Helping himself by helping others

Updated: 2012-04-17 13:16

By Liu Xiangrui (China Daily)

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Helping himself by helping others

Liu Zhengchen (center) and Sunshine 100 volunteers perform a song at a ceremony. Zhang Bin / For China Daily

Liu Zhengchen turned the personal tragedy of being diagnosed with leukemia into an opportunity to assist others through charity. Liu Xiangrui reports.

Liu Zhengchen started counting the days after he was diagnosed leukemia in 2001. He was given five years to live unless he received treatment. "I feared I wasn't going to wake up in the morning," Liu says.

Sitting at his office desk, piled with files, the 34-year-old recalls the dark nights and long days following the diagnosis, with a ready smile and occasional bursts of childlike laughter.

His attitude toward life has completely changed, as has his career path.

Liu was a graduate student at Peking University in 2001, when he was found to have chronic myelocytic leukemia. He had been planning to start a company with a classmate and earn as much money as possible.

"What I believed to be important has changed," Liu says. "I'm not afraid of risks anymore."

After failing to find a donor match for a marrow transplant at the China National Bone Marrow Bank registry (the only of its kind), Liu started his own bone marrow registry database in January 2002 called Sunshine 100. His aim was to enlist 100 potential donors.

"I was hoping I might be lucky enough to find a match, however slim the chances, as well as give hope to other leukemia patients," he says.

Leukemia patients often require healthy bone marrow transplants. But finding a donor match is difficult, and the odds can be up to 100,000 to one.

Liu believed it would be simple to establish a database and reduce the odds, and was confident his "management experience" of student societies, and support from the university and friends, would stand him in good stead.

"But the reality was quite different," Liu admits. With help from his friends and 50,000 yuan ($7,500) from his parents, he managed to establish a database within two months.

Helping himself by helping others

Liu Zhengchen, who lives with leukemia, started his own bone marrow registry database in January 2002 called Sunshine 100. Liu Xiangrui / China Daily

He then expanded the project into Sunshine 1000, with the goal of collecting data from 10,000 donors, even though he faced funding problems and found it difficult to get government backing.

At the same time, his doctor was worried about his health. On top of that, he faced criticism that he was only setting up the registry to benefit himself, while others doubted the idea would work.

Liu's collaborators dropped out after they graduated or because of the pressure. In 2006, he was on his own.

"But I didn't quit. The tougher it gets, the tougher I get. I'm just the sort of guy who won't accept defeat," he says.

Liu relied on imported medicines to keep his disease in check, even though the treatment cost about 20,000 yuan a month and was a heavy burden for his family.

In May 2003, Liu was fortunate to receive support from a US-based charity, which decided to fund his medicines after learning of his charity drive.

Liu receives regular checkups, and recent results appear to show he is in good health.

"The Sunshine is on track now, and I will persevere with it," says Liu, who plans to expand the registry's services and branch out to other cities.

"He thinks about work all the time," says Zhang Songxin, 25, who joined Liu's organization in 2009. "We often get email responses from him at midnight."

"He knows how to encourage patients and often uses his own experience to give them confidence," Zhang adds.

Liu's story has become well known, and he was selected as a torchbearer for the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. He made the most of this opportunity by talking to Liu Qi, a Beijing Party chief, when they were on the same plane to Greece.

With Liu's assistance, his Sunshine Volunteers Association was given government backing and has been regulated by Beijing's civil affairs bureau since 2009.

Although he still hasn't found a donor match, Liu has been a constant source of hope for others.

By the end of 2011, there were more than 2,500 registered donors on Liu's data bank. A fifth leukemia patient was given a successful hematopoietic stem cell transplant in July.

Zhang Wenwei, 32, found a match on Liu's registry and had a successful operation in 2005.

"He gives leukemia sufferers like me hope. For us, one more channel means one more ray of hope," says Zhang, who runs a cartoon company in the capital.

"I was deeply impressed and moved by the heart-to-heart service of Liu and his colleagues. It can really bring warmth to people who are in despair."

Zhang regards Liu as a good friend.

Among 403 applicants, 47 leukemia patients have found matches from Liu's data bank.

Liu's New Sunshine Charity Foundation has 12 full-time employees and five volunteers.

In 2011, it saw unprecedented growth. Its income increased to 9.11 million yuan ($1.44 million) from 3.05 million yuan in 2010.

In 2011, his organization spent around 6 million yuan supporting 286 individuals with leukemia. It spent another 2.17 million yuan assisting poor students and disaster-relief efforts.

Donors include companies, foundations and individuals - but not tobacco companies, which Liu turns down.

"Charity has a bottom line, and we must follow that," Liu says. "Sometimes, we must make hard choices."

Liu, who financially relies on doing charity-related research for organizations, turned down an invitation to be a TV anchor in 2010.

He has become a candidate on the Ginkgo Fellow Program, which helps promising young NGO leaders with their personal development and guarantees them a basic livelihood.

"My income is not much compared with many of my classmates', but I'm satisfied," Liu says. "It feels good to help others - or even save their lives."

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