Hepatitis stole 10 years of her life. Now Chinese patient has a third chance at a kidney transplant
- Sun Wenjuan has another chance after two failed kidney transplants and a court case against hospital over a hepatitis diagnosis set her health hopes back years
Sun Wenjuan was 19 when she was diagnosed with a renal disease and faced a condition that could have fatally poisoned her. By the time she was 20, she had had two kidney transplants – including one from her mother – and both failed.
Now in her mid-30s, she has survived against long odds and is eager to grab her third chance at life with both hands.
Clear of hepatitis B and C – undetected infections that set her battle for health back by a decade – Sun is today strong enough to face transplant surgery again.
Sun was 20 and close to death when she was first interviewed by the South China Morning Post in August 2003.
It was nine months after a first failed transplant and more than a year after she had been diagnosed with uraemia, a chronic kidney disease.
She was from a village in the small northern city of Zhangjiakou, Hebei province, and working as a guest house cleaner in Beijing. Like many migrant workers, she was not covered by medical insurance at the time and her family could not afford the dialysis fees, then about 4,500 yuan (US$650) a month, to treat her.
Her family sold everything they had – 80 goats and a television set – to pay for a second transplant when her mother offered a kidney and the Communist Party secretary of her village raised 40,000 yuan from neighbours and local businesses to ease the financial burden.
Guan Delin, a kidney transplant specialist at Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing, offered to operate on Sun. The donor kidney survived for five days before it had to be removed. Guan said the reasons for rejection were complex; other medical practitioners suggested that the medicines bought by Wenjuan’s impoverished family to prevent rejection may have been of poor quality and little use.
After the interview, readers of the Post donated HK$200,000 (US$25,500) for Sun’s treatment.
With hope once again ignited, she waited for a matching kidney while undergoing regular dialysis to treat her uraemia, where the kidneys fail and toxins enter the bloodstream.
In 2004, as Sun continued dialysis, she contracted hepatitis B and C but hospital officials did not tell her. She learned the truth from another doctor the following year.
That diagnosis meant she was taken off the transplant list but, with the help of a Beijing-based non-governmental organisation, the Beijing Social Work Development Centre for Facilitators, Sun began the lengthy and painful process of suing the hospital.
In 2007, the South China Morning Post raised HK$136,800 to help pay for dialysis.
It was only in 2012 that Beijing No 1 Intermediate People’s Court ruled that Zhongxing Hospital was partially responsible for her hepatitis infection and ruled that the hospital had to pay Wenjuan about 110,000 yuan.
Sun’s mother, Qiao Xianhua, said the hardest time was when the hepatitis diagnosis plunged her daughter into depression.
“When she was depressed, I was like a flattened balloon, but now she is getting better. At that time, we could not even cry before her, we can only weep for a while when she was not around,” Qiao said.
Her father, Sun Zhentai, said there was no thought of giving up on her.
“She is my daughter. No matter if she is healthy or sick, she is still my daughter. In the beginning, a kidney transplant cost more than 10,000 yuan. People told me you could buy another child with that money. I said I could not do it. She is my child, how could I replace her?” he said.
Sun faced one setback after another. In 2007, when she was returning home after she picked up 8,000 yuan from the Post’s Beijing office, which administered the donations by giving her dialysis fees each month, she got a phone call on the bus home that her grandmother had died.
To compound the grief, her dialysis fees were stolen by pickpockets that day. Sun wept as her father fainted on the bus.
It was only in 2016 that Wenjuan’s hepatitis C was successfully treated with generic drugs she acquired from underground vendors. Her hepatitis B was cured in 2008 after two years of medication. And her depression symptoms are controlled by medication.
Her recovery means that the possibility of another transplant has emerged after more than a decade of disappointments, tears, and perseverance.
In the past few years, after the donations from readers ran out, Post staff and their friends have supported Sun through dialysis, which now cost more than 8,000 yuan a month, as well as about 700 yuan a month for antidepressants.
That financial burden was eased in 2013 after the government introduced medical insurance for rural residents, which first covered 60 per cent and now covers 75 per cent of her dialysis costs.
Last month, Sun was tested and told by a doctor that her third chance had arrived and she could try for another transplant.
She has not yet sent her test results to hospitals in Beijing looking for a matching kidney. A transplant will cost between 500,000 and 550,000 yuan, while medication to prevent tissue rejection would cost about 50,000 yuan in the first year.
But after waiting for years, Sun is hoping she has a chance for a transplant.
After reading the report on Sun’s latest check-up in Beijing, Dr Ma Wai-kit, honorary clinical associate professor from Hong Kong University’s surgery department said: “Current results do not suggest any contraindication for renal transplant. All parameters are normal.”
Sun’s biggest wish now is that she will no longer have to rely on dialysis so that she can get a job to ease the financial burden on her parents.
“They are old now. My father’s health is particularly bad. I hope I can find a job after the transplant, then take over supporting the family. This is my biggest dream.”
Sun’s father is close to retirement age and he has to leave his job as a public toilet cleaner. For him, living in Beijing is difficult because he is illiterate.
“My wife can read, but I can’t even write my name. Wenjuan helps me to write. I cannot write and read. It’s so hard to make a living,” he said.
Over the years of hard work, he has developed diabetes and back problems.
Sun Zhentai said he wanted to see his daughter through a kidney transplant and back to health so that he could return to his home village.
“If the kidney transplant is successful, then my daughter will be able to find a job,” he said. “And I can go back to my hometown. If I cannot leave, then I will stay here with her. As long as there’s a single breath left in me, I will stay with her and care for her.”