The Go-Anywhere Clinic

In October 1996, a group of medical care providers in Taiwan established the Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA). They started offering free clinics to needy people in 1997, and they have been at it ever since. Over the last 20 years, TIMA has developed into an international association of more than 17,000 like-minded volunteers. They typically offer free clinics to poor people in remote areas where medical resources are few and far between. They even make house calls, as some patients may be too old, too weak, or too sick to leave their homes.

Association members also travel to areas afflicted by natural disasters to help victims. Association members have conducted over 11,000 free clinics and served more than 2.5 million patient visits. 

—Compiled by Tang Yau-yang

A TIMA team conducted a home visit in Pingxi, New Taipei City, northern Taiwan, on February 19, 2016.  Chen Li Shao-min


FifteenYears in Nanzhuang

By Zhang Li-yun

Translated by Tang Yau-yang

Photos by Huang Xiao-zhe

For most people, Nanzhuang, Miaoli County, in northwestern Taiwan, is a scenic spot for sightseeing. For Tzu Chi volunteers who go there regularly, the town attracts them for a different reason altogether.

The town of Nanzhuang is nestled in the mountains in Miaoli County, located in northwestern Taiwan. Although tourists flock to the area seeking its serenity and natural beauty, the place has been unable to keep its own sons and daughters from moving away for better livelihoods elsewhere. As a result, Nanzhuang’s population consists mostly of the elderly and young children.

The town has only three clinics, one public and two private, for its 12,000 residents. Residents’ access to medical care is further hindered by the mountainous terrain. For some people in the Sanwan area, for example, a 90-minute car ride down the mountain is necessary to obtain medical services. The difficulty in getting to a clinic, coupled with factors such as limited physical mobility, have caused some folks to put off seeking medical help, resulting in minor illnesses growing into major ones.

Witnessing their quandary, Tzu Chi volunteers in Miaoli sought help from members of the TIMA Taichung chapter, who consequently started providing free clinics in Nanzhuang in 2002. Though the very nature of being a monthly mobile clinic has limited the scope of their care and precluded them from treating acute or serious conditions, the TIMA volunteers have been able to care for patients with chronic conditions. They are also able to educate local residents in matters of health.

The TIMA volunteers’ monthly visits to Nanzhuang have evolved over the years. Presently, each visit entails a free clinic at one fixed location, Donghe Elementary School, as well as four fixed routes for home visits.

Like family

Dr. Ji Bang-jie (紀邦杰), head of the TIMA Taichung chapter, almost never skips a visit to Nanzhuang. He is always ready to help the disadvantaged solve their medical problems.

His patients used to include Zhang, who was diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfecta (OI) when he was still in elementary school. OI, also known as brittle bone disease, is a genetic disorder characterized by bones that break easily. An aunt looked after him and his younger brother, who also had OI but whose condition was far better than his brother’s. Each time Dr. Ji went to Nanzhuang, he made sure to visit the family.

He gently cared for the bedsores that afflicted Zhang. Bedsore care is no easy task, and Ji racked his brains for ways to improve the brother’s condition. At the suggestion of volunteer Liao Ju-zhen (廖菊珍), the doctor had a multi-function wheelchair customized for Zhang. This wheelchair allowed him to adjust the height of the footrest and was easy to maneuver.

Whatever Dr. Ji did, he had Zhang and his family’s best interests at heart. They were on his mind a lot and like family to him. The feeling was mutual. When Zhang died abruptly, the aunt immediately called Ji. She and the brothers had grown to trust the doctor.

In addition to the Zhang brothers, Dr. Ji has cared for and become close to many other patients and their families in Nanzhuang. Feng De-jin (風德金), 56, is one of them.

When Feng’s parents both died in 2002, he had no choice but to quit his job as a hairdresser and return home to care for his kid brother, who suffered from cerebral palsy.

That was a big change for Feng. Not only did he have to leave behind the work he loved, he was now tasked with caring for his bedridden brother day in and day out. He felt alone and helpless.

The TIMA team learned about their situation and visited them once a month. Dr. Ji, along with a group of medical workers and support volunteers, infused liveliness, energy, and warmth to this otherwise sparsely occupied house.

