One night, when I was 13, I woke up in what looked like a hospital room. My two cousins were at my bedside, talking in a hashed voice.
I opened my mouth to ask where I was, but nothing came out, and I felt my face was burning with pain. I tried to sit up, but realized my hands were tied down to the bed rail.
My cousins gave a long sigh with relief when they saw I opened my eyes. "You are in the hospital," they told me. "Don't try to talk or try to move. You fell on the street and hurt your leg. It's not bad. You'll recover in a few days."
Hearing that, I kind of felt happy. Being sick and spending nights in a hospital was almost a treat for us kids. All the grownups would fuss over you, and bring you all kinds of treats like it was Chinese New Year. I secretly hoped I could stay in the hospital longer than just a few days.
I had no memory of the accident. The last thing I remembered prior to the accident was leaving the house in the afternoon. I learned what happened a long while later, in bits and pieces from different people and from the newspaper reports.
In that fateful afternoon, a public bus jam packed with passengers was traveling on one of the busy streets in Beijing. One of our neighbors happened to be on that bus. She recalled later that the bus suddenly jolted on something and came to a full stop. There was a ghostly scream that sounded like an animal being slaughtered. It became quiet in the bus for 2 or 3 seconds, then the passengers fought futilely to get to the windows, and see what happened. The bus was so packed, no one could move an inch. Our neighbor couldn't see anything.
The young driver, white as paper, holding his head in his hands, shaking. He must have been too shocked to think about getting off the bus and checking on the wounded.
A crowd quickly formed a circle surrounding me. They saw my left thigh was smashed and there were bone pieces all over the ground. People told me later that, days later, they could still see tiny bone pieces on the ground of the accident site.
At the time in China, telephones were a rarity. No private citizens owned a phone. There was not a 911 type of emergency phone service at all.
The street was crowded with buses, bicycles, and pedestrians. A bus would not be able to cut through the traffic to get me to the hospital, and a bicycle would not be able to carry me. As the crowd were murmuring they hoped a car could magically appear, a soldier was driving by on a motorcycle. He stopped immediately. The crowd stepped back to give him a path to get to me. Then the crowd quickly closed in to form a circle again. The soldier took off his green army overcoat and gently wrapped it around me. There was a red star on each collar of the overcoat, as well as on his green army uniform. He picked me up and asked the crowd to step back again to open a path to let him through. He gently situated me in the sidecar of his motorcycle and sped away.
When we arrived at the hospital, the soldier's coat, the motorcycle, and himself were soaked in blood. The red stars on the collars of his coat and uniform had disappeared into the blood.
As the doctors and nurses rushed to get me to the emergency operating room, the soldier quietly left. Up still this day I never met and don't even know the name of the soldier who laterally saved my life.
Mom was getting worried at home. Dad was still imprisoned in cowshed. It was getting dark and I was still not home. My brother came home from visiting friends, and said he heard there was a serious accident, where a bus ran over a little girl. Mom told herself that couldn't be her daughter. Just couldn’t be.
Then the police knocked on our front gate.
On their way to the hospital, the police told Mom that the doctors asked them to inform the family to prepare for burial. I had lost the last drop my blood. They just didn't see how I could survive.
When I finally came to, the doctors said I must have had super vitality to pull myself through this kind of physical trauma.
The doctors later told Mom, that on that day, even though I had extremely bad luck, I was also extremely blessed.
First of all, I didn't appear to have sustained permanent brain damage.
Secondly, I lost all my blood, and the doctors couldn't find any blood vessels to transfuse blood. They cut open my wrists and my right ankle to locate blood vessels, to no avail. Eventually, the doctors poked around the open wounds on my left thigh to find blood vessels. Because it was so urgent to transfuse blood into my body, the regular method of transfusing blood would be way too slow for it to work. So they injected the blood directly into the vessels with a syringe. There was a huge risk of infection as the blood was not being filtered and satirized properly. And, even if I didn't get infected, my body might not take so much foreign blood all at once. But against all odds, my body accepted all the new blood without any infection.
A third reason I was blessed was the soldier who took me to the hospital. He must have been knowledgeable about hospitals and medicine, as he took me to the hospital that had the best orthopedics doctors in the country, rather than the hospitals nearby. My left thigh had comminuted fractures, and my thigh bone was smashed into countless small pieces. It was impossible to save the leg, but one crucial detail in amputating my leg would determine if I could walk independently again without crutches. When the doctors amputated the leg, they saved as much thigh bone as possible by skin grafting. They took patches of skin from the upper thigh of my right leg and put them over the wound on what's left of my left thigh. A green doctor might have amputated my leg from my hip down, in which case it would have been extremely difficult to fit a prosthetic leg for me, if possible at all. I would have been unable to walk without crutches, or may have had to sit in a wheelchair to get around.
I asked Mom why my wrists were tied to the bed rail. Mom said it was because of the open wounds on my face. The doctors did not want me scratch my face when the wounds started to heal, in order to avoid scars forming. The real reason to tie down my hands, I learned later, was that Mom wanted me to recover and become stronger before telling me my left leg was no more.
