Volunteers rally to help girl from the grasslands

Volunteers bring 15-year-old ethnic Tibetan Geru Tsomao (third right), who lives in the remote grasslands of Yushu, Qinghai province, to the Plastic Surgery Hospital of Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing for cleft palate and lip surgeries in September. YANG FANG/ERIK NILSSON/CHINA DAILY

Trip to Beijing for surgeries transforms teenager's life

An ambulance chase. Fifty bags of coal. Belly dancing, head banging and face painting. And a new adoptive mom and dad-plus hundreds of friends and strangers, who would ultimately transform a young nomadic girl's life forever in ways beyond anticipation.

We didn't expect any of this when our volunteer initiative, which I founded in the Yushu quake zone on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in 2011, brought a second 15-year-old ethnic Tibetan girl from the "planet's third pole" to Beijing for surgery-this time, with the assistance of China Daily's Edgar Snow Newsroom, which made the seemingly impossible possible.

Geru Tsomao's father died when she was young. Her mother took the girl's sister to start a new family, abandoning Geru Tsomao, who had a severe cleft palate and lip, which severely impeded her speech and caused psychological problems. When she was very young, she underwent a botched surgery in Qinghai province, because conditions at the hospital were relatively poor.

After her mom left, Geru Tsomao was cared for by her elderly paternal grandparents, who are illiterate, unemployed and have chronic health problems.

Still, she has risen to become one of the top students in her class because she realizes that education arguably offers the brightest hope for a happy life.

Our volunteer initiative focuses on nomadic children's education because we also believe in the value of schooling. Over the past decade, we have installed solar panels in nearly all the schools in isolated Qumarleb county, Qinghai, which is several thousand square kilometers larger than Switzerland, and have provided computer labs, libraries, projectors, coal, clothes, food, medicine and even yaks.

Since the government has brought unimaginably rapid development to the previously desperately impoverished region in Yushu, Qinghai, we have shifted focus toward providing full university scholarships, prosthetics, wheelchairs and surgeries for nomadic children.

Volunteers bring 15-year-old ethnic Tibetan Geru Tsomao, who lives in the remote grasslands of Yushu, Qinghai province, to the Plastic Surgery Hospital of Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing for cleft palate and lip surgeries in September. YANG FANG/ERIK NILSSON/CHINA DAILY

Tricky timing

The Plastic Surgery Hospital of Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing is the only one in the country capable of performing the specialized treatment Geru Tsomao required, as her condition was particularly severe.

We planned for more than two years on providing surgery, but had to keep postponing it because of COVID-19, until a break in these outbreaks and support from the Edgar Snow Newsroom meant we had to abruptly shift from waiting to rushing.

The hospital's Cleft Lip and Palate Center's deputy director, Song Tao, expedited the bookings for Geru Tsomao's treatments, as the patient lived so far from Beijing.

The girl, who had previously scarcely left the no-man's land that is nomads' land, arrived in the seething sea of people who whoosh among, up and down the high-rises and skyscrapers of one of the world's most kinetic cities.

As we drove from the airport, I watched the central business district's lights reflected in her eyes.

After she returned to Qumarleb, Geru Tsomao told me:"I was shocked to see those tall buildings. Beijing is very, very huge. I saw lots of things I'd never seen before. I thought one of my dreams had already come true."

In the capital, we took her and Tseringben, a teacher in Qumarleb who has been our partner in Qinghai since Day One, to the Lama Temple-one of Tibetan Buddhism's most important holy places in the world-to pray for the forthcoming surgery. They pair lit incense sticks and watched as the twisting smoke carried their prayers toward heaven.

It seems like heaven was listening.

Not only would their prayers be answered but so, too, would those they hadn't dreamed of-namely, that Geru Tsomao would soon, unexpectedly, get the parents she'd never had.

After visiting the temple, we took her to eat Tex-Mex, as she had never even heard of, let alone tasted, this cuisine. She would be on a liquid diet for weeks following the surgery.

On the way to the surgery the next morning, Tseringben fidgeted anxiously in the back of the car while she snoozed.

"I brought her to Beijing," Tseringben said.

"Geru Tsomao, her grandparents, her teachers, her classmates, the education authorities, the volunteers-everyone-they've all put their trust in me that everything will go OK. So, I feel nervous. I feel responsible."

Geru Tsomao said, "I never thought about life after the surgery."

We spent the morning lining up for a series of tests. We later found Geru Tsomao asleep again in her room, her face covered by a Harry Potter book my 10-year-old daughter had given her, along with other gifts from our family, in case she became bored during her hospital stay.

Then, word came it was time for the surgery.

Volunteers bring 15-year-old ethnic Tibetan Geru Tsomao, who lives in the remote grasslands of Yushu, Qinghai province, to the Plastic Surgery Hospital of Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing for cleft palate and lip surgeries in September. YANG FANG/ERIK NILSSON/CHINA DAILY

Ambulance chase

It had been a day-following days and ultimately years-of "hurry up and wait". It was, again, time to hurry. Now.

We followed as they moved her downstairs-and, to our surprise, out of the building. She was, to our greater shock, put in an ambulance with Tseringben. The driver said the rest of us were not allowed in. He drove off.

We had no idea where she was going. We feared we'd lose her.

So, we sprinted after the vehicle as it twisted and turned through the massive compound.