Besides the regular visits, Ji always phoned Feng a couple of days after each home visit to check on them again. The calls, however short, really warmed Feng up on the inside. “Dr. Ji’s visit every month was support enough for me and my brother. He really didn’t need to call us afterwards, but he always did.” The doctor made him feel safe and cared for. Feng often said he owed Ji a huge debt of gratitude.

Feng lived with and cared for his brother for over ten years. He tended to his needs, slept with him, and watched over him carefully. Then one day in December 2013, his brother died in his sleep. Dr. Ji visited Feng soon after to offer his condolences. “It never occurred to me that my brother would die such a sudden death,” Feng said to Ji with his voice catching in his throat.

Since then, Feng has himself become a volunteer at the TIMA free clinics. When Ji and other volunteers come to town, Feng joins them at Donghe Elementary School and serves as an interpreter between patients and the TIMA members. Feng is a member of the Saisiyat, one of the indigenous peoples in Taiwan. When his fellow Saisiyats come to be treated at the free clinic, they may need help communicating with the TIMA care providers.

Feng thinks that is the least that he can do to pay back his debt to Dr. Ji.

A TIMA doctor carefully listens to a patient’s chest at a free clinic in Nanzhuang, Miaoli.

“Would you be my son?”

Xiangtianhu is a small village in Nanzhuang higher up in the mountains. Old, low homes dot the surrounding hills. Some roofs have collapsed and have been patched up with makeshift metal sheets to keep out the rain. Mostly only older people live in these homes because their children have moved to the cities for work.

Dr. Chen Cheng-jin (陳成金) walked along a path in the village, trailed by a team of other TIMA volunteers. By the way he traversed the mountain paths, it was obvious he was very familiar with the area. Someone behind him asked, “How many times have you been here, Dr. Chen?”

Jiang Zhao-rong (江昭瑢), a nurse, responded before Dr. Chen could answer: “Dr. Chen rarely misses the monthly free clinics, and he always works this route. He’s familiar with every case family on this route, and he’s very popular with them.”

Smiling and nodding, Chen added, “I’ve been with some of the families since their cases were first opened, going as far back as 2003.”

As they approached the home of Xia Yu-jiao
(夏玉嬌), Chen hollered to announce their arrival. Xia, 107, knew the TIMA team was visiting her this day, so she had groomed herself early in the morning and then sat waiting for them in her living room.

Born in 1910 into the home of a Saisiyat chief in the area, Xia is the last Saisiyat princess in the region. She is multilingual—she can speak Saisiyat and is conversational in Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, and Japanese. Dr. Chen grew up speaking his native Hakka, so he often talks to Xia in that language. “Dr. Chen has cared for me for almost ten years,” Xia said. “I really appreciate his help. He’s kept me in such good shape.”

Tzu Chi volunteers started visiting Xia and her family in 2002. Her granddaughter-in-law had just passed away, leaving behind three small children, the youngest of whom was just a first grader. Xia’s only son had long been bedridden due to a stroke. His veteran’s pension had been hardly enough to pay his medical bills. Xia’s family was in bad financial shape and needed help.

Chen usually brings medications, artificial skin, and nutritional supplements when he visits Xia and her family. He also talks to her. It seems mundane, but she  often does not have anyone with whom she can talk.

Chen recalled one day in July some years back. He was reviewing Xia’s medical record in preparation for an upcoming trip to Nanzhuang when he suddenly noticed that she would turn 101 in August. Waiting till their visit in August to celebrate would be too late, so he brought a cake on their July visit, and the group gave the centenarian a surprise birthday celebration. Since then, he has celebrated her birthday every year on their July trip.

When they visited Xia in July 2016 to celebrate her 106th birthday, they also wheeled her son out of his room to join the festivity in the living room. Xia broke into a big smile upon seeing her son; she was so happy she forgot to swallow the bite of cake still in her mouth.

Why was she so thrilled to see her own son?

Though she and her son lived under the same roof, they did not see each other often. Both were unable to move about freely, and their rooms were some distance apart. Her son’s daughter-in-law looked after him, but she had other responsibilities to tend to, and so she could not get him out of his room very often. As a result, Xia saw her son only a few times a year.

