In the wake of the quake
Lives have changed forever in China


Sat, June 14, 2008

CHENGDU, China — Where does an important human story go once it’s fallen from most of the world’s front pages?

If it is the aftershocks and lingering effects from China’s May 12 earthquake, which killed more than 69,000 people — while leaving another five million homeless here, at its simple best, the story tumbles into the hands of a mother holding her child in a hospital intensive care unit. It becomes, for the first time in the month since the 7.9-magnitude quake, that same parent suddenly hearing her little girl speak to her again.

But at its most difficult, it is the man in the next bed, who — while looking down to empty folds of hospital bedding that once would have covered his limbs — wonders if he still has a future without legs.

I’ve come to the devastated Sichuan district in southwest China to find what remains in the aftermath of a biblical-sized disaster. It’s the nature of news that the world moves on — pushing old ruin deeper into the daily editions, to be covered over by the plaster of new disaster. But it doesn’t — and really shouldn’t — mean a sudden end to the heart of an immense and ongoing story.

“I don’t think anyone can understand the whole journey (victims) will take as they try to recover from this,” says Joseph Song-Qiu Shan, a department of health worker in Ontario who volunteered to come here to help treat those suffering from post-traumatic stress. They include an 11-year-old girl, who after walking among the bodies in her destroyed neighbourhood is now understandably afraid of the dark.

Dr. Jian Hua Shen, a University of Toronto psychiatrist who’s also been working with victims here, says — for survivors — these are the days that will decide the extent of the human quake damage.

He says the effort will need more professionals, estimating it will take at least three years to know how well they’ve mended scarred minds.

The injured bodies are easier to judge, but even those stories write themselves again every day.

To understand this, I place protective plastic covers over my shoes, wrap a surgeon’s blue gown around myself, and walk past the watchful young security guard stationed on the 9th floor of the new West China Hospital. Built on a medical campus that Canadians helped to start, the Chengdu complex treated more than 2,700 earthquake patients.

Doctors describe assembly line surgeries, as one battered body was pushed in to replace the one tended moments before. The Chinese medical system — or likely any other — had never faced anything like it. The doctors are, like the soldiers who fanned out across the province after the quake, considered national heroes for their work.

Echoes from distant, closing doors and the muffled sounds of covered shoes filter down the 9th floor, just as they do for quake patients one floor below. In every one of these rooms there’s a unique story that still hasn’t been told.

Along with a quiet nurse in a surgical mask, I follow Dr. Wang Bo as he turns left into a room housing Bed 910. It belongs to 3-year-old Xin Yi Liu. Put off by all the activity in her room, the child — who suffered a serious head injury and internal damage when hit by falling debris in the town of Peng Zhou — expresses a cry that makes no sound.

Yesterday was a far better day. For a month, the little girl did not speak a word.

“It was shock,” her doctor says.

Then, out of the blue, the toddler suddenly reached for her mother, Zheng Shu Mei, and called out to be hugged.

“We worried so much … (then) she said ‘Mamma,’ ” the 31-year-old mother says as she rocks her quiet child.

To get the badly injured youngster even this far, she was brought out of her village, where roads were blocked, passed from the hands of strangers. The philosophy after the quake was to save the children first. It was reasoned if the one child to each household lived, the parents and country would survive.

The backdrop to the child’s hospital bed is a playground of stuffed animals and flowers. But for the patient resting in the bed next to her, there are no such warm touches. Only a computer monitor, catching the rhythms of his assaulted body, holds any real colour.

Zhang Xin, a 36-year-old construction worker from the mountain region, was visiting with two friends in a building when the water cups in front of them began to dance. Then the ceiling began to fall, followed by the floors above. The men, trapped for more than a day, called out to one another as “brother.” Only Zhang Xin survived, though neither of his legs did.

When rescue workers first arrived, the men were told that all the resources were going to helping trapped and injured children.

Zhang Xin cursed his luck for showing up at his job site when he wasn’t even working.

As he recalls a day spent feeling his legs vanish under a pile that grew heavier with each aftershock, the numbers on his vitals’ screen move up, before he calms himself down. He says he’s glad he survived and it has brought happy moments, like today’s visit. But there’s a weight that still shadows him.

He lays and listens to Canadian earthquake relief volunteer Sherry Yang speak softly to him. Yang, who came from Toronto to help organize fundraising efforts for the Canadian Sichuan Earthquake Relief Committee, worked for years as a research technician at Sick Kids hospital.


She’s now telling him that she’s heard he worries that his future is in peril, and that without his construction job he won’t be able to support his family. His eyes tear up as he stares at the ceiling. But she tells him that his measure in life is not defined by his limbs. Instead, she continues in a voice only he can hear, his future still waits for him.

Where does an international story go when it falls from the front page? Today, it’s with Zheng Shu Mei as she waits for her daughter’s next word.

And with Zhang Xin, in the next bed, as he stares at the ceiling and waits.


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