There is something that happens to an individual when they face down the brink of annihilation. When one watches body parts disfigure or disappear entirely. There's something that happens when one faces death, but chooses life. When someone like this chooses to come back among us, there are wings that sprout, it seems.
I work among burn survivors, like my daughter ZhouLin. Witnessing her and others face down our planet's most terrifying monsters -- pain, violence, abandonment -- and lie bloody in a hospital bed for weeks and months on end has changed something deep inside me.
I feel like a little girl running back to basecamp from the battlefield -- from human life's most epic battlefield -- slow and clumsy, but with big news....
"There are survivors!," I report. "They are wounded… They're suffering."
People at base camp stare at me for a second, then go back to what they were doing.
I blink in shock as people continue eating, drinking, being merry. A few of my little friends mount ponies, and follow me with our tiny supplies to the battlefield. They come, they see with their own eyes, we blink in the enormity of what we witness. We ride back to basecamp on our ponies for more supplies.
Basecamp is becoming a coliseum, people fighting it out over ideology, over sport, over anything they can find. They make up games so they can beat each other up.... or worse. They play games of killing each other.
I choke out my news from the battlefield again, louder now, tears dripping down....
"There are survivors," I yell! "They are wounded… They are suffering!"
No one hears, no one comes. I contemplate climbing up a tree, doing something more drastic to get their attention. But my friends on their ponies are ready with supplies again, so back we go.
We go back to the battlefield, and... the wounded are helping each other. No one else has shown up, so with their bloody hands and missing limbs, they do their best to put each other back together again.
Most of the supplies they need are back at the camp, but no matter. They are using the Universe's most basic tools -- love, and grit, and prayer -- and they are healing!
There is light shining from their eyes. And I love them.
I choose not to go back to base camp. Unless base camp chooses to come to us.
It's among survivors that heaven comes down.
Watch this 9-minute news story on Alan Breslau, a hero to burn survivors worldwide.
Well, our team is packing up to depart Beijing today and head back home. We all feel like we are leaving big pieces of our hearts and souls with the patients, families, and staff here -- not only have we left surgeries, splints, prosthetics, ideas, instruments, supplies, and techniques behind, but even more importantly, we've all framed questions that will drive our work as we move forward with our colleagues here in China and elsewhere to significantly improve treatment for burn-injured children.
HandReach will be centrally involved in planning next year's Second Annual International Trauma Congress here in China, which we've decided together with our colleagues to hold in Changsha in conjunction with the opening of a state-of-the-art rehab center for Hunan Province, home to China's largest burn-injured population. It's clear that the rehab program here in Beijing is maturing very well, and with the inauguration of our Prosthetics Unit Project at the Air Force Hospital yesterday, we feel that our goal to have a model burn unit in Beijing is definitely well on its way, allowing us to turn our attention to other provinces where the gap between patient needs and availability of good care is especially acute.
We've decided to undertake research projects in five areas that mirror HandReach's mission to integrate surgery, nursing, rehab, orthopedics, and psychosocial care. We'll be continuing to research the best techniques to reduce burn scarring, adding to our investigation of scar massage techniques a formal trial of the Chinese medicine our colleagues here in Beijing have been using compared with the silver sulfadiazine treatment currently in use at the US Army Surgical Research Institute. We'll continue to research massage and rehab techniques to improve both scarring and function of injured limbs, and we'll move forward dramatically this year developing collaborative ways to provide custom prosthetics for burn-injured children in conjunction with our colleagues at Shriners Springfield. This year, we plan to work more closely with nursing colleagues in both the US and China to find ways to bring patients more effectively from surgery through rehab and eventual discharge with the best possible outcomes.
The issue that has been heaviest on all of our hearts after working here in China is the excruciating pain experienced by patients -- both physical pain from difficult procedures like debridement, dressing changes, and aggressive rehab, endured without a speck of pain medicine, as well as the heartbreaking emotional pain engendered by facing a life of limitation ahead, being bankrupted by hospital stays and living in a society with little acceptance for physical difference. Our team has worked with great compassion and dedication during the time here to provide distraction for patients shrieking and sobbing their way through painful procedures, but there's only so much we can do when the patients already start crying as soon as they approach the rehab room, anticipating the pain they will receive. We are all dedicated to finding methods that will be received by staff, parents, and patients in helping children relax and make it through their hospital stay without undergoing even further trauma than they've already received from their injuries. Pain management is a chronic source of heartache for all the clinicians who come through this environment, and we are deeply committed to finding culturally-appropriate ways to lessen children's trauma, both in the short and long term.
