On a breezy mid-summer morning, I arrived at the Beijing International Airport with seven other volunteers from across the U.S. Our mission: to work in orphanages with ill children. I was determined to take on poverty and illness with an iPod in my pocket and a cell phone at my ear.
This opportunity was provided through the China Care Foundation, an American foundation that provides medical care for orphans with devastating conditions. Knowing I would be expected to care for severely ill patients, I learned about various congenital diseases, how to care for cleft lip babies, and basic first aid and child care. I felt sure I was ready to work alongside doctors for the next few weeks.
After a day-long training session, we were sent to a rural orphanage in northern China. It was a small dilapidated building on top of a hill, with a dirt road and a church the only connection to the outside world. Inside, the walls were not covered with finger paintings but a coat of dirt and dust. The floor was coated in filth; the place was a haven for fleas and other insects - clearly the setting of children’s nightmares, but for 57 sick wards of the state, it was home.
Among the children we met was a three-year-old boy with hydrocephalus, a condition in which spinal fluid builds up in the brain, causing the head to swell. Another boy suffered from aplasia cutis congenita, a condition in which skin of the scalp is missing so the arteries and the top of the skull are visible. One child was missing eyes, her empty sockets covered with a bandage. Some had blue baby syndrome, a condition caused by insufficient circulation, while others limped on club feet. The disorders and diseases were so wide-ranging and damaging that it seemed as if the diseases I had studied, like Hepatitis B and C, were nothing more than the common cold.
The child placed under my care was eight-year-old Tian Feng. When I met her, she was playing with another child and dressed in dirty clothes. Her left wrist required a lot of physical therapy because of an untreated break as an infant. I saw her pick up a toy and squint at it, then bring it close to her eyes. Due to a rare case of macular degeneration (the breakdown of the retinas is usually a condition of the elderly), her vision was blurry and would eventually disappear. As I introduced myself, she turned and used her arms to push herself to me; she also had spinal bifida and was paralyzed from the waist down, but the orphanage couldn’t afford wheelchairs and so she had to move herself using her arms.
One day, I carried her outside to pick flowers from the small garden. Perched on my back, she called out the colors she wanted as I reached down to pluck them. By the end she had a handful of flowers of all sizes, and she raised each one close to her eyes to see the color and kiss the petals. She took the flowers and arranged them in front of her, running her hands over the stems and counting them with childish delight. Her counting stopped abruptly, as she turned to me and whispered, “Uncle, can you fix me?”
How I wished I could have whipped out a magic wand to tap her legs back to life and clear the world around her, but I was helpless.
She took my hand in hers and giggled, “It’s okay, Uncle!” she said. “One day, I’m going to get all better, and then you can take me to a field of flowers and we can see all the colors of the world. Okay?” I nodded, and on that day I promised her and myself that I would devote my life to health care. One day, I will swoop in with my magic, my medicine, and “fix her.” Hearing this, she smiled a smile that few are lucky enough to witness, a smile that expressed newfound hope and pure happiness.
My three weeks at the orphanage were just the beginning of a journey filled with compassion, discovery and determination. I now have some understanding as to what medical care means to me. It is a way to touch someone’s life and bring hope not with words or philosophies, but with the Hippocratic Oath and a stethoscope. To me, health care is not simply treating a sickness, it is making a little girl smile as she walks through her own field of flowers, seeing all the colors of the world.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.