My heart felt as if it was jabbing the backs of my eyes like punching bags as I ran. And my shins felt like splintered branches for days afterward. I spent the next day tottering around like a just-born giraffe.

Finally, we caught up to her, and Geru Tsomao was admitted to the surgery room. There was nothing we could do but go home.

Her classmates sent a video of them chanting best wishes. Tseringben called a lama in Qinghai to light a yak-butter lamp for blessings. I intently soaked in the sunset-a practice I developed after 15 journeys through the Wenchuan quake zone, totaling eight months.

I was supposed to be near the epicenter on May 12, 2008, the day the 8.1-magnitude tremor shattered Sichuan province, leaving 90,000 dead or missing, but I ended up not going because of a scheduling change.

Following the disaster, which I survived by fluke and which motivated me to start the volunteer initiative in Yushu, I've watched the sunset whenever I can, contemplating life's impermanence and sublimity.

Just hours before, I was chasing an ambulance. Now, my feelings were catching up to me.

I've often had nightmares of being buried alive since spending so much time in the quake zone. My dentist recently pointed out my teeth are damaged from grinding them in my sleep. But that night-for the first time-I clawed myself free from the rubble and stood on top of it before I woke up.

Geru Tsomao rides a carousel during a trip to an amusement park in Beijing with her adoptive parents, who she met by chance during her visit to the city for medical treatment. [Photo provided to China Daily]

An unexpected family

A few days later, Geru Tsomao's real-life dream came true when she was adopted as the gan child (the Chinese version of a godchild) by a husband and wife, who have long volunteered with our group.

They had agreed to financially support her education, including university. As they got to know her, they came to truly love her.

"We didn't have a child. She didn't have parents," said her adoptive mother, Chen, who prefers to use only her surname because she wishes "to remain low-key".

"So, together, we've become a family. We're so happy to have a daughter."

Geru Tsomao said:"I didn't have a family when I arrived in Beijing. I never imagined I'd meet my gan parents here. They really treat me like their own daughter. I'm so lucky to have them."

One thing I'd wondered is how she felt, since the fact she didn't have a mom or dad kept coming up in her presence while we underwent hospital protocols. Her grandparents were too old and ill to travel to Beijing. So, Tseringben served as Geru Tsomao's legal guardian until an Edgar Snow Newsroom member took over the responsibility.

Days later, Tseringben sent me a seemingly random video of a couple of Tibetan men lobbing dozens of sacks that clacked with coal. He later explained that Chen and her husband had bought 50 bags of the fuel for Geru Tsomao's grandparents, as it snows all but six weeks a year on the tundra.

The couple helped take care of her after Tseringben had to return to Qumarleb for work, since the girl had to stay for an unexpected follow-up surgery.

They took her to their rural courtyard, an amusement park, the main Olympic stadiums and the Forbidden City.

Chen helped Geru Tsomao keep up with her classes online while in Beijing, and has sent extra lessons and designed quizzes for her since she has returned to Qumarleb.

"I hope she doesn't hate me for that," Chen joked.

I took Geru Tsomao to the Great Wall and Beijing Zoo, where she filmed every animal because she had never seen or heard of almost any of them.

She was enraptured when I explained why parrots are called "echo birds" in Chinese and showed her videos of the brilliantly colored creatures imitating human speech as we stood in front of their enclosures. She had no idea such things existed-or could.

Other friends took her to a classical music performance at the National Center for the Performing Arts and to a wax museum.

"I never thought I'd realize my dreams of visiting the Forbidden City and Great Wall," Geru Tsomao said.

"I don't have words for how I felt when I saw them. I'll never forget it."

15-year-old ethnic Tibetan Geru Tsomao (Center). [Photo provided to China Daily]

Sharing her smile

Before she left, a British member of the Newsroom, who'd been fundraising for Geru Tsomao's expenses, co-organized a live music event at Beijing's Joy Land bar. All 60 tickets sold out.

I had expected acoustic guitars, keyboards and cover tunes. But I didn't expect a belly dancer, cello, head banging and-after the revelry moved to a nightclub-pole dancing and face paint. I also didn't expect Joy Land's bartender to donate several hundred yuan and serve free shots, or for the American owner to volunteer to run a marathon for Geru Tsomao.

Indeed, the booze and goodwill flowed freely.

At one point, I looked back at the crowd of people from around the country and world who had come together for a Tibetan girl they'd never met.

Geru Tsomao wasn't there. But we were all sharing her smile.

"I'm grateful to all the people who've worked so hard to make this happen to change my life," she said. "My classmates and relatives say I speak more clearly now. I'll study hard and remember these people forever."

She must return to Beijing for the next round of surgery after six months and will also have to undergo up to 200 sessions of speech therapy.

We were able to save a significant amount of money, as the hospital-to our surprise-provided substantial discounts. China Daily arranged for Geru Tsomao to stay in an apartment on the news group's compound, and its canteen provided her food, including specially prepared liquid meals. China Daily's Communist Youth League is fundraising for her subsequent trips and treatments.

The girl from the grasslands may even move to the capital to complete her education while finding her voice in new ways through rehabilitation, confidence and life experience.

But one way or another, this teen, who'd been abandoned or ignored for much of her life, will return to the city and a large community who cares for her-and to face the world and speak her truth in new ways.

Who knows how far her future journeys to Beijing and beyond may take her-and how many people will share her smile?

I know I will. And I won't be alone.