XINGTANG, Hebei - Wang Zining sat naked in a small basin half-filled with hot water that smelled strongly of herbs.
Dotted all over the 4-year-old's body are brown moles, some as large as an adult's fist, which have been growing since he was born.
On his back is also a swollen layer of newly grafted skin, which was donated by his mother, Guo Liqing, in June.
Like many rural parents, Guo decided to save money by going without anesthetic when surgeons removed a 2,000-sq-cm patch of skin from her stomach.
She even refused to take painkillers afterward, as she was unwilling to spend the 400 yuan (S$76) for each prescription.
"We couldn't afford to use donated skin, and my husband needed to take care of my elder son and us after the surgery," said Guo, 38. "I was the only candidate."
While Zining soaked in his tub, his father sat waiting on a kang, a brick bed that is heated from underneath by a wood fire, in a corner of the family's home in Xingtang county, North China's Hebei province.
"When we first found the moles were getting bigger, the doctor told us they would not affect his life," said Guo, as she carefully rubbed her son's back with a sponge. "He's smart, and he was singing simple nursery rhymes when he was just 1. Yet, no other children would play with him; they were all scared of how he looked and called him dirty."
When Zining was taken for tests early this year at a hospital in Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital, his parents were told what they had always feared - if untreated, the moles could lead to cancer in later years.
According to experts, the child suffers from a rare congenital disease that occurs annually in three or four children from every 10,000.
The most effective cure is a series of skin grafts, with the moles removed and replaced with two layers of healthy tissue.
"I'll just have to bear the pain"
Roughly 10 per cent of Zining's body was covered in the moles at the time.
"I was so terrified about the prospect of losing my son that my hair turned white," Guo said, adding that she now has to dye her hair to keep it black.
Fortunately, her son was accepted on a charity project run by the General Hospital of the People's Liberation Army Air Force in Beijing, which slashed the family's hospital expenses by 70 per cent and gave them 30,000 yuan.
"It hurt a lot," said the mother, describing the surgery to remove her skin. "I couldn't stop sweating for four days afterward because of the agony."
As the wound has been slow to heal, Guo is still in a lot of discomfort and finds it difficult when she needs to bend over.
"To take care of us, my husband quit his job (as a farm laborer), and my eldest son took a break from his studies," she said. "We now live on money borrowed from our relatives.
"We need to save as much as possible to pay for more treatments, so I'll just have to bear the pain," she added with a smile.
After 30 minutes in his herb bath, Zining was transferred to the kang, where his father, in surgical gloves, massaged the new skin on his back with ointment.
The treatment lasts more than an hour and requires the grafted area to be rubbed with force, which results in extreme pain for the child.
"Please stop, you're killing me," cried Zining, as he rolled back and forth in an attempt to escape his father's hands.
Guo could only hold him, all the while whispering in his ear: "Be brave. Don't cry. I'm here."
The first operation removed just two-thirds of the skin affected by moles, and Zining and his mother will next go under the knife in February - if the family can collect enough money.
"My son always sits in the room watching TV because no one wants to hang out with him," Guo said, during a break from the massage. "Maybe after he has all the moles removed, other children will accept him."
"It will take years, but things are going to change for my son," she added.