In my May 13th blog, I told the story of my former college student, Jason (Ji Ke), and his family who live near the hard-struck city of Dujiangyan. We toured the famous irrigation tourist park there last May. I visited his small village. I enjoyed the company of his family. Then came worries for everyone’s safety due to the destruction of that city, only 40 minutes away.
I hadn’t yet heard from him since the earthquake and was very worried.
Finally, his long-awaited phone call came.
“Hello, Connie. This is Jason,” he said, sounding very tired and a little hoarse.
“I just want to know how you are because of the terrible earthquake.”
Leave it to Jason to ask about me first.
But I was all ears to hear about his situation. Is his family all right? What about his village? Did the house have any damage?
Jason assured me everything was fine. Because he is attending courses at Qing Hai University (in Qing Hai province), he had to wait anxiously to get ahold of his family here in Sichuan. His father answered the phone: No buildings in his village came falling down. No injuries reported. Only a back courtyard wall, which wasn’t very important, crumbled. Everyone was fine.
But there is a more pressing matter than the earthquake which involves Jason’s family. Three years ago, his sister (now 25) was diagnosed with a heart defect. According to Jason, it is a hole which needs to be closed. The cost of the operation would be 20,000 yuan ($2,855). This is an astronomical amount for countryside farmers who rarely see 400 yuan ($60) a month and are scrimping and saving to help put a child through college.
While there is health insurance available in China, Jason’s family doesn’t have it. Health insurance is still a new concept in this country. Group insurance plans for poor villages are now being introduced where farmers give a small amount (perhaps 30 yuan, or $4.30, a year) per family to enroll in a government health program. When one member of the community becomes ill, part of their medical bills are paid.
In many villages, however, it’s difficult to convince farmers to give such an amount. 30 yuan is a lot of money, sometimes all they are able to make in a month without their miniscule government supplements. They may not be able to afford the 30 yuan or they may not trust that this system will be beneficial to them.
For the most part, when you become sick in China, you pay upfront. This is usually not a problem for small illnesses, such as colds or stomachaches. You might pay 5 yuan (70 cents) for the doctor’s consultation and then a few dollars for the medicines required.
But if you are seriously ill, or have a major injury, and the money is not there for treatment, that’s a problem. I’ve heard of many countryside doctors who dig deep into their own limited incomes to pay for medical supplies for their village patients or give treatment for free. They care so deeply for those in the community that they can’t see them suffer due to money problems.
Of course, there are many special social service health programs for farmers. Jason told me that they could apply for such money grants for his sister’s operation, but there were tens-of- thousands who also applied. Unless you knew an influential person in a high position, you would most likely be overlooked. And the biggest problem was that the money had to be paid first — in full, in cash — to the hospital before any reimbursement procedures would begin.
Three years, Jason and his family, as well as his sister who worked in Dujiangyan, saved every penny they could. They borrowed from the bank, which had a loan limit of 5,000 yuan ($714). They borrowed from relatives. They borrowed from friends. Slowly, over the past 3 years, the amount rose to the point where the 20,000 was in the bank, ready to be given for the operation.
Then two weeks before the earthquake, the news came. His sister needed the operation immediately. Her condition was serious. Without it, she would die very soon
The cost? Now, due to the worsening of her condition, the doctors estimated 50,000 yuan ($7,140).
Where and how could he and his family make up a $4,285 difference needed to save her life?
Jason had quickly returned home during the May 1st holiday when he heard the news.. After riding on the train for over 24 hours, in the cheapest seat for 88 yuan ($12.60), he arrived in Chengdu. Before taking the 1-hour busride home to his village, he came to see me.
“We have borrowed from everyone we know,” he had said, tears filling his eyes. “There is no one else to give us the money. Now she stays at home to rest so we can take care of her. My mother and father are thinking what to do. She is so sad because she sees our parents trying so hard. It is a heavy burden for all of us.”
Jason and I sat silently, his pain filling the room. I could think of no words to comfort him. We only waited together, quietly.
“But I bring you too much trouble,” he said suddenly, trying to smile and appear cheerful. “I will try to think positive. Maybe my parents can find some special person who has the money. I can pay the person back after I have a job. I’m sure they can find a way. . . . We must find a way.”
To end his visit on a happy note, we began fondly reminiscing about last year’s May Day holiday. We went through my digital pictures of our trip together to Dujiangyan and his family’s village. Every picture looked so perfect: his sister vibrant, his parents smiling, the two of us laughing.
Two weeks later and I received Jason’s phone call.
After the upbeat earthquake news, I eagerly asked him about is sister.
“She is . . . O.K. We almost have all the money,” he said. “My parents found someone to help us. Maybe we need only 10,000 ($1,400) more.”
“That’s great news!” I replied. “Really, Jason, you must tell me if I can help with the money. Your parents shouldn’t delay. This is just too important.”
Gratefully, Jason thanked me for my kindness but explained that the doctors told them now was too difficult. With the earthquake, the hospitals have so many people. The rooms are full. The hospital workers are busy. There is no chance to help his sister, even with all the money.
“When do you think she can have the operation? Did they say?” I asked.
‘Soon, maybe soon,’ the doctor told us,” Jason replied.
Then he added, “We are just like those pitiful people in the earthquake. We can do nothing. We can only wait and hope.”