In Beijing we are staying with Wei and Karin. Wei, a pediatric surgeon, planned to visit an orphanage and I was keen to accompany him. The book I am writing, currently called Not Forgotten, is the life story of a woman who was in an orphanage in Australia from 2-10 years old, so I have developed an interest in orphanages and how they operate.
Even though Wei told me that the children we would meet were the most severely handicapped, I still had a naive view that we would be seeing some cute, chubby faced adorable Chinese babies who would be smiling and gurgling at me, but that was not to be.
When we arrived at China Little Flower Orphanage we were greeted by Lily, the administrator, and asked to put coverings over our shoes, masks on our faces and to thoroughly wash our hands. This was the first indication of how unwell these children were.
The orphanage is in a residential house which has been adapted for the purpose, and use of the house has been donated by a Taiwanese couple for five years. China Little Flower has been operating from there for four years and Lily fervently hopes that they will be able to continue operating from the home in the future. About 30 children are housed at the orphanage, most of whom are under the age of 2 years. There is a team of 60 dedicated nannies who provide constant care for the children.
We were first led into the children’s playroom and communal area which was empty. We were told it was because the toddlers were sleeping, however it became apparent that few children in the home were well enough to enjoy the playroom. In the adjacent room most of the toddlers were sleeping or lying quietly in their cots as we peeked in the door. Upstairs was another five rooms with babies.
Here’s how Wei described the babies conditions “these children suffer from extremely challenging diseases, premature babies of 1.2 kg in weight, a baby with retinoblastoma (eye cancer), a terminal brain cancer girl, the battler baby who lost 3/4 of his small bowel to necrotising enterocolitis and relies on a milk pump for continuous nutrition (see photo), spina bifida, cleft palate and lip and a congenital heart disease child who refused to die after a few cardiac arrests. China Little Flower raises money and gets them treated. I operated on some of these children, supported by my hospital charity foundation (United Family Hospital Foundation), the last one being a Kasai’s operation for a baby with biliary atresia, i.e. blocked bile duct.” The orphanage really is a medical care ward.
In one room a baby was isolated due to suspected measles, he had a nanny with him who will stay by his side until he recovers. While children are vaccinated against measles in China, the records the orphanage has for the children are sometimes incomplete and many of the children would be unable to tolerate vaccinations. It was a chilling reminder that measles is a killer and the staff were highly vigilant in ensuring there was no contamination.
This visit was heartbreakingly sad, the children are very ill and most were subdued, however it was clear that China Little Flower endeavours to facilitate the best possible medical intervention for them in very difficult circumstances. When a child is hospitalised one of the nannies stays with the baby.
Lily was an amazing young women, she talked knowledgeably about each of the children, could recount their conditions, medical history and the interventions that had been implemented. Wei was impressed by her competence and I assumed she was a trained medical professional however she has had limited training. Lily wants to study to be a Physician’s Assistant in the USA so that she is better able to look after the babies. She is passionate about caring for these vulnerable young children and I was humbled at her ongoing commitment to work in such a challenging role.
There were nannies with the children in every room, cuddling, feeding and changing the babies. The facility was immaculately clean, calm and appeared very well organised.
Wei tells me that “this orphanage was started by my American colleague Brent Johnson and his wife, Serena, many years ago and takes in the most severely handicapped children, abandoned by their parents from all over China. The Johnsons do not draw any wage”.
Most of the children will be adopted, either domestically or internationally once their medical conditions have been stabilised. Where children have been abandoned due to the parents’ inability to afford medical care China Little Flower will assist to reunite the families.
I suspect that this day in China will be the one that is most indelibly printed on my mind and heart.
P.S. To my children (who I hope read this blog): Mother’s Day is coming up, and if you are wondering what gift would make me happy, consider donating to China Little Flower, we did. xxxx