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Recovering Health Through Origami

Recovering Health Through Origami post image

In this post Ronald Koh shares his challenge with serious health issues and the path to recovery through his passion for origami. It is an inspiring example of inner strength and perseverance.

Origami and me

Origami has been a large part of my life for as long as I can remember. It was a love affair for me, and one that I wanted to fill my twilight years with. Then an acute stroke immobilised the dominant side of my body, and consigned me to a wheelchair and dependent on others. As I lay in hospital in the bleak early hours, I felt this was the end. The end of life as I had lived it. And the end of origami for me.

Or so I thought.

Like many people in Singapore, I was introduced to the traditional forms of origami at a very young age. My fascination with origami was ignited in the late 1960s through Robert Harbin’s TV series on origami. Then I chanced to get my hands on Robert Harbin’s ‘Secrets of Origami’. I folded everything in it from cover to cover. Then I got in touch with the British Origami Society (BOS) and the Origami Center of America (the precursor of OrigamiUSA), and bought more books. There was no turning back from then on.

From folding the designs of others, I gradually began designing models of my own.

Origami is both art and science, with principles that could apply to everyday life. In my working life, I used examples from origami in motivational talks, to illustrate approaches to problem solving, thinking out of the box, creative thinking, etc.

Some of my family and friends brought packets of origami paper for me in hospital. I thought this gesture was insensitive at first. What did they expect me to do, with my dominant hand out of commission? Then in quieter moments and to obviate boredom, I took out a sheet of the paper to doodle with. I managed to fold a simple butterfly using only my non-dominant hand. I realised that, whether by intent or by chance, the gift of origami paper was a message to me to stop feeling sorry for myself. That all is not lost. I have to get myself in the right frame of mind, and work towards recovery. Beginning with these little packets of origami paper.

From then on, I was folding almost every moment of free time I had in hospital. And I had lots, in between medical tests, procedures, meals, and physiotherapy sessions. Soon I was folding lots of Yoshizawa and Lafosse butterflies, Petty’s beating hearts and Soon Young Lee’s talking lips, flapping birds, etc. The origami was quickly noticed, and the nurses, doctors, physiotherapists, fellow patients and their visitors were the willing recipients.

I was encouraged to carry on folding, as there is scientific evidence that mass production and repetitive movement does stimulate the growth of synapses and new neurons. I was asked to place my immobilised hand on the table as I fold, to subliminally remind the brain that that hand has a role to play in the activity. As time went on, I began using the hand an arm as a convenient paperweight.

The drive to be able to do origami again and recover my physical abilities as best I can filled me with such a positive frame of mind that I went through each physiotherapy session and a daily exercise routine on my own with gusto. And of course, my daily dose of origami.

I was on my feet and out of the wheelchair after several months, and independent of the walking stick after a little more than a year. The arm and hand requires a lot more time and effort, but it is coming around. Today – three years down the road – I can move my fingers independently, and hold and grip palm-sized objects. I can use the middle finger to crease the paper. By positioning the fingers correctly with my other hand, I can hold and insert each modular unit during the assembly of modular models. The fine muscles of the fingers and arm still requires occupational therapy for better coordination and strengthening, to be adequately functional.

I see the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel, and I am convinced that I will find my way out.

Ronald Koh

Visit Ronald Koh’s website to learn more about his creative origami work.

Photos courtesy of Ronald Koh.

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Do you know how has origami been of help with health issues to someone? Please share with us here.

{ 14 comments… add one }
  • govind gopal kulkarni April 1, 2012, 11:45 am

    hi; everyone out-there; from tomorrow onwards i am going to work with hyper-active kids in the age group of 7 – 14 years. I will be teaching them ORIGAMI. I shall let you all know the results of my efforts after 6/8 weeks.
    I am from Hyderabad city of southern state of India.

    • Leyla Torres April 1, 2012, 4:14 pm

      Hi Govind,

      Good luck with your origami-teaching projects with the children. We look forward to hearing how it goes!

  • Anastasia March 27, 2012, 3:39 am

    This Sunday I am going to present Origami and teach a simple model to a convention about children with autism. I know its now exactly original. BUT I live in Greece. Origami is little to not known here. Almost noone knows what an amazing help it can be in hand eye coordination, keeping people with ADHD focused and giving people with autism a way to express themselves. Someone saw a demonstration I did a couple of months ago and called me last week to invite me. I have been and origami enthusiast for a little over 8 years but I became a real devotee after a major surgery I had in my bowel 3 years ago (I have Crohns disease). For weeks after the surgery I was so weak the only thing I could lift was a piece of paper. I was also almost immobilised for more than a month. Without origami my mind would have become mush and my eyes square by watching trash tv all day. After I recovered I decided to show my love for origami to everyone, I started folding with more passion and havent stopped since.

