Chinese farmer a saviour of babies

CHINA - Her two sons run successful farms in the county and she enjoys the company of her grandchildren. After decades of toil, now is the time for retired farmer Wang Xiaofen, 65, to enjoy life.

But there are times when the Hebei native wishes she could go into a coma for a few days just so that she can have a good rest.

Sleep has been a luxury for the affable Madam Wang since she began adopting abandoned babies in 1984, taking in a total of more than 30 so far. Some were picked up and brought home by her late husband. Others were left at their doorstep in Anping county, Hengshui city.

She currently has 15 children under her charge, ranging from as young as 45 days old to 15 years old. Many suffer from terminal illnesses or birth defects and require 24-hour care.

"I've not gone to bed in my pyjamas for decades because each night, I have to wake up any time to tend to the little ones: when they want to pee or when their blankets drop off the bed," Madam Wang told The Straits Times.

For decades, before China set up its first infant shelter in 2011 in Hebei's provincial capital Shijiazhuang, she was running one informally in her two-bedroom, single-storey house.

It began when her farmer-husband Cui Junqi stumbled upon a baby girl lying next to a lamp-post in a nearby village and brought her home.

Despite initial reservations over the cost of raising another child, Madam Wang and her husband, who died aged 78 a year ago, adopted the girl because their two sons wanted a sister. They named her Jinfeng, which means golden phoenix in Mandarin.

To earn "baby powder" money, Madam Wang took up another job as a cake shop assistant.

Jinfeng is now a 30-year-old mother of two kids. She helps take care of the adopted children who are under Madam Wang's care. They also employ part-time nannies to help care for the children during the day.

It is a heart-rending sight in Madam Wang's home.

Instead of running around like young kids usually do, most of her young charges lie placidly on mattresses or in a wooden crib in the living room. Some cannot walk because they have spinal disorders or brain damage.

There is little sign of merriment. Instead, one or two moan softly, in pain.

The latest to join the household is a severely premature infant born on Dec 4 last year in a hospital. His mother vanished soon after delivery. When doctors brought the infant to Madam Wang - who has become a household name in Anping after state broadcaster CCTV gave her a "Loving Mother" award in 2008 - he weighed just 1kg.

Over the past weeks, like a kangaroo caring for its young, Madam Wang has kept the boy tucked inside her down-jacket to keep him warm and watch over him.

The boy, who is named Cui Shiwang - which means rock and hope - now weighs over 1.5kg.

Apart from Ms Cui, all the other adopted children have the word "shi" as their middle name. It means rock in Mandarin.

"My husband and I hope that these kids would be as hard as a rock in fighting their diseases," said Madam Wang.

But sadly, she revealed, more than 10 have died.

"Some people think that when children die, they just go in peaceful sleep. No, they suffer great pain and their cries can literally cut through my heart," said Madam Wang, adding that she gives herself just one month to grieve as there are others needing her care.

But the pain continues when she has to bury the dead infants or toddlers secretly on unoccupied land or on other people's farms. Locals deem it inauspicious to have a child buried nearby and there are no cremation services for kids in Anping.

"It is heartbreaking to see how these kids are abandoned when alive, have no loved ones around them in their dying moments, and even have to suffer the fate of being buried secretly when they die," said Madam Wang.

The latest death - and most painful - was the third child she adopted around 1995, she said. Shitou, which literally means rock, died in January last year from a spinal disorder. He was 19.

Though he lived far longer than the one week doctors gave him when the Cuis adopted him, Madam Wang said Shitou's endearing personality made it hard for her to let him go.

"He once told me to sew a pocket on his favourite shirt so that if I die earlier than him, he could keep some of my ashes in the pocket. That way, whenever he misses me, he could just look down and talk to me," said Madam Wang, as her tears flowed uncontrollably.

Sometimes, she feels like giving up. But she plods on.

"I don't think I'm noble," she said. "I am just a farmer. But one has to have purpose in living, and this is my calling. Somehow, whenever I help a baby survive, it brings me incomparable joy."

It helps, too, to have donors from over China supporting her with food supplies and other items, after reading media reports on her CCTV award. Her sons give her money and Madam Wang also gets 1,000 yuan (S$210) monthly in aid for each child from the local authorities.

She says she doesn't want to judge parents who dump their babies. They must have their difficulties, she thinks, though she despairs at how prevalent baby-dumping has become, even though it is a criminal offence.

For instance, an infant shelter in eastern Nanjing that opened last December has received as many as 14 babies, many carrying birth defects or illnesses, within the first 22 days.

Sometimes, the circumstances are horrifying: A baby girl with a sliced throat was saved from a rubbish bin last August, and an infant boy was rescued from a sewer pipe last May.

Asked what advice she had for parents of such children, Madam Wang said: "If you abandon this baby because it has illnesses, what makes you think your next baby wouldn't be the same?"

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