From a tent, couple count their blessings and offer medical care

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 April, 2011, 12:00am

Medicine bottles sit in rows in a tent that serves as both a small pharmacy run by Dr Song Xiaobin and his wife, Wang Qijuan, in Yushu, and as their bedroom. It's been an unusual year, and the couple are counting their blessings.

'We know many people died in the earthquake, and we probably shouldn't say this,' Wang, 30, said late on Wednesday night. 'But we really feel very fortunate this night that we're alive. We almost didn't make it.'

Song, 28, his eyes glued to an online game he was playing, nodded slightly. 'This computer screen was smashed in the quake, too, and it's still working today,' he said.

Song and Wang grew up together in rural Xining, the capital of the western province, and once even shared a table in primary school. After graduation, Song passed his civil service examination and was sent to a hospital in Yushu. Life has not been easy for the two in the high-altitude town, but they slowly built a home and began raising a daughter.

Then the quake hit. Song still remembers a strange moment around midnight before April 14 last year. He was playing online games - the couple's favourite pastime after a day of stressful work - when he heard bottles pop and smelled medicine leaking. 'I had no idea what was happening back then,' Song said. 'Now I realise it was probably due to the change in air pressure before the quake.'

He found it hard to fall asleep that night. He finally nodded off but was awakened by a violent shake around 5.30am. Wang said she heard dogs barking in the neighbourhood and worried it was an earthquake. Song looked up at the ceiling, saw that it was intact, and fell right back to sleep.

Shortly after 7am, Wang got up, and just as she was getting dressed, the ground shook violently again and she was thrown from one side of the house onto a bed next to a window. The walls started caving in, and Song, still half asleep, immediately covered up their infant daughter out of instinct.

'The next thing we knew, the ceiling came down on us, but fortunately, it got stuck on a protruding window stand. It halted just inches away from my face,' Song said, indicating the distance with his thumb and index finger.

The three found a gap in the collapsed house and escaped onto the street, where they saw a street reduced to rubble. 'My daughter's head was covered in blood, and I was really worried that she was injured badly,' Wang said. Song asked his daughter to wink, and she did, leaving the couple much relieved.

The days after were not any easier.

They were told to find a spot at what used to be the town's racecourse along with other quake survivors, but it was a windy day, and there were no tents yet. For days they were covered in dust and had no proper food, only managing to scavenge some milk cartons from a damaged supermarket for their daughter.

When they finally returned home several days later to recover what they could with the help of soldiers, they discovered almost everything had been stolen, including Song's guitar from his university days.

'We managed to find an iron bowl in the end and asked for some hot food from the army,' Wang said. 'We really felt like beggars at the time.'

Meanwhile, Song had gone back to work at a hospital the day after the quake, worried about the large number of people needing treatment. There he was stunned to learn his name was on a list of the dead.

'My colleagues said they passed by my house, saw that it had collapsed and concluded that I was dead,' Song said, smiling at his wife.

As reconstruction began, the couple decided to reopen their pharmacy, while Song continues to work at the hospital. They decided to send their daughter back to Xining to live with her grandparents.

'Life is too difficult here. How can she live in a tent with us?' Wang said.

Their daughter hardly recognises them when they visit every few months. 'She calls me aunty,' Wang said. 'That hurts me a lot.'

Even though they have been in Yushu for six years, Wang says she still sometimes feels uncomfortable living among the Tibetans, who speak a different language and think in very different ways. On the other hand, Song, who can speak Tibetan almost fluently now, said the two had invested their lives in the area.

'We've wanted to leave many times, but haven't,' he said. 'I don't know why; perhaps it's because of the poor medical situation. When I first got here, I saw so many seriously ill Tibetan patients. They could have been so much better off if they had received medical care earlier.'

But maybe it's the warm feeling Song gets when some of his Tibetan former patients use the only Putonghua words they know when they see him. It's an unusual greeting perhaps, but it also expresses their appreciation of him and his work: 'Daifu, zaijian' (doctor, goodbye).