Sun, Dec 21, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Crusading doctor battles AIDS, officialdom

COMMITTED TO HER WORK Having survived the Japanese occupation, the Chinese civil war and the Cultural Revolution, Gao Yaojie now fights for rural villagers' rights

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BEIJING

The old woman in the big glasses had been telling stories for more than an hour about corrupt officials in her home province, Henan, the hardships she endured during the Cultural Revolution, the people she has seen ravaged by AIDS. Then, after bringing her guests yet another cup of tea, a thought struck her.

"My problem was that I was born in China," Dr. Gao Yaojie declared with sincerity, but with a touch of mischief, too.

"If I had been born in another country, I might have been a pretty good scientist. I've got a pretty good head on my shoulders," she said.

There are roughly a million people with HIV in China -- a number that grows daily -- who can be grateful that Gao was not born elsewhere.

For years, as government officials ignored AIDS or pretended it was not spreading in China, Gao refused to play along with the lie. She traveled through Henan, gauging the spread of AIDS, and bringing comfort and educational brochures to villages where many people did not know the name of the disease that was killing them.

Now that the government has reversed course and begun confronting the disease, Gao, at 78, remains the same fierce advocate. She is calling for more help for the growing number of AIDS orphans. She continues to visit remote rural villages where, she says, the spread of the disease is growing, not abating.

Her efforts have hardly won her adulation from officials. Local security guards still sometimes shadow her, and she is occasionally forbidden from entering certain villages. Her phone, she suspects, is tapped. But if she is careful, she is also committed to her work.

"I'm not afraid," she said recently during a long interview at a Beijing hotel after she had spoken at a international AIDS conference.

"The worst that will happen to me is that I'll die, and I've seen enough of this life not to be afraid of that," she said.

Death, and bearing witness to it, is a yoke carried by any Chinese of Gao's generation. Born in a rural village in Shandong Province, Gao was a rarity, a woman accepted into medical school. In 1939 she enrolled at Henan University in the provincial capital, Zhengzhou, and she studied obstetrics until her education was interrupted by the Japanese invasion.

"I remember the indiscriminate bombing they carried out, with no particular target or object in mind, just indiscriminate destruction," she said.

Her memories of those days remain so raw that she still refuses interview requests from Japanese journalists.

The victory in 1949 by Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and his Communist Party brought a relative calm. Gao became a popular obstetrician and recalled delivering as many as a dozen babies a day. But when Mao's failed collectivization policies brought catastrophic famines, beginning in 1958, millions of people starved in the countryside.

Henan suffered enormously. Emaciated mothers and children, surviving on gruel, stumbled into the hospital. Gao gave them her food-ration tickets and anything she could muster.

"A patient from the country gave me a chicken that laid an egg every day," she recalled. "So I gave it to the most needy."

The famines eventually eased, but upheaval came again during the 1960s when Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution. As an educated physician and the daughter of a landlord, Gao said, she was classified as one of the "black elements." For months, elites were rounded up and paraded through the city. Gao said she went into hiding, living for long periods among the dead in the hospital's morgue.

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