We were delighted to be joined yesterday by a team from the Beijing communications firm, Continental Media, which sent seven representatives and two cameras to witness our programming at the burn unit and the ribbon-cutting ceremony for our Prosthetics Unit Project. They are committed to working with us to plan an event for January 2012 to inaugurate China's branch of the Phoenix Society, the world's largest association of burn survivors, and to involve corporate sponsorship, greater media coverage, and broad social networking to support our work in building a better future for China's many burn survivors. Our work has also been picked up by Tencent.com, a Chinese web portal some have likened to a Chinese version of Yahoo!. Interest from within China is definitely growing to address the trauma injury epidemic in this developing economy, and we are excited to link efforts in the US and worldwide with this budding community within China for greatest impact within the coming months.
Our team this summer had several team members returning from last year, and it looks likely we'll have a significant number of team members return next year and in the future as well. There is nothing more gratifying than to see children we've worked with show significant gains each time we come. HandReach feels more and more like a loving and growing family. Many asked to see photos of my adopted daughter, Zhou Lin, who was with our team last year. Seeing her photos from her senior prom and graduation, and now seeing her involved in driving lessons, more and more patients and families are expressing hopes and dreams for a future very different from what is available to them now.
We've been very specifically discussing concrete plans to reach the extremely high bar we set when HandReach launched the Children's Healing Initiative in 2006 -- to develop burn units, or even burn hospitals, for children in China that operate without cost to patients or their families, just like the Shriners Hospitals that so skillfully treated Zhou Lin. Clearly all the surgeries, nursing, rehab, orthopedics, and psychosocial care the Shriners provide come together in amazing ways to support kids in reaching forward toward amazing lives. This is something we as a planet can and must do.
We've been sobered to find that trauma injuries cost our world more productive hours than cancer and heart disease combined. Rolling up sleeves and working to truly address this problem, child by child and hospital by hospital, feels like one of the most beautiful pursuits we as a human race can make. We are enormously moved and grateful to have such skillful, compassionate, dedicated, amazing team members joining hands to significantly improve the lives of injured children who need our care most. We at HandReach all dream that someday there will be nowhere on this planet where a child can be injured that is out of reach of the best care our human family can provide.
Off to the airport soon! Better finish packing...
July 1st 2011
Yesterday was Hump Day for us here -- we reached the midpoint of our clinic here in Beijing! Changti's surgeries took all day and were very successful -- the doctors did some very delicate work on both hands to release tendons and try to give him as much function as possible at this point, and released tissue under both arms to give him significantly greater range of motion. Today, our rehab therapy team will work with our videographer to shoot a video about the rehab techniques he will need after his bandages come off. We plan to shoot a detailed video (with Chinese narration) of each step of the process, and send DVDs to both him and the local hospital we are working with in Hunan that will support his long-term rehabilitation. We are planning to go to this hospital (operated by the Hunan Fire Department) in Hunan's capital, Changsha, next summer to inaugurate the area's first rehab center for burn survivors, and we'll be excited to see Changti's progress by then!
Things have been so lovely with our clinic at the hospital this week! We are all deeply in love with the children. Our two toddler amputees, FeiFei and TingTing, both got new prosthetics yesterday and are walking around (and dancing!) with great panache. Our team has been offering morning group activities (drumming and art therapy), working individually with each child to make needed splints and pressure garments, and making great progress psychosocially with each child, particularly a few that have shown severe signs of PTSD, like one little boy whose mother died saving him in a house fire. The staff here in Beijing is asking lots of questions about psychosocial care, and our two amazing Child Life therapists (Jessie Hagerman from Shriners Springfield and John Chiang from National Chengchi University in Taiwan) are working hard to develop a culturally-relevant psychosocial protocol HandReach can provide to be included in each child's chart henceforth.
One modality that has proven extremely effective here is Martin Isaac's vibedrum -- a little ovular metal drum cut with notes in a soft pentatonic scale which is played with soft mallets (actually, bouncy-balls on dowels, also produced by Martin). The instrument is so soft and lovely -- and impossible to play in a way that sounds bad -- and we've been using it to provide soft music for painful procedures, which has been very welcomed by staff typically accustomed to deal with kids shrieking from being treated without pain medicine of any kind. We are making significant inroads with surgery, nursing, and rehab in ways that will involve significant psychosocial training in all aspects of care at the unit.
Tomorrow will be the inauguration of our Prosthetics Unit! The Air Force Hospital already has a very nice sign on the wall announcing the space as "Provided by the cooperation of the American HandReach Foundation," and we have plenty of hall space in which to place parallel bars, stairs, and other rehab items it will be nice to have close to the fabrication room. We are all thinking of ways to keep the progress we've made this week going -- video training pods, cooperation on clinical trials of a particular kind of Chinese medicine the hospital here is using for scar treatment, supplying vibe drums and of course rehab equipment and supplies, developing a telemedicine relationship with Shriners Springfield, etc.
So much to do, and what a team to do it! Very grateful for the utterly amazing people joining hands in this Fire Work!
