Seventeen years ago, Song Xuewen graduated from a technical school and had just started his career as a pipeline repairman at a chemical factory in Jilin province. It was an enviable job. But Song's plans took a devastating turn upon his arrival at work one day when a seemingly innocent find resulted in severe radiation poisoning that left him crippled for life. But that hasn't stopped the 35-year-old from finding love, carrying on with life and providing a public service that otherwise wouldn't be there.
How did the accident happen?
The nightmare began on January 5, 1996. I was heading in to work when I spotted a small chain on the ground. It looked like a silver chain for a pager. I asked around, but no one claimed it, and I put it in my right pants pocket.
After half an hour, I started to feel dizzy. I thought it was caused by food poisoning or a bad cold, so I took a nap in the lounge of the office building, but started to vomit upon waking up. At about 11am, I got permission from my supervisor to leave, and I returned to my dormitory.
Everything deteriorated fast, and I was vomiting every three minutes after I got back to my room. My legs were trembling uncontrollably. I felt so sick and powerless that at about 6pm, I crawled down the stairs to seek help. My supervisor and colleagues arrived and tried to get me up. My supervisor seemed to realise something and asked whether I had found anything in the factory, such as a small chain or ball. I said 'yes', and he ordered all my colleagues out, saying there might be a radioactive item that the research department had lost. [It was an iridium-192 isotope used in industrial radiography, often to take X-rays of metal objects.]
How did the treatment go?
None of the local hospitals could treat radiation poisoning, so I was quickly transferred to a Beijing hospital affiliated with a nuclear emergency response centre. I was in an extremely dangerous condition- I couldn't straighten my right leg, and it was growing blisters as big as a fist. My count of white blood cells dropped sharply- dipping as low as about 400 units [per microlitre], whereas the normal level should be about 10,000 units.
Over the next three years, I underwent seven major operations and received more than 500 stitches. Both of my legs were amputated and my left hand was amputated at the wrist. My right hand lost functionality as its five fingers were partly amputated. In 2009 the rest of my right middle finger was amputated because of pathological changes. So now I have just one hand with four half-fingers. After being discharged from hospital in the autumn of 1998, my parents and younger sister took care of me. It was a tough time for my family- the only son suddenly becoming disabled, losing both legs and having his hand amputated. My father was overwhelmed with grief, and my mother suffered high blood pressure. We are a rural family, and the tragedy was devastating for us.
The only positive thing that happened that year was that I met my wife on a cold night when I dialled a random number. I did not expect anyone to pick up the phone, but she did, and we talked, met and then fell in love.
Did you get any compensation?
I didn't receive any compensation after leaving the hospital, because the company required me to submit a final report of my treatment cost.
However, they didn't know that treatment for radiation poisoning would never end, as radiation-induced damage was a long-term risk. So after a long argument, I decided to petition the local government, and then in Beijing, I visited various relevant departments at different levels, but could not resolve the problems.
With no other options, I decided to sue the company. I picked up a local newspaper and singled out a lawyer from the top-10-lawyers list.
The outcome of the lawsuit was ridiculous. There was no clause concerning payouts for radiation injuries, so I was compensated in the name of a traffic accident, getting about 400,000 yuan (HK$489,000).
However, I had little left after paying the lawyer, treatment fees and loans borrowed during my days petitioning.
How was your life after that?
We moved to the city of Jilin in 2000. I was very self-contemptuous, feeling useless and always hiding at home.
My wife spent more than 7,000 yuan to buy me a computer. It was a huge sum at the time, but she hoped I could do something rather than just sitting at home. Encouraged by her, I started to write down my ordeal, hoping to help others overcome difficulties.
My writings resulted in a book that was published in 2004, and after that I started to receive interview requests and also some financial support from the public.
In May 2008, on a visit to my parents in our hometown (Ailin village in Jiaohe city), my wife and I found many preschool children playing without child minders, which worried my wife, who used to be a preschool teacher.
We came up with the idea of setting up a kindergarten in the village that could support our lives and help the villagers as well.
Our efforts resulted in Sunshine Kindergarten two months later, operating out of a small rented two-storey building. Half of the children's parents are away, working in cities. Last year, more than 100 children studied in our kindergarten. We recruited teachers from professional children's schools, and also rented two minibuses as school buses.
However, late last year, I received a warning from the government that said only 70 children were allowed in kindergartens of our size. So, if I wanted to keep all the pupils, I needed to upgrade the size and facilities of the place by September. Since then, I have been negotiating with the village authorities and education department.
Which would you say is more difficult: enduring radiation poisoning or running a kindergarten?
I would say running a kindergarten. I need to raise about 200,000 yuan. One bank requires me to provide a fingerprint from the right hand to apply for a loan, but I don't even have a fingerprint. I call them every day, but I still get no replies. Why is it so difficult to achieve such a small thing? It's a heavy responsibility, knowing that more than 100 children are waiting for you.