Starting Over

Xu Zhi-cheng’s days as a patient in the hematological oncology ward were marked by anxiety, fear, and tears. But now that he has recovered following a stem cell transplant, he continues to spend time there—as a volunteer. His presence cheers up patients and other volunteers alike.

Xu Zhi-cheng [許志成], please come to the exam room to receive your vaccination,” a nurse called out, loud enough for everyone in the pediatric clinic waiting room to clearly hear. “Not so loud, please. I’m Xu Zhi-cheng,” he replied, pleading with the nurse not to call more attention to him. He was already feeling like a square peg in a round hole in the waiting room. As a 61-year-old man, he felt utterly out of place getting immunization shots in a pediatric clinic, of all places. He quickly slipped into the exam room.

Despite his feeling awkward, he wasn’t complaining. In fact, he was glad to be there at all. He had worked very, very hard to even live to this day. He had spent countless days and nights in a hospital, swallowed more pills than he could count, and endured an untold number of injections just to see this day. So today he gladly accepted the injection—a shot normally reserved for children.

In a very true sense, Xu was nearly like an infant, at least in terms of his immune system, or the lack thereof. The immunity that he once had as an adult had been totally wiped out about three years before by his doctors in a necessary step to prepare him to receive a stem cell transplant.

Xu Zhi-cheng (center) visits a patient to cheer him on.


Why me?

Xu was a construction worker when it all started. Heavy labor and working outdoors in the sun had made him physically fit. Getting sick had been the furthest thing from his mind. But then three years ago, he noticed his gums starting to bleed for no apparent reason. He would wake up at night with the smell and feel of blood in his mouth. He would get up, gargle, clean his teeth with Q-tips, and then go back to sleep only to be soon awakened again. After five restless nights of this, coupled with the emergence of purplish spots that resembled mosquito bites on his legs, he went to the emergency room.

The ER doctor held him overnight for tests and observation. The next day he advised him to immediately transfer to a larger hospital for treatment. He told Xu his diagnosis: blood cancer. Xu lost no time in seeking help at Taichung Veterans General (TVG) Hospital, where the doctors started him on chemotherapy and a slew of other procedures.

“Your only hope for a cure rests on a stem cell transplant,” his doctor told him. The doctor made a request on his behalf to the Tzu Chi Stem Cell Center to search for potential donors.

Questions such as “Why me?” and “Will I ever recover?” occupied his mind as he worried whether he could make it through this ordeal. He could not sleep well or eat much; pills and IV drips consumed his days and nights at the hospital. He longed every day for the good news that a matching donor had been found.



For years, Tzu Chi Stem Cell Center volunteers have worked with the hematological oncology department at TVG Hospital, where they visit every Friday to provide support for patients. They bring patients fruit and nutritional supplements, listen to them, and give them encouragement. They want to let them know that they are not alone during their tough cancer treatment.

Xu, fighting his illness alone at the hospital, was glad to see these volunteers. They were good listeners when he opened himself up to them about his worries. Soon afterwards, his doctor also brought him good tidings: A donor had been identified for him. Xu was most grateful when he learned later that this person had quickly agreed to donate his stem cells. He was greatly relieved because he knew that some people change their minds after they sign up to be donors. Finding a willing donor was “as if a large rock had been lifted from my shoulders,” he said.

It had been a custom of Tzu Chi volunteers to visit the hospital on Christmas Day every year, with one of them dressed as Santa to bring some holiday warmth and joy to patients. That year, when Santa gave Xu his best wishes, Xu said to him, “If I ever get well from this, I’m going to be Santa.”

He’s back

After Xu underwent his stem cell transplant, he became noticeably weaker—his stamina sagged. Just taking the few steps from his home to the street was enough to make him gasp for air. Even so, he did not forget his Santa promise.

Eventually his strength returned, and he no longer became so easily short of breath. He was able to walk normally on the streets, where people hurried past and cars rushed by as they always had. Though nothing seemed to have changed, Xu now saw things differently. He cherished the fact that he was again able to walk on the street like any other healthy person. He was thankful.

