A Long-Awaited Meeting with My “Brother”

By Howard Lee (李委煌)
Photos by Chen Ji-xiong (陳基雄)
Abridged and translated by George Chen (陳纘強)

A Long-Awaited Meeting with My “Brother”

By Howard Lee (李委煌)
Photos by Chen Ji-xiong (陳基雄)
Abridged and translated
by George Chen (陳纘強)

From Dalian City in China, Zhao Hongyan waited for five years to come to Taiwan and meet the person who has donated his stem cells to save her life. After many trials and tribulations, her wish has finally come true.

At the reunion ceremony held in Jing Si Hall in Taichung, Zhao Hongyan (first from right) expressed her gratitude to Lin Zhe-qian (second from right) and his family for donating stem cells to her.

In spite of the fact that China has suspended individual tourist permits for its nationals to visit Taiwan starting August 2019, Zhao Hongyan (趙鴻雁) has managed to overcome countless of obstacles to travel to Taiwan from her hometown in Liaoning Province’s Dalian City. On October 19, 2019—after waiting for five years—she finally met the person who has saved her life.

Yearning for a Visit to Taiwan
Zhao arrived in Taiwan a day before the reunion ceremony for hematopoietic stem cell transplant recipients to meet their donors. Zhao wanted to make sure she was full of energy and strength to meet and thank her donor, so she took a sleeping pill and slept at 8 p.m. When dawn broke the next day, she showered, put on her makeup, and prepared to look her best to her “brother” in Taiwan—the donor whose blood now flows in her body.

All Zhao knew about her “brother” was that he is two years older than her. As the amount of stem cells extracted depends on the recipient’s weight, Zhao secretly hoped that her “brother” would be heavily built and weigh 100 kilos (or 220 pounds). This way, she would feel less guilty about the donation she had received from him.

During the ceremony, the moment finally arrived for Zhao to meet her donor. Lin Zhe-qian (林哲謙)—tall, thin, and handsome-looking—stood up from the audience, together with his wife, children, and mother. Zhao, already on stage, immediately knelt down and prostrated three times towards Lin and his family. Two of the prostrations, she said, were made on behalf of her parents who were unable to come to Taiwan. Zhao herself was the only one permitted in the end to travel to Taiwan.

Zhao’ s yearning to meet her “brother” in Taiwan grew stronger and stronger after she received a stem cell transplant and slowly regained her health. Earlier in 2019 during the Labor Day holidays, she traveled with her family to Fujian Province’s Xiamen, located just beside the Taiwan Strait, thinking they could simply take a boat to Taiwan, track down a Tzu Chi office, obtain her donor’s address, and visit her donor in person to express their gratitude.

When they reached Xiamen, they were told that besides the travel permit for Chinese residents which they had already obtained, they needed another entry permit that would take 14 to 20 days to be issued. Zhao and her family had no choice but to return home. Later, after an online search, Zhao contacted the Buddhist Tzu Chi Stem Cells Center in Taiwan and learned that a reunion would be held in Taichung on October 19, 2019 for donors and their beneficiaries to meet.

Zhao started to make visits to the Taiwan Affairs Office and immigration offices. No matter how she explained her situation and pleaded with tears for a chance to visit Taiwan, it was of no use. “This is the national policy. We understand your situation, but we simply cannot grant an exception.” Zhao persisted until she finally got the permission on October 8, 2019 to travel to Taiwan. It was her determination and perseverance that enabled her visit to Taiwan, just as a few years ago when was diagnosed with leukemia, it was her own resolve to survive that helped her go through the long and arduous course of treatment.

Staying Alive No Matter What
Zhao was a winner in the game of life. Before the age of 30, she already had a reputable degree, a stable career, a loving family, and a newborn baby. She recalled having read about the plight of children afflicted with leukemia when she was still a student, so on the year she graduated from university, she volunteered to have her blood profiled and registered with the China Marrow Donor Program.

Pictured is Zhao together with her son. Diagnosed with leukemia in November 2013, she received a stem cells transplant in July 2014 and has regained her health after a long and arduous treatment. (Photo provided by Zhao Hongyan)

But, before she had a chance to save others, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). “In three generations of my family, no one had this illness! My paternal grandparents are over 85 years old, and my maternal grandmother is still healthy at 92…” Zhao was shocked and hopeless. “Why did I get this illness at such a young age? Why me?” Once always full of energy, Zhao could work for 14 hours a day without showing signs of tiredness. For her, leukemia was a hereditary illness, what happened to characters in a television drama, and a misfortune that only befell other families.

Upon learning that she got leukemia, Zhao—a single child—knew that death was not a choice for her. “I must stay alive! If I, my parents’ only precious child, am defeated by the illness, I know they’ll both succumb to grief and fall ill too!” Her whole family was determined to cure her, even if it meant losing their entire fortune! “As long as my daughter is alive, I don’t mind if she’s in a wheelchair!” When Zhao’s mother—already over 60 then—uttered this wish, Zhao realized that her life was not just hers alone. She told herself that no matter how hard it may get, she must do all she can to stay alive.

Finding Hope from a Match
When Zhao fell ill, her whole family was ready to help her conquer the illness. Her husband, mother, and in-laws travelled with her to Beijing to rent a place to stay and seek medical treatment from the best hospital in the capital. Her mother prepared meals for her, her husband brought her in and out of the hospital, and her in-laws cared for her unweaned son of four months old so she could focus on fighting her illness. As for her aging father, he stayed back home to prepare funds for her treatment.

