Long road to rehabilitation for Wenchuan quake survivors

by Xinhua writers Wu Chen, Wang Ruoyao and Hai Mingwei

CHENGDU, May 7 (Xinhua) -- In a rehabilitation center in the city of Deyang in southwest China's Sichuan Province, Li Xiaoqun is exercising on a stationary bike. It's hard to tell at first sight that her right leg is artificial.

Li, 42, is among the 5,756 people who were disabled by the 8.0-magnitude 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.

She has been receiving free "one-stop multidisciplinary rehabilitation services," including surgery, artificial limb installation, rehabilitation training and psychological consultation, from a center operated by the China Rehab Project and co-funded by the Hong Kong Red Cross and the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.

The center cost 68 million yuan (about 10.5 million U.S. dollars), according to Phillip Chan, the China Rehab Project Director of the Hong Kong Red Cross.

The China Rehab Project, currently co-run by the Hong Kong Red Cross and the Deyang Disabled Persons' Federation, will continue until 2013, at which time the center will be handed over to local management.

Chan said that as of the end of March this year, the center has provided services to 1,377 people disabled by the quake. Most of them come from Deyang or other nearby cities. For those who live in rural areas of these cities, the center also provides free accommodation and covers their transportation expenses.

The center has allowed 2,000 people to receive physical and occupational training, 1,178 people and their families to receive psychological consultation and 434 people to receive support to return to their families and communities.

Detailed training and assistance are provided, which allows disabled people to "re-learn" the things they used to do every day and become reintegrated into their communities. The center also provides home modifications and assistive devices and equipment for disabled people.

The center is not the only one of its kind in Sichuan. More than 20 rehabilitation centers have been built or are still under construction since the quake occurred.

Professor Ho Kam-Wah, a senior orthopaedic expert from Hong Kong, joined the "Stand TALL" Program, initiated by the Chinese Speaking Orthopaedic Society, to establish an artificial limb center in the Sichuan Provincial People's Hospital in October 2008.

The center has created and installed artificial limbs for more than 300 disabled people, most of them students. The students can receive further rehabilitation services at a school in the city of Dujiangyan, a one-hour drive from the provincial capital of Chengdu.

Gao Xiaoqin, 16, has been practicing walking with crutches at the center under the guidance of senior physiotherapist Joy Phang.

Although Gao has already recovered from a pelvis fracture sustained during the earthquake, her left leg is subsequently shorter than her right.

"I didn't think I needed crutches at first, as I considered my situation to be different from those who had amputations. I didn't want to be laughed at by my classmates," Gao said.

Phang told Gao that continuing to walk without crutches could cause permanent damage to her legs and spine, which convinced Gao to give them a try. Phang also designed a pair of special insoles to help Gao balance her stride.

"They help reduce the pain when I walk, which is more important to me than just looking good," Gao said.

Some of the students have to "swap out" their artificial limbs every six months because they're still growing, according to Ho.

Ho's team has also helped train local orthopaedic doctors for the Sichuan Hong Kong Rehabilitation Center under the People's Hospital.

"It may take another two years for the Sichuan Hong Kong Rehabilitation Center to finish the training, at which time we will hand our work over to local experts," Ho said, adding that their local counterparts are very qualified.

The Sichuan Provincial Disabled Persons' Federation has also helped 304 people to acquire artificial limbs and will provide free maintenance services for the limbs in the future. The federation has created a support system for disabled people in Sichuan, providing life training programs for them and their children.

It can be quite difficult for disabled people to regain employment, and the situation is no different for the survivors of the Wenchuan earthquake. However, Li is quite satisfied with what she has achieved so far.

"Now I can do almost all of the housework myself, so my husband can go to work in Chengdu without worrying about me," said Li, who is from the town of Yingxiu, located near the epicenter of the quake.

Li hopes she can find a job as soon as possible, since the project that provides her with her therapy and training will end in two years.

Finding money to run the project center is a big question for Ma Jun, director of the Deyang Disabled Persons' Federation.

Ma said the federation has been looking for new donors and hopes the government will be supportive.

"The Hong Kong side has set a rather high standard and we have to make great efforts to sustain that after taking over the center," he said.

The Deyang government will invest 40 million yuan to build a 12,000-square-meter rehabilitation center this year. The new center will provide rehabilitation, skill training, caretakers and job placement services for disabled people in Deyang, according to Ma.

"The ultimate goal of rehabilitation is to help disabled people return to society," he said.

Editor: An