November 22, 2006
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A Hand Up

What started as a two-hour assignment for The Spokesman-Review ended up being nearly a five-month project involving a young woman from Vietnam. The photo request said to be at Holy Family Hospital early on June 28, 2006, to photograph Dao Nguyen, age 25, who was burned as a child and brought to the United States by Dr. Frank Walchak and his wife Carolyn. I thought this would be easy: Meet them at 8 a.m., take a few shots of them waiting, and hopefully be able to get a picture of the doctors conversing with Dao before her surgery. Get out of there and go shoot an Episcopal Church elder. Things didn’t work out that way. Into the waiting room walked a very shy but friendly young lady. There was something instantly likeable about her. I assumed it was my job to make her feel comfortable, but found that she made me feel at ease. She was nervous about her surgery, but tried to communicate with her limited English. Her “mom,” Carolyn Walchak, did much of the speaking for Dao, telling the reporter of the accident that left her scarred and disfigured. Dao clung to Carolyn for an hour, understanding much of the conversation but saying little. Dao’s operation to her face and her left arm was successful. She would need a couple of weeks to heal, then she would get a prosthetic hand. We decided to be there to show our readers the completion of the story. Well, the weeks went by with delay after delay. Dao took longer than expected to heal and then the prosthetic company in California put her hand on back-order with no end in site. A local prosthetic business in Spokane finished the hand and fitted Dao with the device. End of story? No. As we looked back at photographs taken of Dao in the five months since her arrival, we had watched her change from a shy girl from a peasant village to a vibrant young woman who learned to read and write English, took drivers education and had experiences only offered in America. This became a story of personal transformation and courage, not just a disabled person makes good. It was quite an undertaking for web producer Colin Mulvany and myself to sift through the hundreds of pictures and the hours of audio for the online project. We enlisted the smooth voice of reporter Heather Lalley to do the voice-over work. I feel quite fortunate to have earned the trust of Dao and Frank and Carolyn Walchak. They opened their lives to my camera without a word of reservation. That is so rare in today’s world. I hope Dao’s story will inspire others as much as it has inspired me.

Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review
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