When he felt up to volunteering at the hospital, he began to fulfill his promise. Every week he traveled from his home in Zhanghua to the neighboring city of Taichung, where he joined other volunteers at TVG Hospital.

Xu was back at the hospital, but this time not as a patient. In his new role as a volunteer, he shared his experience with patients who were in the thick of their cancer treatments. He hoped he could help them in some way.

During his weekly visits, Xu would remind patients of the dos and don’ts for cancer patients, such as: “I know it’s very rough on you and you probably feel disheartened, but you must eat and sleep well so you’ll have the stamina to fight the disease.” “Watch what you eat. Be sure your food is sterilized.” “You went back to work on the sly, didn’t you? You must rest more to prevent a relapse.”

Though it might have seemed that he was nagging, nitpicking, or even being strict, he did it to help. He really hoped he could do the patients some good.

After visiting the hospital for some time, he said to other volunteers, “One day a week doesn’t seem enough.” He expressed his wish to bring together other former patients who were in remission and together they could make weekly visits to the hospital, but on different days. He wanted to do and help more.

He explained why he wanted to visit more frequently. He pointed out that when people get sick they tend to think too much and worry about the worst-case scenario for their diseases. He wanted to reduce the time they could sit around worrying.

“When I was a patient and volunteers visited me, I always became hopeful and I felt that I had the power to fight my disease,” Xu said. “So I thought that if I could spend one additional day a week with patients, they’d have less time to worry or get caught up in negative thinking.”

Some patients in remission may try to forget their struggles during their treatments, and they would probably avoid going to the hospital so as not to be reminded of those painful days. But Xu was not one of those ex-patients. Quite the contrary. “Though looking back at those days is painful, I don’t mind doing it. I hope sharing my experience can help them. I tell them my days as a patient were very painful to me, just as theirs are to them now. But I can show them that I’ve now recovered, and I encourage them to stay hopeful. Those who believe are blessed in that they’ll have an easier time in their battles against their diseases.”


Because of age or health reasons, Xu’s siblings could not donate their stem cells to him. Thankfully, an unrelated donor saved his life.


Gratitude to the donors

Besides providing emotional support to patients, Xu also spends time with stem cell donors. He goes with other volunteers to accompany donors through the apheresis process during which whole blood is collected from one arm of the donor, stem cells are extracted from the blood, and the rest of the blood is returned to the donor through the other arm.

This process may take six or even eight hours during which the donor must remain as still as possible. It is no easy task. Xu feels grateful to all the stem cell donors for going through the process. “If donors are willing to go through all this trouble for us, who are complete strangers to them, we should at least fight harder and not easily give up,” Xu says to current or prospective recipients to cheer them on.

Other volunteers have noticed Xu’s enthusiasm to help, and they have been heartened by his transformation from a gloomy blood cancer patient to an eager, positive force in the welfare of other blood cancer patients. Volunteer Wang Meng-zhuan (王孟專) said, “I still remember the determined expression in his eyes when he promised us he’d be Santa if he recovered.”

Xu’s giving makes them feel warm. He does not just encourage patients to be strong and remain hopeful. As a former blood cancer victim who has regained his health, he also shows potential donors how important their donations are, and he helps other volunteers realize that their efforts for stem cell donation are every bit as worthwhile as they could ever possibly hope.

On Christmas Day, Xu slipped on a pair of red pants, donned a red coat, put on a black belt, and pasted on a white beard before he showed up in front of cancer patients. He was fulfilling his promise to play Santa.

The outside world and celebrations of holidays can seem far away to patients cooped up in a hospital for treatment. Xu and the other volunteers hoped that their visit could brighten the day a little for the patients and help them feel a little more hopeful in their hard and emotionally draining fights to reclaim their health.

Xu appreciates his second lease on life, and he is determined to continue being a cheerleader for patients fighting for their lives. “This is tough, but to keep going is the way to go.”


Fall 2017