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Empty Shoes: The Re-Telling of an Important Story

I had thought this story was lost, but thankfully:

January 4th, 2006

Ms Yue will have her final chemo’ treatment tomorrow. She will then be eligible for experimental treatment. The experimental treatment will cost 40-60,000 US dollars: 30-40 years of salary in China.

MS YUE YING

The Pearl River Delta in China is not unlike the area devastated in Louisiana and further East or the hard working towns in West Virginia that the coal industry depends on. It suffers through typhoons, floods, mining disasters, and lives are forever changed by devastation, and death. I am pained for people on both sides of the Pacific. I grieve for the families that twice suffered in West Virginia.

Like the Mississippi Delta, the Pearl River Delta is in the midst of a class four silent storm. It is a cancer zone. It is the dumping ground for every industrial success above it: a slow moving sewage system for dozens of cities.
It was the victim of a cadmium spill far north that made the long journey south. The Pearl River, so beautiful at night, is dark and foreboding in the day. No one would dare eat a fish caught from its banks in our city–and there are thousands of more factories on its shores as it meanders to Hong Kong from here.

When industrialization began I am sure most people in China had no idea that its economy would grow so fast that its infrastructure could barely barely hold on to its hat as the winds of change howled, and continue to howl, past daily. I am also sure that they had no idea that their environment would suffer as much as it has and their people with it.

America has had her growing pains and fights with the environment and governmental ineptitude: coal Mining and the recent immense tragedy in West Virginia, deforestation, erosion, Katrina.

I grew up in a Steel Mill Town where every morning you could wipe orange residue off of the hood of your car. The government never helped–even when people were dying.

China is trying to heed calls from these deaths due to close mines, repair hillsides denuded of trees, and in one neighboring town where the cancer rate is so enormous, officials are finally forcing companies to adhere to strict standards.

The effects of the the issue in China invaded my life: The fight became personal.

Let me digress for a second:

The Japanese have an old ritual that they perform when someone leaves for a long time. It is Kagezen. They will set a place for dinner for the loved one until they return. The metaphor found me today when Yue Ying was being wheeled into surgery for a breast cancer biopsy, a problem that struck as fast and as fiercely as Katrina or West Virginia, they handed her slippers to her family. At the risk of sounding trite, I was struck by how small they were. I was taken over by just how tiny, frail and helpless I felt at that moment.

I went to the waiting room with Yue’s sisters. There were a dozen other anxious families there–all with shoes in hand or set neatly down on the floor in anticipation they would be filled again.

It was hard for me to believe that the delicate slippers I held had carried the weight of such an immeasurable heart, such monumental grace and extraordinary integrity. She is 45 years old and has made much of herself despite the lack of resources that were available for anyone who grew up in China when she did.

Yue’s were the last pair of shoes in the room when Dr. Wang, a wonderful, gentle, professor/surgeon/oncologist who did a fellowship at City Hospital in New York, announced that pathology had confirmed a pervasive malignancy and that she would have immediate surgery. Though I had seen the X-rays and read the reports and had taught at Medical schools/Health Science Centers and clinically directed a hospital in the U.S., I was unable to contain my grief. It IS different when it is you that are affected–even obliquely.

She was in surgery for over five hours. She headed for recovery awake, tearful and typically apologetic that she was trouble for those attending to her.

I went home to change, eat, meet with a few colleagues and head back to the hospital where I spent the night. Probably more to comfort her than me.

Kagazen has long been over. Prayers, good wishes and her determination sent death on his way and the unsinkable Ms. Yue has been back fighting an extraordinary fight.

But, regardless of how optimistic one might be, how tied to faith or hope, something beyond a part of your body is forever lost: A strong sense of mortality takes residence in its place. It has been a tough few months of chemotherapy, and uncertainty.

Her shoes are waiting by her bedside. And I am convinced that Yue will be back in them. She will be as strong, beautiful and grace-filled as before. She is now. She has lost her hair but, not her poise and power. If anyone can keep illness or death at bay it is her.

China has a long way to go, as does the U.S. in thinking less of government than it does of its people. And cancer treatment for women worldwide has even further to go. Here people commit suicide or die these days because of lack of protection with health care. They do not want to burden their families.

My heart goes out to the recent and ongoing victims of both Delta areas and the families who have twice suffered in West Virginia. Here is my wish that, one day, you will never do Kagezen for anyone because of pollution, senseless disease, industrial disasters government neglect.

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One Response to “Empty Shoes: The Re-Telling of an Important Story”

  1. […] to a head of security in her district, ensures that there are never strangers in her life. She had met them in the hospital annex next to where where she had her surgery performed. She is the last of the League of extraordinary Chinese as I came to call them. They learned from […]

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