In the hospital bed, I didn't feel the missing of my left leg. Rather, I felt my left leg was tightly wrapped in thick bandages. I later would learn that the feeling was called a phantom limb. The nerve ends in my stump gave me the sensation that my leg was there. The tight bandages were actually wrapped around my stump, but I felt it was my leg that was wrapped by bandages. The phantom limb never went away. I still feel it today.
When nurses came to change my bandages, they would drop a piece of drape at around my whist, so I couldn't see below my whist. They told me that they didn't want me to see my open wounds.
As the wounds on my stump started to heal, it started to itch, but I felt it was my ankle itch. One day I asked Mom to scratch my ankle for me. Mom reached under the bed cover and tried to scratch my stump. I told Mom no it was my ankle that was itchy. I still think about that. It must have felt like a cruel joke to Mom.
After a few weeks, I started to feel stronger and was able to sit up a little. One day I asked the nurse to please loosen the ties on my wrist a little as they were hurting from the constant tie. The good hearted nurse loosened it for me. After a while, I found I could pull my hand out of the ties. So I did.
I reached under the bed cover. It happened like in slow motion. I couldn't understand why my hands could not find my left leg. Then I touched my stump. I wrapped my stump in my hands. I hesitated to slide my hands downwards. I slit my hands downwards, and there was nothing to grab.
My heart sank. My immediate thought was that, I would never be an Olympic swimmer. Other than that, my mind was strangely calm, almost numb. My eyes were dry. It was almost as though someone else was in the bed and I was watching her.
I couldn’t really comprehend what’s happening. It must be some kind of illusion. I couldn’t make myself to look under the cover. Not just yet. As though if I didn’t see it, it couldn’t be true.
One thing I did know for sure was to not make Mom sad.
That night when Mom came to the hospital after work, she brought me a small bag of sesame candy. Mom always brought me something good when she came, but I wasn't allowed to touch them until after dinner.
"What did you do today?" Mom asked me with a bright smile. I cheerfully said: "Mommy, I knew my left leg was lost in the accident." For a second, I saw a faint panic on Mom's beautiful face. "I'm OK mommy," I said more cheerfully. "You don't need to worry about me. I'm strong." I hoped Mom would sigh a relief hearing this, bud she didn’t. She said with what looked like a forced smile: "You are so brave. I knew I had a strong daughter." When a nurse came in with my dinner, Mom left the room quietly.
After I gave birth to my daughter Anna, I often sat and stared at her innocent face for hours while she slept, and I would wonder how cruel it must have been for Mom and Dad, and how brave they were.
During my hospital stay, a 10 year old girl named Tianxin was admitted to the hospital for surgery. Tianxin was born with a slightly irregular hip. She had a tiniest limp which was almost imperceptible through naked eyes. She was perfect in every other way, stunningly beautiful, smart, sweet, polite, everything you would want in a child. Tianxin stayed in the room next to mine, and she came to my room to play together everyday. Everyone thought the surgery was so unnecessary, and couldn't see the point to put this precious little girl under the surgery knife. But her mother insisted on it. She said she wanted her daughter to become an actress and this 'imperfection' would ruin her chances. The doctors warned her that, however unlikely, there was always a risk that something goes wrong in the surgery, as in all surgeries. Tianxin's mom persisted.
After the surgery, Tianxin developed acute leukemia from blood transfusion. As the little angel dying in her hospital bed, her mom would come to my bed and held my hand, repeatedly murmuring to me, a 13-year old: "My Tianxin is dying. You are her friend, please help her. Why aren't you treating her."
Tianxin hang on for 2 months but nothing could save her.
This incident highlighted the wonder of me surviving. With blood directly shot into my vessels with a syringe, an infection was almost unavoidable. Tianxin's blood transfusion was done under the utmost strict process. She should have been alive, with a perfect hip.
When I healed well enough to get out of the bed, the nurse brought me a pair of crutches. I tried them for a day, then tossed them aside as I thought it'd be easier to get around just hoping. I hopped everywhere. Upstairs, downstairs, carrying food, playing with other kids staying in the same hospital. I even somewhat felt a little 'cool' when I hang out with the other kids, as in, with an eye patch, I would be a pirate! None of the other kids could claim the same. I made a lot of friends and never felt sad. It was almost like my leg would grow back once I totally recover. I didn't have the sense of permanency.
Then one day, I was playing, with my friends, a game to name things that were in pairs with symmetry. When it was my turn, I blurted out: "knees". As I was saying that, I looked down to point at my knees. And there it was, only one knee. For some reason this seemingly insignificant occasion had a big impact on me. At that moment it really sank in that I had only one leg now, forever.
Over the years, I often wonder if it was a Freudian slip.
Traditionally in China, a disabled person was considered useless. The Chinese words for 'disabled' literally mean 'damaged and useless', as in something to be discarded. It was taken for granted that the disabled were not employable and not marriageable.
Mom and Dad of course did not consider me useless, but they did brace themselves for the outlook that I might have to be provided throughout my whole life, and I might die an old maid.