As a single child, Zhao has no siblings for a human leukocyte antigen (HLA) match. Her parents were over 60 years old, and her son was too young. For a stem cell transplant, her only hope was to find a matching donor through the bone marrow registry. Luckily, a HLA match was found in the China Marrow Donor Program.

However, after two months, the potential donor declined to donate. Zhao’s mother, devastated by the news, was shortly after diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which had already metastasized to her womb and stomach. If there were ten stages of cancer development, the doctor said her mother was already in stage nine. It was as if life played a cruel prank on Zhao and her family, taking them on a roller coaster ride of hope and despair. After Zhao’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, they received news that there was a close match for Zhao from Taiwan!

While the whole family felt like they finally saw a ray of light in an abyss of darkness, they feared that hope would elude them again. But, reassurance came from many patients. “If the match is from the database in Taiwan, you should rest assured!” It turned out that many leukemia patients in China had received stem cell transplants from donors registered with the Buddhist Tzu Chi Stem Cells Center in Taiwan. With positive experiences, the patients all had confidence in the love and compassion of the people from Taiwan.

On July 9, 2014, Zhao lay in a bed at Beijing Daopei Hospital, intently watching the stem cells from a stranger in Taiwan dripping, drop by drop, into her body. One month later, her mother underwent surgery at the Peking Union Medical College Hospital. During that difficult period of time, the whole family was under tremendous stress caring for Zhao and her mother. Fortunately, both of them were brought back from death’s door.

Raising Money for the Treatment
Zhao’s treatment was very costly. She clearly remembered what the doctor told her after the diagnosis. She needed to be treated with chemotherapy first before receiving a stem cell transplant from a match. The series of treatments required a huge sum of money. “You need at least 1 million RMB (about US$142,000),” the doctor said, and depending on the patient's condition over the course of the treatment, more money may be required.

Zhao feels blessed to be alive and to spend time with her family.

Zhao was a high school science teacher, so when news spread that she was ill, teachers and students at her school raised 330,000 RMB (about US$46,800) within 30 hours to help cover her treatment. Everyone hoped that Zhao would recover soon and return to the school to teach. Her father sold a house, but the funds were still insufficient. “My six aunts and four uncles chipped in to help too,” said Zhao, who knew that every relative gave all they could to help her fight off the illness.

Zhao mentioned a popular 2018 film in China, Dying to Survive, which depicts the high costs of medical care for leukemia patients. Leukemia is often an illness that only the wealthy can afford to treat, and even if the family of a patient sold everything they had to pay for the medical bills, they might still lose their loved one to the blood cancer. For Zhao, her entire course of treatment, including the family’s rental and living expenses in Beijing, cost nearly 1.3 million RMB (about US$184,500).

Fortunate to Be Alive
Once always cheerful and optimistic, Zhao was an entirely different person at the beginning of her treatment. During that time, she almost lost her voice, refused to interact with others, and even insisted her mother not to speak to anyone as well. “There were four patients in each ward. Whenever someone vacated a bed or moved into the ward, I would be very stressed.” This was because every patient’s condition and situation may become her own destiny….

She’d nervously ask the other patients: “What is your type of leukemia? How many chemotherapy sessions have you had? Have you found a donor? Have you received a transplant?” Zhao’s anxiety was so obvious that her attending doctor became concerned about her physical and mental health. Every time she underwent a lumbar puncture or a bone marrow exam, Zhao never shed a tear or showed any signs of pain. “I just felt that my body was completely numb. Everyday, I was thinking if I would ever survive.”

Although Zhao does not know why she got leukemia, she remembered not being able to sleep well for five months before she got ill. Her son weighed almost 5 kg (or 10 pounds) at birth, and had to be fed milk every hour during the day and every two hours at night. As if suffering from postpartum depression, Zhao was constantly drained and exhausted. “I felt as if I had reached a dead end. Soon after, my body collapsed.”

A New Perspective in Life
Zhao said that her life was smooth sailing before she fell ill, describing herself as someone who had to succeed and would not entertain any failure. “I always believed that as long as one worked hard, success will follow.” It was not until she got leukemia and went through all the ordeals of the treatment that her outlook on life has changed. “Now, I just feel that I’m fortunate to be alive.”

Delighted to have met finally Lin and his family, Zhao (middle row, third from right) feels as if she has met many new family members in Taiwan. (Photo by Liao Wei-chen)

Recalling the early days after the successful transplant, Zhao remembered how she felt when she stepped out of the hospital wearing a mask. “Being able to walk to a supermarket and stroll along the aisles was enough to reduce me to tears….” After she fell ill, she has longed for places full of life and vitality. “It is simply wonderful to be alive!”

Success, excellence, and prestige—once highly valued by Zhao—have become insignificant in her life. “I want to be able to care for my parents till they pass on and be around to witness my son grow up. This is what happiness is to me now.” She knows that compared to other patients who had passed away, she has been extremely fortunate and blessed. Quoting Tagore from his Stray Birds, she expressed her reflection on life. “The world has kissed my soul with its pain, asking for its return in songs.”

On this trip to Taiwan, Zhao had come alone to fulfill her wish of meeting her “brother" in Taiwan. From the moment she arrived until her departure, she had been accompanied by Tzu Chi volunteers wherever she went. After finally meeting Lin and his family, Zhao has now returned to China, feeling blessed with much love and support. She already has a plan in her mind. When China allows individual tourist permits to Taiwan again, she will bring her family from Dalian to Taiwan!

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