I was there when her heart stopped. Terrified, and eyes riveted to the red line snaking across the ECG monitor, I felt myself die with the frail girl, Ding Xiao Yien, lying before me.
But this “artificial death” had been deliberately executed, and the steady hum of the heart-lung bypass machine signaled the start of the open-heart surgery. I stood in an operation room in rural China that had only three working lights, and yet the procedure was everything I’d imagined it to be: the acerbic odor of disinfectant, the quiet whispering of machinery, the disturbing sight of blood, sinew, and muscle. But I did not expect to know the face lying under that bed sheet.
This was not a television show, nor a National Geographic documentary. The patient, Ding, had lived with a congenital heart defect for her whole life. As an Angel Heart International volunteer, a nonprofit organization serving children with this heart disease, I’d volunteered to support and work with children like her in Gansu, one of China’s poorest provinces. These children’s hidden stories and daily hardships, I later discovered, were just as important as the deadly illness that encumbered them.
After days of trekking through mountains and towns, through operation rooms and waiting rooms, through dirt poor elementary school classrooms and single room homes, I had gradually learned the language of the heart – a special sharing of pain, of honesty and humility. I remember exchanging smiles with Ding just before she was wheeled in for surgery. I remember standing over the tarp and looking down at her open chest for hours, sharing the panic and love that her parents must have felt. I remember hugging her sister when, hearing of the successful operation, tears began to drip down her face, and snot unceremoniously down mine.
Before meeting Ding and her family, it had seemed easy to sympathize with “poverty” and “sickness,” as if those vague history book labels explained everything. I had seen Ding as a patient – a girl who endured hunger, backbreaking fieldwork, and a failing heart. But now my time with her revealed someone who understood the honesty of sharing laughter and tears, and of my struggles to communicate beyond my limited Chinese. The mystery of this communication, our private connection, did not have a universal interpretation; it transcended the limitations of words. I’d discovered that the language of the heart had no single definition.
It may have been the children waving wildly at me from a decrepit school window, or laughing at my dubious attempts to teach English through origami. Maybe it was a small girl, crying as she sipped at her first can of peach juice because it tasted too good. Perhaps a six-year-old boy with numerous insects scurrying through his unwashed hair, scolding me for dabbing my hands with precious water. Who can forget all the other children I’d come to know, laugh, and cry with on this journey?
Inspired by these children, I’ve acquired a new level of determination to not only become a scientist or doctor, but one who understands that there is always a face, a story, behind every disease. To me, “saving” became more than just healing the body and a vocabulary list of medical terms; it was a poignant reminder of the human, the face, under those hospital sheets, an honest expression of the friendship I shared with Ding.
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