled, and I believe they are proud of me. 

ABCs to a new talent 

When I was able to sit upright for longer periods in a wheelchair, about two years after coming home from the hospital, I would go for movies and meals with a group of people who also had spinal cord injuries. In this group was a mouth artist and a bank manager. 

I was inspired, so I started sketching with a pencil in my mouth. At that time, I was already holding a pen in my mouth to teach my elder daughter her ABCs and simple Chinese characters. I remember that my first sketch of a pear resembled wriggly worms. I had more success holding a brush in my mouth, dipping them into watercolours my helper set out for me. 

When I felt my paintings were good enough, I contacted the Singapore branch of The Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists. They viewed my paintings and sent six or seven of them to the head office in Liechtenstein, which accepted me as a student artist. 

As a student artist, I receive a scholarship that allows me to further my skills through courses or by buying supplies. Student artists who reach a standard on a par with nondisabled professionals are promoted to members who get a monthly income for life – even if they can no longer paint. 

The head office decides what to do with our paintings, like reproducing them on merchandise like cards, bags, T-shirts and even fruit cutting boards, and profits from the sale go back to the artists and the group. 
Finding something that I’m good at has boosted my confidence. Painting relaxes me. It’s like a form of escape. When I paint, I don’t think about household problems or worry about the children.” 

On her inner strength 

“When I first came to Singapore in 1995 from Qingdao, China, to take my O levels, my English was so poor that the teacher recommended that I start at primary school level. To prove him wrong, I learnt 20 to 30 English words every morning. After eight months, I passed my O levels and went on to do my A levels. Subsequently, I went to NIE to train as a teacher.” 

On being glamorous

“It’s in the culture of Qingdao to dress well and look your best. After the accident, I verbally taught my helper how to do my makeup and nails, and to ensure I look well-groomed. I may be paralysed, but I want to be known as an attractive – and not a disabled – woman. I want to grow old glamorously.”


This story was originally published in the July 2012 issue of Simply Her.