The Compassion of Dr. Gao

Revolutionary Worker #1116, August 26, 2001, posted at

Gao Yaojie is a 76-year-old retired doctor. She takes medicine, brochures, and sweet cakes when she goes out to the remote rural areas of Henan Province in China, where many poor peasants are dying of AIDS. In the face of ignorance and prejudice, she tries to educate people about AIDS. But her painkillers and cough syrup only ease the suffering of those dying of AIDS.

Many small towns in central China have been hit by some of the highest infection rates of HIV in the world. For years, many poor farmers in this area sold their blood to "blood pimps" with unsterile needles, spreading the HIV virus that causes AIDS. But Chinese officials have, by and large, denied that AIDS is a major problem here. Journalists and researchers have been censored. And sometimes, when Dr. Gao goes to the villages, she is kicked out.

Dr. Gao used to be one of the leading gynecologists in the province. Then in 1996, after she had already retired, a younger doctor came to consult with her about a woman whose illness seemed mysterious. When Dr. Gao discovered that the woman had AIDS, this was the first official case of the disease in the province.

Now, using her pension money, Dr. Gao is waging a lone campaign to educate people about AIDS and help those suffering from the disease. She prints up educational leaflets, conducts simple surveys and answers thousands of letters from teachers, patients needing money, and other doctors wanting information. But with no support from the government, little money, and her own limited knowledge, Dr. Gaoís efforts are not that effective in the face of this huge problem.

Dr. Gao told a reporter for the New York Times, "No hospitals here take these patients. Their families turn them out. Thereís no option--just to die. Many people think AIDS is a bad disease, so they donít talk about it and donít admit they have it" (Elisabeth Rosenthal, 10/28/00). According to Dr. Gao, some people donít know anything about how the disease is spread and they continue to sell their blood, even after seeing many other people in the village die of AIDS. Some think that they wonít get sick if they just eat right and dress warmly.

Dr. Gao says, "Big officials tell small officials to deny itís here, and so people donít get help." The local press doesnít print articles about the problem--officials fear if word gets out about the epidemic it will reflect badly on their work and interfere with plans for business development. Dr. Gao says officials have threatened her.

"Even my friends donít understand me," Dr. Gao says. "They think I should enjoy my retirement. But people are dying. And this is something that can be totally stopped."

On one trip to the countryside, Dr. Gao visited a mother and son, both near death. The mother, Wu Long, who had sold her blood many times, had a painful rash that covered her body. She couldnít eat because of the sores in her mouth. Wei Wei, her two-year-old son, had been sick since birth with fevers, vomiting and diarrhea. The father had tried to commit suicide when he learned the child had AIDS.

To people like this Dr. Gao seems like a savior, even though she cannot prevent them from dying. Her compassion, small gifts, medicine and knowledge are in sharp contrast to Chinaís capitalist government that seems to care nothing about their suffering. Perhaps, for some people, Dr. Gao is a reminder of when China was socialist and there was mass, affordable health care. Cheng Yan, a man who had AIDS, wrote to Dr. Gao before he died. He thanked her for taking care of him and said, "It must be Chairman Mao who sent you here."

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