Now both of them were in the living room eating cake. The sight of him eating one bite of cake after another—an indication that he was in reasonable health—made Xia quite relieved. He swallowed another bite, and she, happy and pleased, also ingested the cake that was still in her mouth.

As the team was leaving, Xia took Chen’s arm and, with a shade of shyness crossing her face, she said, “Dr. Chen, would you be my son?”

“Gladly,” Chen replied. How many people ever have a centenarian mother? How could he not jump at the offer?

Like Xia, all the old people in Nanzhuang look forward to the TIMA visits, and when their favorite doctors do not show up on a visit, they are often disappointed. The bonding and the longing to see each other are shared between the seniors and the volunteers, who value their interactions with the old folks. “One trip a month is hardly enough for us to do very much for them,” said Dr. Chen, “and yet we’ve all learned so much from them. We see how they face pain and suffering without complaining, and that has really taught us to be more grateful in our lives.”

Beyond the obvious points that the healthy and the better-to-do are helping the sick and the worse-to-do, they have developed family-like bonds—warm, caring, and inextricable.

“It is true that we’ve given them medical services,” reflected Chen. “But in substance they have, through their own circumstances, given us an education, an opportunity for us to be more perceptive of blessings that envelop us. By treating them like family, we also help the elderly or sick people feel less lonely.”

The visitors care for the hosts, the hosts love them back, and the story continues.

Dr. Ji Bang-jie often visits patients in remote communities. He spares no effort in serving elderly citizens and people with limited mobility who have difficulty obtaining medical help.

Not a matter of cost-effectiveness

Dr. Zhang Dong-xiang (張東祥), also on the TIMA team, made the wish while he was still in medical school that he would one day serve the disadvantaged in remote locations. He took the first step toward that goal in 1995 when he left his work in Taipei, his hometown, and moved to Toufen, Miaoli, a town far less endowed with medical resources than Taipei. He began practicing there as an orthopedic surgeon.

One day in 2003, a Tzu Chi volunteer went to his clinic and asked him for a diagnosis report on a patient who was a Tzu Chi care recipient. The volunteer needed the report to pay off the medical bills that the patient had incurred. Zhang provided the report and asked the volunteer about TIMA. The next day the volunteer gave him an application form and invited him to join. That’s how Zhang became the first TIMA doctor in the Miaoli area.

One day Zhang went with other TIMA members to Nanzhuang. As they approached a care recipient’s house, they smelled a strong stench coming from it. Everyone entered the house, but a nurse, distracted by the abhorrent odor, dropped a blood sugar monitor she was holding. Without delay and without a word, Zhang squatted down and, despite the foul things on the floor, helped her find the monitor.

“In hospitals, many surgeons, particularly hot shots, tend to arrogantly order nurses around,” the nurse said afterwards, recalling that incident. “I was amazed by Dr. Zhang’s humility.”

Some young aborigines in the mountain communities that the TIMA team visits are given to habitual drinking, smoking, and betel nut chewing—a lifestyle that has led many of them, despite their young ages, to develop chronic diseases such as cirrhosis, high blood pressure, or high blood sugar. Often they persist in their harmful habits even though TIMA members repeatedly urge them to quit. Faced with such stubborn patients, some medical workers feel frustrated and question the value of their home visits.

Once a nurse, disheartened by one such patient, asked Dr. Zhang, “Should we go see him again? Isn’t it just a waste of our time and resources?”

Zhang answered, “Undoubtedly some people are set in their ways, but if we keep up our efforts, then some day when the time is ripe we may bring about some change.”

Zhang once had doubts about their work too. When he first started his monthly TIMA visits to Nanzhuang, he noticed that each visit usually involved 60 or so physicians, pharmacists, nurses, and support personnel, often outnumbering the patients that they went to care for. He questioned the cost-effectiveness of these activities, and so he asked Dr. Ji, the head of the TIMA Taichung chapter, about whether the benefit of the project really justified the efforts of the whole team. Ji did not give him an answer.

More than a decade has passed since that time, and Zhang has finally found the answer himself. He has come to a deeper realization of the meaning of their work: Helping others brings more joy to you than the joy you bring to them, and the helpers actually learn a lot about life from the very people whom they help. The fulfillment from helping others keeps you happily going. At the same time, you cannot put a price on the positive differences that you make in some people’s lives.

