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In a land of incredible need

Hannah Zhao was inspired, not overwhelmed, volunteering in Beijing


by: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Hannah Zhao is only a junior at Lakeridge High School, but she already knows what she wants to do with her life: become a doctor.Hannah Zhao of Lake Oswego thought she was ready for anything she would encounter at Beijing Children’s Hospital this summer.

The 15-year-old Lakeridge High School junior is the daughter of a native Chinese couple, speaks perfect Chinese and had made 10 previous trips to China. She thought she was very, very hip to life in Beijing.

Instead, Zhao was stunned the first time she saw Beijing Children’s Hospital. Her eyes were totally unprepared for the sights of rooms and aisles swarming with patients, and more of them coming in all of the time.

“When people think of China they think of fun, the booming economy, the Olympics, the modern building,” Zhao said. “When I saw that hospital my mind was blown. It was so backward. And Beijing Children’s Hospital was known as the best hospital.”

As an American young person, Zhao admits she is very lucky, particularly with the clean air she breathes in Oregon. It is incomparably better than the air of Beijing, which is practically a soup of pollution. She is also very gifted, especially because of her integrity, commitment to learning and desire to serve humanity. But her three weeks in Beijing showed her a kind of life she was totally unacquainted with.

The chance to serve as a volunteer in the children’s hospital had appealed to Zhao because her career goal is to become a doctor, like her mother, Jenny, and she was finding that the opportunities for someone only 15 years old were quite limited in the Portland area.

“I thought I had done as much here as I could,” Zhao said. “My dad (Wen) is an architect, and he had helped build many hospitals in Beijing, and I thought I could volunteer in one of them. They were a little shocked when I applied. They had never heard of a volunteer coming from the United States. But they were very accepting.

“What I saw there completely changed my perspective.”

On Zhao’s first day on the job she was asked to help in a room with no air conditioning where there were seven children suffering from heart disease and just one nurse to help them.

“The room was overwhelmed by screaming children,” Zhao said, “and every day there were more and more people flooding in. There were parents sleeping on newspapers inside the hospital. They barely had enough to help their children. Sometimes they became so frustrated with the doctors that they would physically assault them.”

The story of one family of farmers illustrates what Zhao experienced in Beijing. She helped one girl who was so thin and short that Zhao thought she was 6 or 7 years old. She was actually 13, and she had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis since she was 8 years old. Her family had spent 70,000 yuan ($11,439 U.S.) to bring her to Beijing Children’s Hospital. The previous hospitals visited by the family had no idea of how to help the girl.

“She could no longer go to school, go to the bathroom or tie a ribbon in her hair,” Zhao said.

But there was more. The mother of the family had just had surgery for a brain tumor that cost 40,000 yuan ($6,537 U.S.), which left her blind in her left eye and unable to work in the fields.

“This family had so much impact on me,” Zhao said. “I realized how incredibly lacking they were in shelter and privileges. I have no issues compared to them.

“But if they have any hope, they’ll never give up. I realized how much Chinese people loved their children and were so desperate to help them. They are so caring about their children and so dedicated to helping them.”

Zhao did not stand back from the chaos of sorrow. She helped in any way she could, even if it was only allowing a badly overworked nurse to take a break before returning to help 10 babies, all 2 years old or younger, in one room.

She made friends with all of the doctors and nurses she worked with. Instead of being the Ugly American, she was the Lovely American, who gave a most positive first impression to people incredibly eager to learn more about the USA.

One day Zhao got a bonus. She was given a bag of fresh cucumbers by a farm family whose son she had helped.

Already a focused person with high ambitions, Zhao’s summer in Beijing will forever be a landmark in her life.

“Every day I left the hospital I was really happy — especially when I got back here,” she said. “When I went to Legacy hospital, it was clean and so sterile. There were no screaming children, swarming people and the smell of sweat everywhere.”

The next couple of years will be a time of preparation and a lot of fun for Zhao as she prepares for a very bright future. She is a brilliant pianist, with a shelf covered with gold trophies from her many wins at competitions. She is a member of the Lakeridge varsity tennis team, and at 5-9 it is easy to imagine her gliding across the court to reach many shots.

Her service in Beijing solidified her already rock-solid ambition to become a doctor.

“I really want to become a doctor,” Zhao said. “After this summer, I want to donate a quarter of my expertise to hospitals like the one in Beijing.

“It sounds cheesy, but I really want to save people’s lives.”

Not cheesy. Inspiring.



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