    • Leyla Torres March 30, 2012, 6:43 pm

      Hi Anastasia,
      I share in your experience using origami as a way to help in recovering from a surgery. Folding was for me a way to keep on being patient (a patient patient!) as well when I recovered from an abdominal surgery.
      I’m intrigued as to how you use origami with autistic children.

      • Anastasia April 3, 2012, 2:06 am

        Well it was awesome. I demonstrated a simple swan (since most of the kids get easily distracted) Each workshop had 5-10 kids and two more adult helpers. (I had to do the demo more than once, since there were many kids). I was standing at the top fo the table and each kid had a square piece of paper with the first crease pre-made (the diagonal) I was demonstratinh each fold first on my paper and then showing and helping each kid. I gave different names to the shape of every fold (“First your shape must look like a tie, then a shorter tie, then an ice-cream cone etc). EACH and every kid made the swan (even a couple who were non-verbal or had other problems along with autism) their parents were so proud of them. A couple asked me about books and addresses. A little girl with Aspergers was so excited I also gave her a crane and promised to come back next year and teach her how to make it.

  • Laura Koh (Mrs Chan) March 25, 2012, 5:08 am

    Thank you for featuring my kid brother Ron’s article. It had been a great challenge for him to recover. His perseverance and endeavour to prove himself capable of his art is to be admired. He has his wife, Rosalind, and only son, Glenn, to thank for their patience and encouragement. All these are not without prayer, and I thank my Heavenly Father for His healing touch and helping Ron along the way. Ron is 13 years my junior. We are a family of creative people and my prayer is for everyone to develop their skills and gifts to encourage others along life’s way. Creativity is clean and healthy life-style.

    • Leyla Torres March 30, 2012, 6:40 pm

      Dear Laura,
      “Creativity is clean and healthy life-style.” This is so true. One of my wishes in this website is to encourage people to let the creative spirit be inspired! Thank you for your comment.

  • Ken Fowler March 24, 2012, 10:23 pm

    I will share Ronald’s story with my friend Lucy Luckett who has similar stroke challenges.
    She comes to the weekly or monthly Origami folding sessions I do at the Carillon in Boulder. She has a similar drive toward recovery and will be encouraged by this story.
    I got to know Aurthur C. Clarke after his recovery from a stoke that left him quadriplegic.
    His therapy was “Ping Pong” therapy. Slowly through his body’s response to his interest in Ping Pong, he was able to again walk and play Ping Pong and go on to make a beautiful Documentary on Fractals: “The colors of infinity”. Origami has the same relevance as fractals.

  • Ken Fowler March 24, 2012, 10:09 pm

    Origami Hungry – OH

    I eat Origami for breakfast, sometimes lunch and dinner too. I’m an Obsessive Enthusiastic Origamist, Endeavoring Optimistic Opportunist – OEOEOO. I make simple Origami projects from the tops to little dairy creamers, Celestial Seasonings tea bag wrappers, Good Belly quarts, packages of instant oatmeal or cocoa, foil butter paddy wrappers, Wheaties boxes and the plastic cereal sacks, etc. I’ve made stuff from pouches of Indian Panir and it’s box, from McGriddle wrappers, napkins, and frozen pizza boxes.

    I thought my mental health diagnosis might be Obsessive/Compulsive instead of major depression or bi-polar, but what I’ve got isn’t yet in the DSM. My friend Peter C. figured it out. I have C.O.D. – Compulsive Origami Delight. I am a C.O.D. – Compulsive Origami Dilettante.

    I’m not an expert. I knew how to fold a table football and once knew how to make a few paper airplanes. I never learned the Fortune Teller. I had trouble folding a piece of paper in thirds to stuff it into an envelope. In the fall of 2009, I was in an art group at Ft. Logan hospital one step away from ECT (not quite catatonic). The art therapist was set to teach a bird of some kind that she had made a lot as a child, but she forgot how to do it. Another patient, Max, the therapist, and I worked on the challenge and came up with a version not quite right but it was enough for me. I began making these in lieu of watching TV, the main therapy offered. I had heard that the benefactress of our unit who donated delivered take out dinners, a big screen TV, an exer-cycle, art supplies and games was having serious physical health issues. Also dimly aware of a cultural practice in Japan of making cranes for someone suffering, I began to make perhaps 100 quasi-birds a day, or so. Giving them to the staff to give to her, after a while I wanted to see how close to 1000 I was, and found out that the staff had been throwing them away instead of just collecting them in a box.

    That did not stop me. I kept making them and began stringing them up, hanging them vertically spaced 4” apart any place that was allowed. They were in perpetual motion twisting and turning in an unseen unfelt breeze. I made them out of two squares of toilet tissue layered together and other stuff in the trash. I made a few more when I got out of the hospital and never learned if they did or did not send the birds I made to the lady.