A TIMA team consists of medical professionals and support volunteers. Through regular home visits, they build up bonds with care recipients.

A dinosaur party

Zhang brought Dr. Lian Jin-chang (連進昌) into TIMA.

Lian used to work as a pediatrician in a large hospital in Taipei. Deep down he remembered what his mother had always wanted him to do: “Come home and care for your townsfolk.” He therefore quit his job 26 years ago and returned to his native Zhunan, Miaoli, to start his own clinic.

In 2006, Lian took his mother to Zhang’s orthopedic clinic for treatment. Upon learning that Lian was a physician like himself, Zhang, already a TIMA member, invited him to join the association. Zhang told him he went with members of the TIMA Taichung chapter to Nanzhuang to hold free clinics every month, and that he hoped more local doctors in Miaoli could join up and serve. The invitation fell on fertile soil. Lian not only joined up—he also got his mother and wife to serve as support volunteers.

Yonghe Mountain, located in a particularly remote part of Miaoli, features a reservoir, and cultivated citrus plants cover much of its slopes. Tourists flock there for the scenery and the experience of picking fruit right from the trees.

Zhang Yong-qi (張永錡) used to live near the top of the mountain with his mother, who hails from Indonesia, before he passed away in 2016. No other families lived with them. Zhang suffered from ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a progressive nervous system disease that destroys nerve cells and causes disability. His mother had to turn him once an hour through the night to relieve him of the pain of sleeping on his bedsores.

Their struggle led TIMA members to visit them every month. The volunteers gave them medications, cared for Zhang’s bedsores, and taught his mother how to help him do rehabilitation exercises.

Dr. Lian’s mother, now 86, really felt for the family. She worried most of all about their being all alone at home in a sparsely populated area. She was concerned that nobody would be able to give them a hand in case of an emergency, and she grew to love Zhang and his mother as if they were her own grandson and daughter. Despite the fact that she had bone spurs in her legs and had to endure pain walking uphill to reach their home, she insisted on going with the TIMA team to visit them month after month.

Zhang, usually a taciturn young man, occasionally uttered “Grandma” when he saw Mrs. Lian. That was more than enough to thoroughly wipe away her pain or discomfort from the hike.

Besides the monthly visits, Dr. Lian and his mother, along with the nurse and pharmacist from his clinic, made additional visits. They brought pharmaceuticals and medical supplies and changed dressings for Zhang. In the face of his irreversible condition, Lian knew how limited their help was. The best that they could do for him and his mother was to be there for them as much as they could and to give them some relief.

When Zhang was turning 20 in 2015, Lian decided to stage a surprise birthday celebration for him. On October 23, 2015, a group of “dinosaurs” bustled into the Zhang residence: a triceratops (Mrs. Lian), a tyrannosaurus rex (Dr. Lian), a pterodactyl, and a corythosaurus (other volunteers). The doctor had known that Zhang loved dinosaurs, so they dressed up as different kinds of dinosaurs and howled and yowled as they marched into his home.

Recognizing the triceratops, Zhang excitedly but slowly uttered, “Grand…ma.” Mrs. Lian happily rubbed him.

“Here, we also brought a dinosaur cake,” someone said. Mrs. Lian held Zhang and his mother by the hand as they cut the cake. Zhang was all smiles, grinning from ear to ear, but his mother was moved to tears as she said to the visitors, “Thank you for throwing a birthday party for Yong-qi. Thank you for loving him so much.” Mrs. Lian put her arm around the mother’s shoulders and said, “You’re not alone here in Taiwan. You have us.”

Zhang passed away in May 2016, just as the citrus trees on the mountain were putting out buds for a new season. By that time, TIMA members had cared for him for eight years. Though Zhang’s passing concluded TIMA’s medical mission for him, non-medical volunteers have continued to visit the mother regularly. She in turn frequently visits Mrs. Lian at her home as a daughter would return home to see her mother.

Dr. Chen Cheng-jin chats with centenarian Xia Yu-jiao at her home. Wen Yu-jiao

Members of the TIMA team in Taichung started their visits to Nanzhuang, Miaoli, in 2002. Over the years, many physicians and nurses in the Miaoli area have joined them in this on-going effort. Some of them bring their spouses along, and some even bring their whole families.

