Community in Anhui overcomes prejudice to aid medical studies
Years ago, Zhu Xiufang heard by chance that a number of residents in her community in Hefei, Anhui province, were talking about her.
"They said I was a cruel woman, claiming that I had sold my husband's body for money," said Zhu, 75, whose spouse died in 2013." Donating his body for medical research was a voluntary decision made by my husband. I just helped him fulfill it."
Zhu, who has also volunteered to donate her body, said she felt sad hearing the residents' comments, but found comfort from a group of elderly neighbors.
A total of 38 residents from her community, which has more than 700 households and a population of about 2,000, have volunteered to donate their organs and bodies after death. Four of them have died and their wishes have been fulfilled.
Zhu has lived in the Youdianxincun in the urban district of Shushan since about 1998, when the community was completed.
With a name that translates as "new village of posts and telecommunications", the community is the location of the former provincial posts and telecommunications administrative bureau and its affiliated institutes.
Wu Rongkun, one of the volunteer donors from the community, said, "We know each other very well and are more willing to spend time together, especially after retirement."
The first donation of a body for medical research from the community was made in 2002, Wu said, when Wu Lang, former head of the bureau, died of gastric cancer at age 82.
Ma Yixing, Wu Lang's widow, said, "One day when he was hospitalized in the 1990s, he learned during a casual conversation with a doctor that medical institutes only had a limited number of bodies for research."
At the time, Ma was at her husband's side, listening silently and carefully to the doctor and her husband.
"After that conversation, my husband told me he wanted to donate his body. I thought this was a gesture of goodwill and didn't oppose it, but didn't decide then to make such a decision myself," Ma said.
Zhou Fengyi, 92, who worked with Wu Lang before retirement, helped contact the Red Cross Society to sign the necessary forms, and Wu Lang's body was donated after his death in March 2002.
Fu Jie, an official with the body donation center at the Red Cross Society in Anhui, said: "Organs are transplanted as soon as possible after the donor's death. A donated body is anti-septicized for about one year and used for medical studies for a further year."
Shortly after the donation was made, Ma told Zhou she also wanted to donate her body for research. Zhou and Wu Rongkun had the same idea, along with two seniors who were close to Wu Lang.
Zhou proposed they sign the forms together, and the five donors did so in 2006. As Wu Rongkun, now 82, was the youngest member of the group, he volunteered to contact the local Red Cross Society.
"Neighbors then kept joining us, some of them volunteering to donate their entire body, while others pledged to donate organs such as corneas," Wu Rongkun said.
"Among the volunteers, there are eight couples. The others are brothers, schoolmates, colleagues and best friends," he said, adding that four of the 38 people pledging donations have died and their promises have been fulfilled.
Donors are reluctant to talk about their decisions publicly, as they want to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings. Some of them even hesitated to tell their families, Zhou said.
For years, he did not tell his wife, Cao Guoying, of his own decision. The couple married when Cao, who was a school teacher for many years, was 19.
One year during the Qingming holiday in early April, Zhou and Cao visited the public cemetery at the foot of Shushan mountain in Hefei, where many names are inscribed on stone tablets put up by the Red Cross Society in memory of body and organ donors.
As the couple located Wu Lang's name, Zhou told Cao that he had registered to donate his body for medical research.
Cao remained silent then, but after celebrating her 80th birthday in 2017, she submitted forms to donate her body.
The stories of these donors only became more widely known a few months ago, following a local media report.
Wu Rongkun said, "Some people traveled long distances to find me and consult me about the procedure." He added that some of his neighbors got to know about the group of donors through television programs.
Twelve of the volunteers have signed donation papers with Wu Rongkun's help.
"The Red Cross Society requires two printed photos of each volunteer, while I ask each of them to give me one more, as I fear I will forget the faces I am not familiar with," he said.
People's Liberation Army veterans Wu Lang and Zhou Fengyi fought many battles before the founding of New China.
Zhou said, "To survive all the battles was good luck for me, and I consider every day I live beyond age 80 to be an extra gift from life.
"I am happy to witness the progress China has made and hope to make my last contribution to society in this way."
Zhou added that he believes that donating his body will save his children from having to arrange a funeral.
Some seniors said it was not hard to decide to donate their bodies, but getting their children's agreement wasn't easy.
In 2017, Zhu Xiufang's husband, Chen Xiuqing, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and the family gradually accepted that he would live with the condition for the rest of his life.
"He once told me that if the disease could not be cured, he would rather donate his body and let researchers study his brain," Zhu said, adding that she hoped medical workers would find a way to cure the disease through continuous research.
"I told my husband, 'If you donate your body, I will, too'," Zhu said.
In the days before Chen died, the couple signed their donation papers together and browsed their albums to select commemorative photographs.
As she knew Chen was dying, Zhu said she insisted that their two daughters should agree to the donation.
"They begged me to withdraw the decision. They cried and then proposed that I only donate their father's corneas," she said.
"I told them that their father wanted medical professionals to study his brain," Zhu said.
She prevailed, and the children contacted the Red Cross Society after their father died in 2013.
Some two years later, Chen's body was cremated after being used for research. The family buried his remains under a tree in the cemetery at the foot of Shushan mountain.
Zhu asked cemetery workers to add her name alongside that of her husband, and they agreed to this.
"I wanted to show the children that my decision could not be changed and that this place will be my final destination," she said.