My Relatives in Wuhan Survived. My Uncle in New York Did Not


My father, a Chinese pulmonologist, believes his brother could have been saved.

by Yi Rao ( Dr. Rao is a molecular neurobiologist in China. )

Eight is thought to be a lucky number in China because in Chinese it sounds like the word for “fortune”; 444 is a bad number because it rings like “death”; 520 sounds like “I love you.”

Having always disliked superstition, I was dismayed to receive a message by WeChat at 4:44 p.m. on May 20, Beijing time, informing me that my Uncle Eric, who lived in New York, had died from Covid-19. He was 74.

Uncle Eric was a pharmacist, so presumably he contracted the virus from a patient who had visited his shop in Queens. Infected in March, he was sick for more than two months. He was kept on a ventilator until his last 10 days: By then, he was deemed incurable and the ventilator was redirected to other patients who might be saved.

The medical trade runs in my family. I now preside over a medical university in Beijing with 19 affiliated hospitals. I studied medicine because my father was a doctor, a pulmonary physician. He decided to study medicine after losing his mother to a minor infection when he was 13. My father did not expect to lose a brother 15 years his junior to a disease in his own specialty: the respiratory system.

My father (Weihua) and Eric (Houhua) were first separated in 1947. My father, then 17, stayed behind in Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi Province, in central-southern China, to finish his education, while Eric, age 2, and other brothers and a sister sailed to Taiwan with their parents. With the end of World War II, Taiwan had been returned to China after five decades of Japanese occupation, and there were job opportunities there.

The family did not anticipate what would happen in 1949: The Communist takeover of mainland China — and, for them, the beginning of another kind of, and very long, separation.

My father completed his medical education in Nanchang and had graduate training with one of the top respiratory physicians in Shanghai, but in the 1960s the Cultural Revolution then took him to a small town and after that to a village, where he was the sole doctor. He moved back to a major hospital in Nanchang in 1972.

In the mid-1970s, my grandfather sent him — by way of Fiji — a letter at a previous address, and miraculously it arrived.

Soon, Uncle Eric became their emissary.

Uncle Eric was the first member of my family to become an American citizen. He arrived in San Francisco in the late 1970s, drawn to an economic powerhouse of a country, so starkly different from what he had grown up with in Taiwan.

It was 35 years before the brothers met again, in 1982. My father was a visiting scholar for a year at the Cardiovascular Research Institute at the University of California, San Francisco, where he conducted research on pulmonary edema, and he received a few months of clinical training in the intensive care unit at what is now called the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center.

In the early 1980s, the gap between China and the United States was gigantic. And my father has always been grateful for the education he received at U.C.S.F. and the kindness and generosity of the Americans he met.

He brought his American training back to Nanchang to establish the first I.C.U. in Jiangxi Province and one of the first I.C.U.s in China. He also established one of the first — if not the very first — institute of molecular medicine in China.

In 1985, I followed in his footsteps and in those of my uncles — Uncle Tim (Xinghua) had immigrated to California as well: I went to San Francisco to study for my Ph.D., also at U.C.S.F. My younger brother moved to the United States a few years later.

In the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet model, America seemed to be the only other exemplar left. Having studied in the United States and with plans to work and live there for the long haul, I applied for American citizenship and obtained it in 2000. My children were born in the United States.

But then 9/11 happened, and this axis of evil emerged: Dick Cheney (vice president); Paul Wolfowitz (deputy secretary of defense); David Addington (counsel to the vice president); John Yoo (Justice Department lawyer and author of the “Torture Memos”). These men were ready to do anything to advance their agenda, imposing their own law — meaning, really, no proper laws and no rule of law — in Iraq, at Guantánamo and elsewhere. And too many Americans went along. That period proved to me that America was not the democratic beacon many of us had thought it to be.

I first started looking into how to renounce my U.S. citizenship while I lived in Chicago and then again after moving back to China in 2007. I completed the process in 2011 — a decision that has been validated since by the advent of President Trump and Trumpism, which are a natural expansion of what was put in motion after 9/11.

Uncle Eric never returned to mainland China.

By the time my father retired in 2005, at 75, he had treated countless respiratory and I.C.U. patients in China. He had worked through the SARS epidemic in 2002-3, issuing dark predictions that the virus, or something like it, would come back. He and I debate whether the new coronavirus proves his prediction right.

As Covid-19 began to spread earlier this year, my father, now 90 and long retired, would send me advice about how to treat the disease so that I could relay it to other doctors, including the one leading response efforts in the city of Wuhan, the pandemic’s epicenter early on.

Our family has 12 members in Wuhan, mostly on my mother’s side, and six in New York, mostly on my father’s side. All my relatives in Wuhan are safe. Uncle Eric died in New York after the pandemic had moved to the United States — the world’s strongest country militarily, the richest economically and the most advanced medically.

The United States had two months or more to learn from China’s experience with this coronavirus, and it could have done much more to lower infection rates and fatalities. My father is struggling to accept his brother’s death partly, too, because he believes that he could have treated Uncle Eric — that in China Uncle Eric would have been saved.

As the pandemic rages on in the United States and throughout the world, with some smaller outbreaks in China, the United States and China are not collaborating, but competing, in the search for a successful vaccine for the virus and treatment measures for the disease.

My father’s family has been divided for most of his life, separated mostly by the decisions of political leaders. For a long time, the United States seemed like the better place to live — for those lucky enough to have such a choice.

Now, my father and Uncle Eric have been separated once again. This time that outcome doesn’t speak well of America.

Yi Rao is the president of Capital Medical University, a chair professor at Peking University and the director of the Chinese Institute for Brain Research, in Beijing.

Sri Lanka China Journalists Forum
Sri Lanka China Journalists Forum
Sri Lanka China Journalists' Forum was established in May 2001 as the Sri Lanka - China Young Journalists' Forum and was in force as a main association that promotes mutual understanding between Sri Lanka and China.


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