|Healing that knows no borders|
A charity finds a surgeon to help family of burned Chinese kids
By HARVEY RICE
Aug. 5, 2011, 8:39PM
GALVESTON — Four women sat in Dr. Ted Huang's Galveston office last October, hoping their 18-month quest to save a Chinese girl's life had ended.
Min Tang was 8 years old when she dashed into her family's burning home in Yunnan Province to save her 1-year-old brother in 2008. Among other injuries, her burns fused her thighs together, making elimination so painful she had nearly stopped eating.
Chinese doctors were unable to help, so the women from HandReach, a small Boston-based charity, set out to find a surgeon who could operate on Min. They finally succeeded when they contacted the world-renowned burn center at Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston, where Min and her brother Ze have undergone surgeries that are vastly improving their young lives.
"There was no doubt she was not going to survive much longer," Brecken Swartz, HandReach executive director, said of Min Tang.
Operating on a tiny budget, HandReach had to find a surgeon who would donate his services. Two organizations turned them down, so Swartz, her daughter and two HandReach volunteers turned to the Galveston hospital.
Sitting in Huang's office in the Shriners building, the women asked Huang to come to China and operate on Min.
"We were four young women sitting in his office, very desperate," Swartz recalled. "Our hearts were beating fast, and we were on pins and needles."
His reply - "I'm sorry, I'm not going to China" - nearly brought Swartz to tears. After a pause he said, "But I will bring her here."
Huang also agreed to operate on Ze, whose left thigh was fused to his hip despite several unsuccessful attempts by Chinese surgeons to free it.
HandReach volunteer Qui McIntosh phoned the children's father, Yue Yun Tang, 31, in China. His hopes dashed so many times before, Tang was skeptical, but he was willing to try anything.
The day his children were burned, Tang had argued with his wife about payment for two women he had hired to help in his vegetable farm in the village of Shin Je. Tang, interviewed this week in Galveston, said he left his wife in the bedroom while he sat down to eat lunch Min had prepared.
Saving brother, child
His distraught wife poured gasoline on herself and the bed, Tang said. He turned to see his wife on fire.
"I don't want to live," she shouted, according to Tang. Flames engulfed the house within seconds.
He grabbed Min and his other son, Shen, then 4, and ran outside. His wife had run out of the house, and he was trying to smother her flaming clothes when he heard Min shout, "Help me father, help me!"
Min had run back into the house and thrown herself over Ze to shield him from the flames.
"I thought of nothing in my mind, just my brother," Min said. "I needed to get in to my brother."
As neighbors formed a bucket brigade, Tang covered up in a wet blanket and ran into the house. Emerging from the flames, Tang handed Ze to a neighbor, and they ran toward the nearest hospital seven miles away, running nearly halfway there before catching a ride.
Chinese doctors saved the children's lives but could not or would not do the necessary surgeries. Tang's wife suffered burns on her arms and legs and spent three years in prison before returning to the family.
In a country where the average annual income is $2,786, the Tang family relied on relatives and charity to pay for the medical care. China has no government program to finance medical care for injured children.
McIntosh said she learned about Min's plight through a Chinese Internet bulletin board and contacted Tang 18 months ago. That helped launch a search that ended with Huang.
'I feel so happy'
A doubtful Tang and his children, accompanied by two Chinese doctors whom Huang had agreed to train, arrived in Galveston in May. Donations paid for their trip.
Tang shed his doubts after the first operation. "In the beginning I didn't have a big hope, just a little hope," Tang said. "But right now I feel so happy because the improvement is so obvious."
After a dozen surgeries, Min, now 11, is eating heartily. Her brother, now 4, who hadn't learned to walk before losing his legs to the fire, is walking for the first time in his life with the aid of prosthetic legs. Min will be fitted with prosthetics to replace her lower legs, Huang said, and will be walking before she returns to China.
The children will need numerous operations to loosen the scar tissue as they grow, and the prosthetics will need replacement a dozen times. Huang said he will be keeping tabs on the children and will advise Chinese doctors if need be.
Swartz said HandReach is opening a prosthetics unit in Beijing that will care for the Tang children. The unit will be connected electronically to the Shriners Hospital for Children in Springfield, Mass., which specializes in rehabilitation.