Rebuilding shattered lives

Updated: 2011-04-20 07:55

By Erik Nilsson and Huang Zhiling (China Daily)

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 Rebuilding shattered lives

Members of a peer-support group for quake survivors who were disabled by spinal cord injuries playfully embrace each other in Sichuan province's Mianzhu city. Erik Nilsson / China Daily

The NGO Handicap International has assisted 1,311 survivors of the Sichuan quake to cope with their disabilities and even thrive. Erik Nilsson and Huang Zhiling report.

Yu Zhengyin spent 20 hours fighting to survive after being crushed in a restaurant, but she didn't want to live after she escaped the rubble. The 50-year-old lost both of her legs when the 8.0-magnitude temblor ravaged Sichuan province on May 12, 2008, killing about 70,000 and leaving more than 50,000 disabled.

She had been clocking off from her shift at the eatery in Mianzhu city when she noticed the boss was busy and went back to help. Then, the quake knocked down the building. Her husband, son and relatives dug until they pulled her free at 10 am the next day.

"It rained really hard that night," Yu recalls.

"When I first found out I was disabled, I felt so hopeless. I just wanted to die. I didn't think I could ever be happy again."

But Yu says she has since been able to find joy in life, largely thanks to assistance from the NGO Handicap International, which says it has assisted 1,311 survivors since the disaster.

The organization provided Yu with a customized wheelchair and paved the gravel road in front of her house, which melted into a stew of muck and stones during frequent downpours.

"Before the road was fixed, I needed to be pushed outside. Now, I can go out on my own. I have my independence back," Yu says. "With this help, I am getting stronger. I can feel happiness again."

At the edge of a rapeseed field near Yu's home, 26 survivors disabled by spinal cord injuries during the quake sit with their wheelchairs in a circle, taking turns tossing a ping-pong ball into a washbasin.

The peer-support group members cheer when their friends land a ball in the tub, laugh when it bounces back out and celebrate when they win prizes - practical items, such as shampoo, coffee packets and pens.

Like all of the group's activities, the game was invented by a member.

"I love it all. Every part of our group activities makes me happy," 32-year-old Chen Ruiyu says.

"I was so depressed after I became disabled in the quake. There was a dark shadow in my heart. Now, I have a lot of friends, and they bring bright sunshine."

The group members, who had never met before the quake, also socialize at monthly meetings and get together for chats, meals or shopping.

"We talk so much on the phone that my bill is more than 100 yuan ($15.3) every month," 41-year-old Song Huazhi says, laughing. "The members of our group are all in the same situation. We can talk to each other about the pain in our hearts that we can't share with others. If I have some differences with my husband, for example, I can ask them for advice."

Handicap International came up with the idea for the group after two Mianzhu patients the NGO had treated in the provincial capital Chengdu asked about a woman with whom they had shared a hospital room, operational coordinator Li Hong recalls.

"They asked: 'Do you remember the lady in the hospital with us? We miss her. Could you help us to meet her?' We did, and when they met, they cried. It was very emotional," Li says.

"So, we decided we should bring them all together."

The survivors with disabilities found being together helped them cope in ways they otherwise couldn't.

"They really want to learn from each other rather than from a person who isn't disabled, who would train and coach them, and tell them, 'Do this like this'," Li says.

"People sometimes trust others who are in a similar situation more than professional psychological support."

Isolation has been a problem for many survivors with disabilities, and spinal cord injury patients are the most vulnerable, Li explains.

"They're in a weak position psychologically because they find themselves in this situation."

A 2008 survey of 2,287 survivors with disabilities and a 2010 re-evaluation of 1,456 patients found spinal cord injury patients' rates of total independence increased from 23 percent to 63 percent.

"Their quality of life is still lower than the average Sichuanese, which mainly results from the psychological impact," Li says.

The 2010 survey found 35 percent of respondents suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and 9 percent had "obvious symptoms" that require "professional psychological intervention". More than half of the spinal cord injury patients remained traumatized.

This affects their family lives, Handicap International's Mianzhu project manager Cai Sheng explains.

Some parents become frustrated because they cannot care for their children as before, and their children may misbehave without realizing the impact on their depressed parents, Li explains.

"Some of the patients may now enjoy good relationships with their husbands and wives. But over time, the quality of their sex lives may suffer," Cai says.

"International surveys show this is a major issue for spinal cord injury patients. We tried to ask the question in the survey, but people (in Mianzhu) refused to answer this question One woman said she had to accept that her husband goes out for, well, fun."

The 2010 survey found the disabled survivors' No 1 concern is their livelihoods.

"Maybe they were a provider for the family before, but now they feel like a burden," Cai says.

Handicap International distributed micro loans of 2,000 yuan ($306.34) apiece to 40 households - against the advice of some experts, who believed the recipients wouldn't be able to repay.

"Everybody returned all of the money, because they treasure the support we provide them" Li says.

One man, who was disabled after all of his limbs were injured in the quake, used the money to raise pigs, which all died from disease, Cai recalls.

"He said: 'My pigs died, but I survived the quake. While I lost everything, I still have the trust and support of Handicap International, so I should keep my credibility with you. I can borrow money from relatives to pay back the loans'," Cai says.

Most recipients used the money for farming. But the most successful entrepreneur was Xie Kaiyuan, who lost his right arm in the quake, and used the micro loan to open a mahjong shop.

The 43-year-old combined the money with 20,000 yuan of his own to put three automatic tables in the family's temporary shelter in late 2008 and relocated them to the new apartment, into which the couple moved in July 2010.

He earns about 3,000 yuan a month - roughly 1,000 yuan more than he did as a welder for Dongqi Founding Co, Ltd, in Hanwang township before the quake.

His wife had already retired, and he needed a way to pay for necessities and for his 17-year-old son's education at a three-year vocational college in Sichuan's Deyang city.

"I thought it over and decided to open a mahjong hall. A lot of people were out of work after the quake and needed something to do," Xie says.

So they bought three tables for 1,780 yuan apiece and charged 20 yuan a game.

"At first, it was just friends and relatives who came to our mahjong hall," Xie says. "We worried not enough people would come. But they told others about it, and it grew through word of mouth. So I bought another table, and another, and another."

The six tables occupy the entire 90-square-meter hall, which doubles as the family's living space.

"The place is crowded with tables, but it's still so much better than living in the countryside," says Xie, whose family lived in Xiangshan village before the quake.

"Living on the mountain, we had nothing. Now, we have gas, water and electricity."

And they have new hope for the future.

"If it weren't for our mahjong hall, my wife would have to constantly do odd jobs and could only make 1,000 yuan a month," Xie says.

"We can earn more now than we could before the quake. That's really great. Life is getting better."


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