Lesson learned: Sichuan be strong now

Updated: 2013-04-21 07:44

By Erik Nilsson, Luo Wangshu and Huang Zhiling (China Daily)

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Lesson learned: Sichuan be strong now 

The magnitude-7 earthquake that hit Lushan county on Saturday leaves many people homeless. A resident weeps in front of her collapsed house. Photo by Zhang Lang / Provided to China Daily 

Survivors of 2008 disaster have learned to respect the past, but look forward

Survivors of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake have a message for those who lived through Saturday's temblor in Ya'an city - help will keep coming but recovery is ultimately up to you.

Yang Fachun, who was paralyzed by the Wenchuan temblor in Sichuan province's Mianzhu city, said this is what she has learned over the past five years and would share with Ya'an.

"I cried all the time after I realized I'd never walk again," the 37-year-old said.

"Then, I told myself I must be brave and tough. You just have to face it."

She pointed out that, five years ago, the government and medical professionals were dealing with such a large disaster for the first time in decades. Ya'an's recovery will be even better than Wenchuan's, she believed.

"If I can live a happy life, why can't you? You have to be strong."

But she understood it takes time and is willing to talk with anyone in Ya'an.

Yang's friend Tang Siqiong, who has also been in a wheelchair since the Wenchuan quake, put it this way: "I had to decide I wouldn't let this ruin the rest of my life. I've still got another 30 years or so and will make them count."

The 39-year-old smiles and laughs easily - which she couldn't have imagined five years ago.

She said Ya'an's survivors need to be tough not only for themselves but also for their families. Her husband and 18-year-old son have continued to support her, she said.

"I can't bury them in my sorrow," she said. "I want to bring them joy so they can live happily."

But Tang understands that fear often remains.

"I was terrified this morning," she said. "I was brushing my teeth when I heard sounds from the roof just like five years ago when the walls caved in on me. But I couldn't run because I'm in a wheelchair."

Tang has remained anxious even after realizing her house was not going to implode again. "I can't watch TV or read the reports," she said.

But she still wished to tell people there they can be as happy as her, no matter what they feel now.

"Ya'an residents must be resilient. A lot of people care about you. Don't let the quake put you down. I was told patients like me can enjoy life if we're strong. It's true."

While Tang could not make herself watch the news on Saturday, Mianzhu People's Hospital doctor Zhao Zheng'en could not take his eyes off of it - after he made sure his patients were OK.

His hospital will care for many Ya'an patients, using lessons learned from five years ago.

He advised the injured to stay in local hospitals, rather than bigger ones in faraway big cities.

"They're closer to home than an alien place. This also helps hospital management. It will make it easier to return for rehabilitation because rehab will be long-term."

"Sichuan's hospitals all developed greater rehabilitation capabilities after Wenchuan," the doctor said. "There are far more injuries than deaths in any quake."

He points out that no amount of outside help can bring recovery unless survivors assume responsibility, too.

"You can't ask for help all the time," Zhao said. "You must use your own strength to conquer your problems. Face the truth. Don't be afraid. Don't just wait for help."

Local help best

Zhao also advised ordinary outsiders to leave the rescue work to professionals. He pointed out the flood of volunteers in 2008 clogged the strained transportation system and hoped the same would not happen in Ya'an.

"While well intentioned, they might actually cause more harm than good," he said.

But while outsiders should stay put, Yang Yunqing - who saved 10 people trapped in rubble in his native Yingxiu town in 2008 after he borrowed an excavator from a power plant - advises Ya'an's locals do what they can to save others.

Yang lost 10 family members, including his wife of 40 years. He had to drink himself to sleep until last year, when he married a woman who saw his heroism on TV and asked a friend to introduce her.

The 63-year-old said getting away - the firefighters he worked with invited him to Shanghai and Shandong province - helped him overcome his grief, too.

"You have to escape the shadow," he said. "Ultimately, I figured it out on my own. The dead are dead. The living must live."

Staying in touch

Hongbai Primary School principal Chen Shilin said his 2008 experience could be applied in Ya'an.

He had teachers count their students and contact parents to take their kids. "We had to rely on word-of-mouth because phones were cut off," he recalled.

Chen assigned older students to care for younger children. Every injured child was assigned two peer "assistants" to make sure they had water. If an injured student had a major problem, one of the "assistants" informed a teacher.

They stayed on the playground, which withstood aftershocks because it is an open area.

Outside therapists helped the school overcome the trauma. Hongbai also found tai chi was effective.

Chen's message to Ya'an is: "It's so important to have faith and hope. With hope, we can rebuild."