Confined Body, Freed Mind

Huang is paralyzed from the neck down, and she has been confined to a bed for over 20 years. Despite this, she has a heart full of gratitude and the power to give to others. Living this way keeps her heart lighter and her mind free.

Her room is small and dim, the only light coming from a tiny window. Outside the window is a kitchen garden, where flourishing vegetables sway in the wind. Though the garden is so near, she has never set eyes on it. She is confined to her bed, paralyzed from the neck down. The only thing she can see from where she lies is the ceiling directly above her. Even if she weren’t bedridden, she still wouldn’t be able to see much. Her optic nerve is injured, resulting in blurred vision.

Her abilities to see clearly and move freely aren’t the only things of which she has been deprived—she can’t breathe on her own either. To keep her alive, she had to have a tracheotomy, which allows a ventilator to breathe for her. Because of the tracheotomy, she can only make hoarse, aspirated sounds, and only with effort.

Huang Pei-hong (黃配鴻) has lain quietly in her bed like this for 22 years. She can only feel above her neck, but that isn’t always pleasant; sometimes she feels an itch or painful tingling in her face, but she is unable to reach up and scratch it or rub it to make herself more comfortable. All she can do is crinkle up or twitch her face to try to find some relief, even though that often doesn’t work.

“Why me?” “Why do I have to lie here?” She has shed countless tears since tragedy struck her in 1996. Yet no matter how much she blames fate for the unfairness of it all, she can’t undo the tragedy.

Huang was 22 when she had that fateful traffic accident. Enjoying life and feeling invincible like many other young people, she never expected what was in store for her. After the accident, she arrived at the hospital with no vital signs.

“I kept praying to the bodhisattvas,” said her mother, Shen Bei-zhen (沈倍楨). “I prayed hard for their blessings.” Her prayers were answered—her child’s life was saved. But she would have to lie in bed for the rest of her life, unable to even breathe on her own.

“All you can do is accept what has happened,” her mother said to her as a way of comforting her. Shen was not yet 50 at the time, and she did her best to care for her daughter. It seems but a blink of an eye, but 22 years has flown by. She and her husband are now in their 70s, and her daughter has become a middle-aged woman.

Over the years, the couple has taken turns tending to their daughter’s needs. They turn her over in bed, slap her on her back to help her blood circulation, and change her bladder control pads every two hours. At night, the father usually sleeps first, and his wife wakes him at midnight to take over from her. They never sleep at the same time. Their daughter always has a pair of eyes watching over her.

“Your father and I are getting old,” Shen often says to her daughter. “We’ll leave this world before you one day. You must at least learn to breathe on your own.” Unless a medical breakthrough happens, Huang is unlikely to breathe on her own again. But her mother is unable to accept this reality, and she still hopes her daughter will learn to breathe. Feeling her age and laden with worry, Shen can’t help nagging her daughter like this.

The couple’s other children have either married or are working out of town, leaving the parents to care for their bedridden daughter alone. Life is no bed of roses for them.

With the help of her mother and a Tzu Chi volunteer, Huang Pei-hong deposits some money into a coin bank to help the needy.

The Master comes into their home

Ten years ago, in 2007, one of their television sets broke down. A repairman was called to the house to fix it. When he was done, he said to Shen, “It must be hard work for you to care for your bedridden child day in and day out like this. I happen to know some Tzu Chi volunteers. How about me asking them to come over and see if they can help in any way?”

That was how Tzu Chi volunteers became regular visitors at the household. They couldn’t do anything to reverse Huang’s condition, but they could at least talk with Shen and give her emotional support. Members of the Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) also began visiting the family regularly to check on Huang. With care from all these people, Shen started to feel less helpless. It was as if she had finally seen a ray of light after walking in the dark for a long time.

The biggest change for Huang was that she began listening to Master Cheng Yen’s televised Dharma talks every day on a TV in her room. Though her eyesight is bad, she can listen to the talks. Over time, the Master’s teachings sank in and a change came over her.

“Mom, the Master…has…a cold,” Huang said to her mom one day as she was listening to a talk.

“How do you know?” Shen responded in surprise. “You can’t see her.”

“Her voice…is different…today.”

“The Master has doctors to take care of her. Don’t you worry about her,” Shen said and launched into one of her lectures. “You should think of yourself instead. You haven’t yet learned to breathe on your own. Your dad and I are getting old. What if…”

“Mom, eat the…Four-Magic…Soup.”

“Four-Magic Soup?”

“The Master teaches us…to be content…, grateful…, understanding…, tolerant,” Huang said with effort.

Shen felt for her daughter because she knew how much energy she had to expend to say those words to her, but she was touched at the same time because she also knew that her daughter was trying to ease her worries with the Master’s teachings. For the first time since the accident, the daughter was comforting her mom instead of the other way around. Moved beyond words, Shen hugged her daughter tight.

Dr. Ji Bang-jie talks to Huang during a visit.


The power of gratitude

As had happened many times before, Shen entered her daughter’s room with a man in a white coat and a group of uniformed Tzu Chi volunteers in tow. “Dr. Ji is here to see you,” Shen said to her daughter. Ji Bang-jie (紀邦杰) is a TIMA doctor who visits the family every month to check up on Huang. He has done this for a long time, and he is now like an old friend to the family.

As soon as he was at Huang’s bedside, the physician picked up her hand, held it in his, and said to her, “Hmm, you look good. You should thank your dad and mom for taking such good care of you.”

