A U.S. ‘savior’ and his Korean ‘friend’ meet again

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A U.S. ‘savior’ and his Korean ‘friend’ meet again

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Reunited for the first time in five years, Shin Hyung-jin (right), wheelchair-bound due to neck-down paralysis, thanks his “life savior,” former commander of the U.S. Armed Forces in Korea, Leon J. Laporte (left), who in 2004 ordered a special U.S. Army aircraft to fly the critically ill Shin from the U.S. to Korea, where he could receive urgent, specialized medical treatment. By Kim Do-hoon


Wheelchair-bound Shin Hyung-jin, “Korea’s Steven Hawking,” was reunited Thursday with the American general who saved his life in 2004.

They met in a hotel room in Banpo, southern Seoul. Leon J. LaPorte, former ROK-US Combined Forces Commander, got on his knees to be able to meet the gaze of Shin, 28, who reclines in a wheelchair due to paralysis from spinal muscular atrophy (SMA).

Shin moved his lips to mouth the words, “Thank you.”

LaPorte, 65, who is now retired, nodded.

Shin’s mother, Lee Won-ok, 65, can read her son’s lips. She told LaPorte, “With the money that he has earned, Hyung-jin wants to treat you to the most expensive lunch.”

Without the help from LaPorte in 2004, Shin may not have survived - and gone on to graduate school and a job developing special smartphones for the disabled.

Shin’s story is well known in Korea. At only six months old, he was diagnosed with SMA, and the doctors were not hopeful about his future.

But his mother was determined he could make something of his life. She pushed him around school in a wheelchair and turned the pages of his textbooks at home at night.

Academically, Shin excelled and made it to Yonsei University. Although he is unable to lift a finger, he communicates via a specialized mouse triggered by blinks of the eyes.

In July 2004, when he was a college sophomore, Shin and his mother visited Los Angeles for his grandmother’s 80th birthday.

His health deteriorated until he went into a coma. The U.S. doctors recommended he return home and consult his specialists. But no one could find an airplane outfitted with the medical equipment Shin needed to survive the flight.

Yoo Jay-Kun, then-chairman of the National Defense Committee of the National Assembly, told the tale to Commander LaPorte, who immediately ordered a KC-10 Extender to fly Shin home. The aircraft, dubbed a “hospital in the air,” is equipped with cutting-edge medical technology. Until then, it had only been used for U.S. soldiers.

LaPorte told his boss in Washington, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, that if there were any problems with approval to use the aircraft, “I will cover the transport costs [myself].”

This year, Shin graduated from Yonsei with a degree in computer engineering, a process that took nine years. Since June, Shin has been employed at his alma mater’s Research Institute for Software Application, and with advisor Professor Lee Gyung-ho is currently developing a disabled-friendly smartphone.

Thursday was the first time Shin and LaPorte have seen each other since the general’s retirement in 2006. As in olden days, LaPorte called Shin “friend,” and Shin called the ex-commander “savior of my life.”

“Hearing that my friend graduated from college and found employment made me happy like it was my own business,” LaPorte said.

“A newspaper clip about Hyung-jin is on my desk, and I look at it every morning.”

Until the reunion, the two had been communicating through e-mails. LaPorte presented to Shin a framed picture of himself and souvenirs from Texas.

“Hyung-jin is a friend who opened my eyes to the fervor of life,” he said. “He doesn’t believe that he has a handicap, and I respect him for carrying on with courage even greater than that of a soldier.”

“You are a brave man!” he told Shin.


By Kim Hyo-eun [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]


한글 관련 기사 [중앙일보]

‘연세대 호킹’ 신형진, 생명 은인 러포트 5년 만의 재회

2004년 신씨 살린 ‘아름다운 비행’ 은인에 점심 대접

“You are a brave man(너는 용감한 사람이다)!”

 한미연합사령관을 역임했던 퇴역 장군이 무릎을 꿇고 말했다. 척추성 근위축증(SMA)으로 휠체어에 누워 있는 신형진(28)씨와 눈높이를 맞추기 위해서였다. 신씨는 상기된 얼굴로 천천히 입술을 움직였다. “감사합니다.” 옆에서 아들의 입술을 읽은 어머니 이원옥(65)씨가 “형진이가 직접 번 돈으로 가장 비싼 점심을 장군님께 대접하고 싶다고 하네요”라며 웃었다.

 20일 서울 반포동의 한 호텔에서 리언 러포트(Leon J. Laporte·65) 전 주한미군 사령관과 신씨가 재회했다. 러포트 전 사령관은 2004년 미군 수송기를 지원해 미국에서 한국으로 형진씨의 귀환을 도왔다.

 이날 두 사람은 2006년 러포트 전 사령관의 퇴역 후 5년 만에 만났다. 사령관은 예전처럼 신씨를 “friend(친구)”라고 불렀고, 신씨는 사령관을 “savior of my life(생명의 은인)”라고 했다. 사령관은 “내 친구(신씨)가 대학을 졸업하고 취직했다는 소식을 듣고 내 일처럼 기뻤다”며 “형진이 사진이 나온 기사를 책상에 꽂아놓고 아침마다 보며 인사한다”고 했다.

 신씨는 올해 초 연세대 컴퓨터공학과를 9년 만에 졸업하고 지난 6월 모교 소프트웨어응용연구소에 취직해 학부 때 지도교수였던 이경호 교수와 함께 장애인이 쉽게 사용할 수 있는 스마트폰을 개발하고 있다. 전신마비로 누워서 생활하지만 안구 마우스만으로 연구와 공부를 병행해 ‘연세대의 스티븐 호킹’으로도 불린다.

 신씨는 2004년 7월 외할머니의 팔순을 맞아 미국에 갔다가 병세가 악화돼 두 달 동안 현지 병원에 입원해야 했다. 인공호흡기 사용이 가능한 비행기가 없어 발이 묶여 있었다. 이때 신씨 사정을 유재건 당시 국회 국방위원장으로부터 전해 들은 러포트 사령관은 흔쾌히 ‘KC-10 익스텐터’를 제공했다. ‘하늘의 병원’이라 불리는 이 특수 비행기는 첨단 의료기기를 갖춰 해외 주둔 미군 환자 수송때만 사용된다.

 당시 러포트 사령관이 럼즈펠드 국방장관에게 수송계획을 보고하면서 “만약 의회에서 문제를 제기하면 수송비를 내가 내겠다”고 말하기도 했다. 군용기를 타고 한국에 돌아온 신씨는 2년간 병원 치료를 받고 퇴원했고, 사령관은 2006년 은퇴해 고향인 미국 텍사스주로 돌아갔다.

 그간 두 사람은 e-메일을 통해 안부를 전해 왔다. 행사 참석을 위해 한국을 찾은 러포트 전 사령관은 바쁜 일정에도 신씨를 꼭 만나고 싶다고 했다. 그는 이날 자신의 사진이 담긴 액자와 텍사스를 상징하는 기념품을 신씨에게 선물했다. 그는 “형진이는 내게 삶에 대한 열정을 깨우쳐준 친구”라고 말했다. 그는 “자신이 장애를 가졌다고 생각하지 않고 군인보다 더 큰 용기로 생활하는 모습을 보면 존경심이 든다. 더 건강해졌으면 한다”는 바람을 나타냈다. 한편 신씨는 21일 저녁 자신의 주치의이자 또 다른 생명의 은인인 강남세브란스병원 강성웅 교수에게 저녁식사를 대접할 예정이다.

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