    Then Christmas 2010, while waiting at MHP headquarters (Mental Health Partners), I attempted to make an ornament for the Discovery Room Christmas tree, but could not do it. In the attempt, making 4 irreproducible ornaments, I decided to go to the Boulder Folders Origami hobby group. It took a few months to get there, and I called the teacher to say that I wanted to learn how to teach a few simple projects to members at Chinook Clubhouse. February 2011, I went once and learned the flapping bird and a box with a lid. In March, I taught that box made from magazine covers, another box and hopping bunnies and frogs from 3×5 note cards, and simple hearts from rainbow Bookworm (used bookstore) 1”x4” bookmarks at the Library’s Origami Festival. Even though it was explained how to read and interpret Origami instructions from diagrams, that didn’t sink in for me, so I would just do the simple projects I was learning over and over, so that I could teach them at Chinook if people wanted to learn.

    In June, responding to a call for papers for SAMSHA’s Alternatives Conference, Creating Communities of Wellness, I submitted a proposal to do an Origami workshop with 5 simple projects that I knew well. It really felt to me that Origami was very therapeutic and a great metaphor for understanding Mental Health. Every fold is either a mountain or a valley and they can become the other with just a turn of the page. You can make a mountain into a valley or vice versa with a little coaxing. Paper has memory. Each fold is a memory and it gets really confusing if you unfold what you’ve folded even if it is what you wanted to create. It’s easy to forget how you did it. If you make folds or choices that you feel are mistakes they really confuse you if you are trying to make something. If you are making folds on top of other folds that you made to make something else, it is almost impossible. If you keep making the same folds, choices over and over changing back and forth from mountains to valleys the paper gets really weak and it’s likely to tear apart. And, it only takes about 8 or 9 foldings in half and half again. Book, book, book, book, book, book, book, book – 8 of the same book, the same old story till you are totally stuck and can not make one more fold.

    I volunteered teaching a bobble head dog, barking dog, and a dog house at the exhibit opening for the Boulder History Museum, and began teaching a weekly random group of folders at the Carillon, a swanky retirement community; the occasional sessions at Chinook, two days to three classes of sixth and seventh graders at Southern Hills Middle School. I sold/donated an Origami piece made out of thin aluminum sheets at the Beautiful Art for Beautiful Minds fundraiser for Chinook Clubhouse in June 2011 and practiced my proposed mental health presentation for staff and clients at the mental health center. It didn’t get accepted because there was not enough of a track record and was probably over ambitious because I still did not know how to read Origami diagrams.

    I sold/donated two more Origami pieces at the BMoCA’s Open Wall invitation (Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art) – one titled ‘Dark Stars’ which were made from 4’x4’ squares of roofing felt paper to a 7 year old named Caleb. Caleb had made an Origami piece inspired by the books, “Darth Paper strikes again” and “The mysterious case of the Origami Yoda” which I bid on and won. I sold another piece that day as well – titled “Flowers in a clear box” to, I was told, one of the Museum’s board members. I learned how to make these post-it note AstroBrite flowers from a second grader named James.

    Christmas 2011, I made Spikey Cube Octahedrons from 15”x15” silver and gold foil and Warp Bros. clear flexible plastic sheeting for decorations for the Dairy Center for the Performing Arts Exhibit opening. I made Stellated Octahedrons and a Rhombic Triacontrahedron from Activa yogurt tops and started focusing on stars made from LaraBar/energy bar wrappers and potato/chip bags. I made a bunch of Business card picture cubes made with six business cards and able to display six different business cards or 6 wallet size pictures or some combination.

    We just had another Origami Festival at the Library and I taught Flexion stars, Magic Stars, Morning and Evening Stars, Butterflies, hoppers and hearts – all made from non-traditional “Re-purposed” materials such as Starburst and LaraBar wrappers, post-it notes, ad coupons, etc. That same week, I taught two classes of 7th graders at Casey Middle School’s Asia day: the magic star, flexion star, and butterflies.

    Carol, the special event coordinator at the Library, identified the teaching instructions I share as Origami poetry and invited me to do a Re-Purposing Origami workshop for Earth Day. And, BMoCA, where I have been a volunteer in a variety of capacities giving Origami pieces to pretty much everybody, artists at their exhibit openings, and displays for the bar, has now graciously invited me to do two Origami Re-purposing Exhibits on April 7th and 14th 2012 using Activa yogurt tops, Celestial tea bag and candy wrappers and napkins to make mushrooms, fortune cookies, butterflies, and stars.

  • Sandra March 24, 2012, 4:16 pm

    Ronald’s story is both beautiful and inspirational. Thank you so much for sharing it! By the way I love your blog and have been following for a while, but this is the first time I comment. Keep on the great work!

  • Lau Say Lian Thomas March 24, 2012, 11:30 am

    Hi Ronald,
    Keep it up…you set a very good example for others to follow.

    • Ronald Koh March 24, 2012, 11:20 pm

      Thank you, Thomas. If just one person in similar straits is inspired to remain positive towards eventual recovery, it will be a bonus.

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