Black lung disease patient struggles to support family at cost of own health

By Agencies - Global Times Source:Global Times Published: 2018/8/10 0:03:42

Zhang Haichao shows an X-ray film of his lungs in 2009. Photo: VCG

Zhang Haichao, 37, works for his lungs.

Every day Zhang, now a bus driver in Xinmi, Central China's Henan Province, gets up at 6 am to start his shift. He usually works more than 12 hours, which brings him about 200 yuan ($29) per day. The money is used for maintaining the normal functioning of his lungs, which were transplanted five years ago.

Before becoming a bus driver, he was well-known all over the country as the first person who let a surgeon open up his chest to prove that he had contracted black lung disease on the job to get legal compensation. The fireproof brick factory where he worked as a processor denied that he had the disease.

Zhang was eventually compensated 1.2 million yuan. Nine years after his chest surgery, the money has run out due to the cost of the lung transplant and expensive medicines. He needs to take 13 pills that cost more than 200 yuan every day. Otherwise, he will die of respiratory failure.

"I use the money to prolong my life," he told the Beijing News. But ironically this money was earned at the cost of life.

Get on the bus

Zhang usually spends 10 minutes at home to prepare for a whole day's work. After arriving at the bus station, he spends one minute to eat his breakfast.

He drives one of the busiest bus routes in the city, which traverses villages, farmers' markets, a shopping mall and a hospital.

In fact, Zhang's health condition doesn't allow him to do this job. After the lung transplant, doctors warned that he shouldn't go to crowded areas, because it will put his life in danger.

Zhang has a mask handy in the bus. During smog and tree pollen seasons, he wears it. He coughs all the time.

Zhang's mother had a stroke in 2013, which cost him 100,000 yuan in hospital fees. After that, he borrowed 200,000 yuan, and combined it with his remaining savings to buy his bus. 

At the end of 2015, his bus was changed from gas-powered to electricity to save gas fees. But the transformation needed money. A friend suggested he tell the bank he has black lung disease to get a break on the fee and services. The bank said they would consider it but later turned down his loan request.

He then had no choice but to use his friend's name to get a loan.

A major chunk of a bus driver's salary is paid in one-yuan notes. However, the bank usually doesn't accept too many small bills at once.

One time Zhang took more than 5,000 one-yuan bills to the bank to pay his mortgage. He went to dozens of banks and pleaded with every bank staff member to accept the large number of small bills.

In the past he would try to argue that the bank was legally obliged to take his money, and even filed a formal complaint. But now he said his arguing was useless and it only wasted his time.

Zhang Haichao's daughter hugs him from behind while he's consulting on the phone with a patient. Photo: VCG

Give in to life

Zhang worked diligently to support his family but he started to "feel despair." One day after paying his daughter's school fees, he secretly cried, because he was worried about how he would keep supporting his family.

Both his parents are ill, and their medicines cost 1,000 yuan every month. His daughter is about to enter junior high school.

He is cornered. If he buys his own medicine, he won't have the money to buy medicine for his parents. If he doesn't buy the medicine for himself, he will die, leaving his parents and daughter vulnerable.

Despite his work, Zhang is still an advocate for black lung disease patients. His phone keeps buzzing every day with calls from across China seeking his help. In 2011, Zhang became the director of the Henan branch of an NGO, providing free legal services for black lung patients.

A lawyer once found Zhang, and asked Zhang to refer him to black lung disease patients for a lawsuit. The lawyer offered to split the profit with Zhang. Zhang refused.

Zhang told the Beijing News that he replied, "After getting black lung disease, a patient's family is broken up. How did you become so cold-hearted to make money from them?" Over all these years, he has consulted on the phone with more than 2,000 patients.

On June 22, the 9th anniversary since he opened up his chest, Zhang wrote on his WeChat moments that the incident served as a test of society, and he found the results "disappointing."

He regretted posting that message, saying that he shouldn't spread negative emotions to other black lung patients. "They treat me as a spiritual support," he said. To project a more positive image, he even concealed that he has been divorced for half a year.

He said he is "a single light in the dust that can bring them some hope."

The most disturbing question now for Zhang is that if one day he dies, who can take care of his daughter?

He didn't blame his ex-wife for the divorce. "Everybody has the right to pursue happiness," he said.

In 2012, Zhang tried to find a family to adopt his daughter. More than 20 families contacted him about an adoption but none reached an agreement.

He now takes his daughter to visit black lung patients to let her to see the "real world." He plans to take her to his bus after she finishes classes every day to let her feel the hardship she will have to face if she doesn't study hard.

One day, he found his daughter was secretly looking up news reports about him on the internet. He is worried that the truth about his health and finances is too cruel for her to bear.

"Why do you look up daddy on the internet?" he asked.

His daughter was silent.

Newspaper headline: Every breath for love


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