Returned China volunteers (RPCVs) ask the agency’s director to help pay $12,000 in medical bills left in the wake of a Chinese employee’s battle with lung cancer.
Last week, the Peace Corps China community lost one of its champions and founders, Zhan Yimei. She battled for two years with lung cancer, and her family is now left with a mountain of debt. Below is a letter to Peace Corps Director Ron Tschetter requesting support from Peace Corps to help Ms. Zhan’s family with the costs of her medical care which was managed through Chinese health coverage.
Dear Director Tschetter,
On Thursday, January 9, Zhan Yimei, the Program Manager for Peace Corps China, passed away after a long battle with lung cancer. Ms. Zhan had been with the Peace Corps in Chengdu from the beginning. She was hired in 1993, the first year that volunteers were sent to China, and since then she held a range of titles – Program Assistant, Program Manager, even Program Director.
But there is no simple way to describe Ms. Zhan’s role. She was at the center of every delicate exchange between the Peace Corps and the Chinese government, and she did her best to smooth over the inevitable confusions and misunderstandings. In the early years, when Chinese officials still felt uncomfortable communicating directly with the Peace Corps, they routinely asked Ms. Zhan to pass along important messages to the country director. American staff turned to her for advice about how to keep Chinese employees happy. The Chinese knew she was the best at understanding the sometimes volatile Americans. Volunteers asked her how to pronounce words in Mandarin. Whenever people needed a spot translator or interpreter, they turned to Ms. Zhan.
She helped design the Peace Corps language course; she visited potential teaching sites; she coordinated the unit on Sichuanese slang. During the cross-cultural part of pre-service training she was occasionally called upon to role-play a Chinese person. In these situations, as in all others, Ms. Zhan never complained, and she brought a dignity to role-playing that quite frankly was too often lacking in pre-service training. But then Ms. Zhan always played herself: faintly smiling, quietly intelligent, calm as the countryside. She was a small woman with dark eyes and pixie-cut hair; she spoke precisely in a soft voice. She was extremely observant.
She was politically skilled in all the right ways – she understood both the Communists and the Corps, and she was savvy; but she was not at all calculated. She did not demand credit for everything she did, and she believed in the long-term benefit of this strange and wonderful endeavor that became Peace Corps China.
It’s not surprising that she was given as much responsibility as any human being could handle. In 1998, when President Bill Clinton visited Beijing, the government representatives of China and the United States signed a historic Peace Corps country agreement that Ms. Zhan had helped draft. In 2003, when the Peace Corps evacuated all volunteers and staff as a result of the SARS epidemic, Ms. Zhan stayed behind and was named Program Director. For a year she was the highest-ranking Peace Corps staff member in country, smoothing over tensions that lingered in the wake of the abrupt departure. When the Peace Corps finally returned to China in 2004, Ms. Zhan was waiting. All told, she worked under seven country directors, and she assisted more than five hundred volunteers. No American was employed with Peace Corps China for as long as Ms. Zhan. It’s almost selfish to say that she’ll be missed, because she already gave so much to the program.
Ms. Zhan’s battle with lung cancer was intense and financially draining. In early 2006, she was diagnosed with the disease, which had already spread to the lymph nodes. Like all Chinese employees of the Peace Corps, Ms. Zhan never enjoyed the health insurance benefits that would have been offered if she had been American. Over the years, various country directors did their best to improve this situation, but there were still limits to the quality of coverage in China, and there was a fear that someday a valued employee would suffer serious medical problems.
Ms. Zhan became a worst-case scenario. The costs of treatment quickly outpaced insurance coverage, draining family resources; her college-age son delayed his plans to study abroad. In 2007, hearing about her situation, our organization, the China RPCVs, decided to fund-raise on her behalf. Contacting former volunteers, country directors, and co-workers of Ms. Zhan, we raised over $14,000. This money helped fund her treatments in an experimental drug program, which proved to be effective for a while, improving Ms. Zhan’s strength. (Predictably, she continued to go to work in the Peace Corps China office whenever she could.)
Unfortunately, Ms. Zhan’s condition deteriorated last year, and the new drug program no longer headed off the cancer. Additional care required the continuation of expensive chemotherapy and CT and pet scans, and her family fell further into debt. By the end, they owed more than $12,000, a substantial sum for a Chinese household. In her last days Ms. Zhan’s greatest concern was not whether she would live, but whether her family could sustain the cost of her care.
Our organization is now undertaking another fund-raising drive, but this comes close on the heels of our previous effort. The China program is still young, and most returned volunteers are in their twenties and thirties; for many people it’s hard to donate much. As of now, the Peace Corps itself has not provided any funds for Ms. Zhan’s medical expenses. It has no legal obligation to do so, because she had the same health insurance offered to other Chinese employees. There’s no established protocol for the Peace Corps to donate funds in this manner, and government agencies typically do not make exceptions.
But sometimes they receive exceptional work from host country national employees, which was certainly the case with Ms. Zhan. She never complained about being extended far beyond the boundaries of her job description, and she stood by the organization during difficult times, like the SARS crisis. She always showed remarkable flexibility and resourcefulness, and we would like to see the Peace Corps draw upon these same qualities and make sure that Ms. Zhan’s family is not saddled with debt and that her son can pursue his education. Perhaps it’s possible to issue a cash merit award, or locate funding through the Peace Corps Foundation, or find some other solution. In the end, this shouldn’t be a bureaucratic issue.
Last year and this year we have raised money not as RPCVs and Country Directors and Peace Corps Medical Officers supporting a Host Country National. We are co-workers and co-teachers, friends and colleagues, people who care about links between the United States and China; and we are simply trying to help one of our own. We hope that the Peace Corps can find a way to do the same.
RPCVs of China
Friends and colleagues of Zhan Yimei