Single Chinese woman becomes orphan's "mom" in Israel

08:43, May 06, 2010      

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Quan Shiyi, a volunteer of Beijing, China, is caring for a one-year-and-half-old orphan suffering from a life-threatening congenital heart defect.

Gretel, her English name, is 26 years old and unmarried, and had never looked after a baby, even not changed a diaper.

But all that changed in 2009 when she met Qian Baoxin at an orphanage in Beijing, where Gretel volunteered as a translator. There, she learned the meaning of motherhood.

Due to his disease, Qian's lips, tongue, fingertips and toes were all purple from lack of oxygen in his blood, and he struggled to move about. A healthy child of his age would already be learning to walk.

Doctors were unable to perform the delicate operation to the baby's heart in China, and Gretel believes officials of the orphanage were resigned to Qian's worsening situation.

But little Qian is lucky, as the Israeli Embassy in Beijing has arranged for medical treatment for 18 Chinese orphans suffering different diseases, as part of the activities to commemorate the 18th anniversary this year of the establishment of Israel-China diplomatic ties, and Qian is among them and the only one to be flown to Israel to receive a heart operation.


"Originally, an American volunteer was supposed to come with the baby, but the Israeli Embassy said 'we want a Chinese person to go,'" Gretel told Xinhua on Wednesday.

Citing her lack of childcare experience, she at first refused the orphanage's request to make the critical journey with Qian. But the orphanage trusted her, she said, and soon convinced her to become the toddler's court-ordered guardian and accompany Qian on the trip.

On March 6, the pair arrived at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, near Tel Aviv, for the operation. It would be performed by doctors and staff from the Israel-based Save A Child's Heart (SACH) organization, who hosted them.

SACH has treated more than 2,300 children from over 30 countries, as well as Palestinians from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, since its inception in 1995.

While Gretel and Qian are far from home - neither of them has ever traveled outside of China - they are far from alone.

There, Gretel had become so close to Qian that hospital staff came to call her "Mama China," because of how she lovingly tended him as they adjusted to the medical routine.

Gretel and Qian fitted right in. "Little by little, people started to call me 'mommy,' and think that I'm his mommy," Gretel says of the staff and parents, "and I've started to change."

One day at the hospital, she caught a glance of herself in a mirror and said to herself, "you look much older because you're a mom now."


"It's amazing," Gretel said about the international melange of peoples working together at Wolfson Medical Center. The children, parents and caretakers are housed together at the SACH Children's Home dormitories, near the medical center.

Unlike the Mideast strife outside, the adversary at this bustling medical oasis is illness.

But, Gretel knew, the hardest part of her metamorphosis with Qian still lay ahead.

"The day when he went into surgery, I was really nervous," Gretel admitted about the moment to wheel Qian into the operating room for the complex procedure.

In a six-hour operation called an atrial switch, SACH lead surgeon Dr. Lior Sasson and his team carefully sliced open Qian's chest cavity and repaired his tiny heart.

Qian suffered from dextrocardia - a condition where the heart sits reversed in the chest cavity - and had a hole between two lobes which allowed pulmonary and ventricular blood to mix, according to Dr. Ilan Cohen, deputy chief of the pediatric intensive care unit at Wolfson.

Gretel, who had rarely left Qian's bedside since their arrival, said the most emotional moment in her whole visit came as the baby slowly awoke and groggily opened his dark brown eyes after the delicate procedure.

"Sleep, sleep, my baby, mother's arms will be a safe harbor," Gretel - as any Beijing mother might - softly sang a traditional Chinese lullaby to Qian to calm him, as he struggled back to consciousness when the anesthetic wore off.

"When I touched him, and sang for him, he began shedding tears, " she said, "because he knew that I was coming for him."


"I didn't get along with him for a long time," Gretel says of her first days with Qian in Beijing. She had envisioned her role as a volunteer only responsible for feeding and keeping Qian safe, she said, adding that she did not have an emotional attachment to the child then.

"But here, we'd be sleeping in the same bed all the time, and every morning when he woke up and if he saw me, he would smile," she said of the bonding process anyone in her role might undergo.

Gretel considered how she has changed, as she has grown into her guardian role.

"At the moment he went into surgery, I started to shed tears, and I realized: 'I'm a mom now,' and I think it's awesome, it's really awesome to be a mom for him," she said.

But Gretel knows her role will end when they return to China after Qian's recovery, and Qian will return to the orphanage.

She says she knows, now that he is healed, a family may be more likely to adopt him.

"Everyone is asking me, 'will you adopt him?'," she says, and laughs as tears begin to well in her eyes.

"If I can find a husband, I will adopt him. I will definitely keep this memory in my heart for my whole life. It's wonderful," she says.



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