Huang smiled brightly. The doctor’s and volunteers’ visits add variety to her monotonous life and lift her spirits. She feels energized every time they come.

“My daughter asked me to speak less when you visit,” Shen said with a smile to the group of visitors. “She wants to hear you talk.”

“She has been bedridden for over two decades, and yet she hasn’t developed a single bedsore,” said Dr. Ji to the mother. “That’s really something. A large credit goes to you.” While checking up on Huang and talking to her during his visits, the doctor makes a point of extending emotional support to the mother too.

“Remember to thank your mom,” he reminded her again.

Shen looked at her daughter and then said, “She wants to talk.” She dexterously removed the tracheotomy tube and suctioned water from it so that her daughter could speak.

“Thank you…for taking care…of me,” Huang said.

“She’s thanking her mom,” a volunteer ob-served. A few people in the room took out their handkerchiefs and wiped the corners of their eyes.

“Blessed are those…who derive joy…from doing good,” Huang spoke up again. “Wise are…those who attain…peace by being…understanding toward others.” With every breath, she could only utter two or three words. This short sentence took her a lot of effort to finish.

“Awesome,” someone else said. “She’s sharing with us what she has learned from listening to the Master’s talks.” The people around her bed broke into applause while some allowed their tears to flow freely down their cheeks.

A vibrant, youthful Huang (front center) poses with her family. Copied by Zhang Ting-xu

Serving as a bridge

Before they left, the Tzu Chi volunteers sang a song to the family: “May you have a long life and endless blessings, may you have a long life and endless blessings….”

The expression on Huang’s face changed. “I…don’t want…a long life.” She strained to utter the words.

The volunteers immediately realized that they had made a faux pas. Short of a medical miracle, Huang would have to continue to lie on that bed for as long as she lived. It was no wonder she didn’t want a long life. The volunteers blamed themselves for not having been more thoughtful when they sang that song.

“Okay, let’s redo this,” a volunteer said. “This time we’ll wish you peace and happiness.”

“May you have peace and happiness, may you have peace and happiness….” the volunteers sang. In their hearts, they were thanking Huang for teaching them an important lesson. They told themselves to be sure to put themselves in a care recipient’s shoes when they conducted home visits in the future.

Later, in a regular group meeting, the volunteers reviewed their work for Huang and her family and discussed what more they could do for the family. One volunteer said that she felt that Huang had become more cheerful with the help of the Master’s teachings. Her mother, on the other hand, often looked a little down.

Another volunteer followed and said that Shen had once told her she had been bothered by the way her neighbors looked at her—it was as if they felt that her family must have been jinxed to have a patient like that at home.

“Then perhaps we should visit the neighbors, serve as a bridge between them and Shen, and help resolve the situation?” someone else offered.

A newer volunteer raised her concerns: “But if we visit the neighbors uninvited, wouldn’t we be disturbing them? Would we make them unhappy?”

“The neighbors may feel disturbed, but I still think this is worth trying.”

Most of the volunteers agreed with the last volunteer, so they decided to call on the neighbors and invite them to visit Shen with them. They then settled on a date to do that.

The volunteers reached another decision in the meeting. They felt that although Huang couldn’t move, she shouldn’t be deprived of the ability to give. They decided to suggest to Shen that she hold her daughter’s hand in hers and drop money into a coin bank, which they could then use to help the needy. 

In mid-December 2017, Huang and her parents attended a Tzu Chi year-end blessing ceremony, during which the family went onstage to share their story with other attendees. Shen thanked Master Cheng Yen for allowing her love to flood into their home, and Huang, with tears rolling down her cheeks, thanked her parents for taking care of her. Chen Qun-cheng


On the day they had selected to visit the neighbors, the volunteers arrived at the alley where Shen and her family lived, broke into groups, and rang the doorbells of Shen’s neighbors.

“Hello, we’re Tzu Chi volunteers. May we have a few minutes of your time?” volunteer Lin Gui-xiang (林桂香) said to a woman who had answered her door.

“Certainly,” the woman said. “Hey, I know you! You run a beauty salon in this community.”

Lin exchanged a few pleasantries with the neighbor, and then asked if she knew the family living next door.

“Yes, of course. We’ve been neighbors for over 20 years. Our kids used to play together when they were little, but we’ve sort of grown apart. After a daughter in that family had a traffic accident and became bedridden, we rarely visited them. We didn’t want to intrude or disturb them”

Lin encouraged the neighbor to visit Shen and her family every once in a while. Doing so would bring warmth to the family and help them feel cared for and less alone. “We’re just about to pay them a visit,” Lin said to the woman. “If you’re free, why don’t you come along?”

Just like that, the volunteers succeeded in getting quite a few neighbors to visit Shen with them. The family’s usually quiet living room became alive with all the visitors and the cheerful conversation among them.

“It wasn’t that I hadn’t thought of visiting,” a neighbor said to Shen. “But I had second thoughts because I was worried you might have had your hands full taking care of your daughter.”

Shen thanked the neighbor and the others for dropping in. Seeing her living room filled with visitors, her eyes became red and tearful.

Just a few steps away lay Huang’s room. Seemingly oblivious to the noise from the living room, she listened attentively to a program being aired on Tzu Chi Da Ai TV. She had learned earlier from that channel that Vietnam had just been hit by a typhoon and that some areas had been seriously flooded. With her mother’s help, she had deposited some spare change into a coin bank that morning to help disaster victims. 

March 2018