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Ivory therapy

January 10, 2014
NIU alumna Yao Lin performed at Carnegie Hall after winning an international piano competition.

NIU alumna Yao Lin performed at Carnegie Hall
after winning an international piano competition.

Pianist Yao Lin traveled 6,600 miles from her native city of Beijing because she was offered a full scholarship and graduate assistantship from the NIU School of Music.

But a short bike ride on campus left her unable to play the piano.

Lin, known on campus as Lina, remembers hitting the ground and losing feeling in her left hand during her first semester in December 2009. She had just played the piano for a ballet performance at Graham Hall and was biking to the Music Building. As she held a large folder of music sheets in her right hand and steered the bike with her left hand, she lost control.

A student took her to Health Services, where she was transported to Kishwaukee Community Hospital. X-rays revealed that she had a fractured wrist.

Lin went to Midwest Orthopaedic Institute in Sycamore for surgery the following day and received a metal plate with seven screws to repair the fracture. But her battle was far from over.

When Lin awoke the day after surgery, she was at home with her host family in DeKalb. She remembers waking up without feeling in her arm and wondering how she got there.

Although the feeling came back a day later, she had to wear a cast for six weeks and didn’t know what to expect in the coming months.

“My wrist was obviously thinner than the other one and I didn’t have any motion after taking off the cast,” says the 26-year-old, who has played the piano since age 7.

Midwest Orthopaedic Institute logoIn the following couple of months, she worked with a physical therapist for an hour three times per week to gain strength.

“My therapist told me that the best way to recover my wrist is to play the piano. So I worked very hard,” Lin says.

After practicing eight to nine hours a day to accompany four recitals and prepare for her solo recital, she went back to her surgeon because of agonizing pain.

Although the hardware is not routinely removed, Dr. Robert Swartz, her orthopedic surgeon, suggested removing it because of her profession.

“The fine arts people are almost like endurance athletes. They do one thing and they do it over and over for hour and hours a day,” Swartz says. “And she was really getting a lot of irritation from the hardware. So that was one of the unusual cases where we did have to go in a second time for her.”

To get through her solo recital in April 2010, Lin took ibuprofen. Two months later, she had the second surgery.

“After they took out all the metal,” she says, “my motion came back completely.”

Besides getting back full motion, the pain hasn’t returned. The only reminder of the accident is scarring from surgery – a 2-inch-long scar on her wrist and a puncture scar.

“She really did exceed expectations. She did much, much better than the average person who has the same type of injury,” Swartz says. “She has an unusual amount of motivation.”

Yao Lin

Yao Lin

Since then, Lin has performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City for winning second place in the 2013 American Protégé International Piano and Strings Competition. She was also invited last fall to play on NIU’s new Fazioli piano during a dedication concert, which honored the Agnes Varis Charitable Trust for its $100,000 donation for the piano.

“She has served as one of the most in-demand accompanists for other students, taught piano to our non-piano music majors, played for the NIU Philharmonic and many other NIU ensembles, and accompanied for our opera,” says William Goldenberg, an NIU music professor.

Besides playing the piano at least four hours a day, Lin plays the organ, harpsichord and guitar in her spare time.

But music is not her only strong suit. As a result of studying piano in China and Russia, she is trilingual, Goldenberg says.

Lin graduated in May with a master’s degree in music and a performance certificate. Since graduation, she has been teaching piano part time at NIU and continues to accompany students for recitals and competitions. Her goal is to find a full-time teaching position at NIU or get accepted in a doctorate music program.

One thing Lin knows for sure. She hasn’t used the bike since the accident and doesn’t plan on using one in the future.