June 29th 2011
Our HandReach team is all settled in Beijing now after spending our first couple days in China serving as the focal point for China's "First International Trauma Congress" that drew China's top names in burn care to a conference set up for us at the same hotel where the first International Conference on Women (organized by Hillary Clinton) was held in 1995. We presented and heard talks on all aspects of trauma and burn care, from surgery to rehabilitation to psychosocial care. There is so much more that we can and want to do with a conference like this in the future -- setting up roundtables and hands-on trainings around pertinent questions of the day -- and the wheels are already turning to set up deepening substantive dialogue in ways truly make a difference in making effective integrated burn care available to kids who are in most desperate need.
On the way from the conference center to Beijing last night, we were taken to the Great Wall, and members of our team settled themselves with gentle vibe drums (developed and built by our BeatBrigade director, Martin Isaac) in an ancient stone guard tower of the Wall where we made music that attracted an international group of visitors to form around us with delight and questions. The music was soft, gentle, uplifting, and blended perfectly with the natural green landscape and birds flying on current of heat rising from Chinese soil. Our team has been gelling in unbelievable, delightful ways that we all agree is truly magical. We are truly excited to work together, and in meetings team members have agreed that there feels like karmic connection that has drawn us here somehow, to work with these children.
Last evening just as we arrived in Beijing, a beautiful story continued to unfold. One of the patients we met years ago in Hunan who we've brought to Beijing for our clinic this week is He Changti, who has been limited by devastating injuries sustained making fireworks for the Beijing Olympics. Our young Spanish videographer, Gabriela Jaime, had posted a video about Changti's plight on a Chinese website to try to draw interest and funding to support his care, and the video was discovered by a woman named Xiaodan in Shanghai, a burn survivor who flew with her husband to Beijing as soon as we arrived to meet us. The meeting was magical. Xiaodan, an impressive cosmopolitan woman who works for Nielsen, gave Changti ideas and inspiration for a brilliant life ahead, and played a song for him on the piano ("Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga -- ha!) that she'd been working on ever since her burned hands began rehabilitation months ago. She had never played piano before but had always wanted to, and she encouraged Changti to pick a goal he'd always wanted and put his whole heart to achieving it. Changti picked driving as his goal -- he said he wants nothing more than to have the freedom to go where he wants to go, and to take others with him. Xiaodan and her husband (a Canadian Chinese working for Microsoft in Shanghai) gave Changti an iPod Touch and plan to set him up with wireless access in his home in rural Hunan. We all talked about working together to form a Chinese arm of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors here, with Changti (supported majorly by Xiaodan and her husband) as webmaster. We all felt inspired and energized by the possibilities ahead. Xiaodan and her husband expressed interest in joining HandReach's team at the World Burn Congress in Cincinnati in September. She even asked me if I'd ever heard of Dan Caro! I was able to show her photos of us with Dan at last year's Burn Congress -- she was thrilled. She asked if she can help translate and release a Chinese-language version of Dan's book, "The Gift of Fire," since she feels his story is crucial for Chinese burn survivors to read. We are beyond thrilled, and oh too happy to do whatever we can to help make this happen and get Dan to China for the inauguration for China's budding Phoenix Society.
It's time to meet the team soon and begin our clinic here at the Air Force General Hospital in Beijing. We have bags bursting with supplies and instruments to open and organize, and plan to start with an engaging circle of drumming and activities for the children and parents at the hospital right at 9:00 this morning. Kids have assembled here from all over China for this clinic, and our quick visit to the hospital yesterday drew hugs and tears and beautiful energy that's impossible to describe. Team members Brock and Qi will be visiting local prosthetics factories and offices here in Beijing starting this morning to assemble the equipment and supplies we'll need to support the Prosthetics Unit Project we'll be inaugurating on Friday at the conclusion of our week here.
Thank you for all the prayers and support and energy you've sent to get us here. Your spirit is with us, as ever, and we can't wait to be able to post photos and report back....
June 27th 2011
Click here to see all HandReach accomplished in 2010! Download HandReach.Annual_Report.2010
Greetings friends, donors, and future supporters,
Welcome to the first official entry in the new HandReach blog!
HandReach has been able to accomplish so much this past year thanks to
your unwavering assistance, including:
~ HandReach's first psychosocial camp/conference hosted by the
XiaoFang Hospital in Changsha and the China General Air Force Hospital
~ Moving our office from Washington, DC to Boston,
~ Attending our first ever World Burn Congress hosted by the Phoenix Society,
~ Receiving a very generous donation from Mass Mutual,
~ Seeing Qin MingHe walk again on his new prosthetic legs...
...and so much more!
Be sure to check back here for the latest news on upcoming projects,
programs, and fundraisers based in Boston, DC, and China, as well as
regular updates on some of the individual children supported by
HandReach and the Shriners Hospitals for Children!