Although the Nanzhuang project has been running smoothly, Dr. Ji continues to go on almost every trip there, taking with him young students, physicians, and nurses so that they can experience the need and the joy of helping the less fortunate.

Master Cheng Yen says, “If suffering people cannot come to us, we must go to them to relieve them of suffering and give them joy.” It is the mission of TIMA members to help ease the afflictions of the world and bring sunshine and hope to those tormented by illness.

A TIMA team prays before a free clinic gets under way.



Medicine For Deportees

By Zhang Li-yun

Translated by Tang Yau-yang

Photos by Hsiao Yiu-hwa

They were caught for staying illegally in Taiwan and were detained at the Nantou Detention Center pending deportation back to their home countries. Taiwanese people have tried to soothe their anxiety and treat their illnesses.

One day, Hong Qi-fen (洪啟芬) received a letter. Postmarked in Japan, the letter didn’t flow so well in some places, but it was neatly hand-written. Part of the letter read:

“During my stay at the Nantou Detention Center, you gave me medications to lower my blood pressure and sleeping pills to help me sleep better. I felt shy to receive such kindness, but I had nothing to give back.    “After returning to Japan, I looked for work in Kyushu and Shikoku. For two months now I’ve worked as a laborer on construction sites, trading my toil for a small wage. With the pay I’ve saved, I can now pay you back for the kindness you and your countrymen showed me.    “I made a small donation to the Japan Tzu Chi branch in return for your warm-heartedness, friendship, and help. I don’t believe I will ever be able to return to Taiwan, and that makes me feel lonely.”

Attached to the letter was a receipt that the Japan Tzu Chi branch in Tokyo had issued to the letter writer for his donation of 40,000 Japanese yen (US$360).

The author of the letter, Michiru Igawa, while detained in Nantou, central Taiwan, had been a patient of Dr. Hong.

A TIMA team visits the Nantou Detention Center every month to provide free medical care to the illegal foreigners detained there.


A Japan connection

Despite the cold weather early one morning in February 2011, patients already packed Dr. Hong’s clinic when another pair walked in. The younger was propping up a sickly man, as they entered. The latter, looking haggard and about 60 years of age, had his hands cuffed and feet shackled. The younger man was Liu San-xian (<B$T=ã), a staffer from the Nantou Detention Center.

“Dr. Hong, he’s been edgy for a few days, his face swollen and red,” Liu said. “We’re worried that he might have a stroke, so we decided to bring him here for an examination.”

Hong judged from experience that the patient was probably suffering from hypertension. He checked the old man’s blood pressure and discovered it was exactly what he had suspected—way above the normal range. “It’s dangerously high,” Hong declared. “Luckily, there’s no sign of a stroke or a heart attack. I’ll give him drugs to lower the pressure. Bring him back another day on an empty stomach for blood and urine tests.”

“Do you feel any discomfort?” Hong asked the patient when the latter had become more emotionally settled. He found that the gentleman couldn’t speak Chinese, so he began speaking to him in English.

The staffer from the Nantou Detention Center gave the doctor some more information about the patient. “He’s from Japan; his name is Michiru Igawa. He had drifted around Taiwan for three months when the police picked him up and sent him to our detention center. He had overstayed his visa. We’re in the process of sending him back to Japan.”

Still thinking of Igawa the following day and concerned about his health, Dr. Hong said to his wife, Chen Mei-hui (陳美惠), “Perhaps you and I should get an interpreter, bring some food, and pay him a visit at the detention center?”

At the center, the couple saw a neatly dressed and combed Igawa. He was already looking much better than he had the day before, after just one night’s rest. He bowed and thanked Hong the moment he saw him. “Arigato [thank you]!” Through the interpreter, Hong learned more about the man.

Igawa was once a construction worker in Chiba Prefecture, home of the famous Narita International Airport, but he lost his job and started to drift. After one family member after another died, he was struck by life’s impermanence. He took it hard and felt like drifting away to a foreign country. With a few essentials in a backpack and a sleeping bag, he wandered through China, Vietnam, and some other Southeast Asian countries. Several times he overstayed his visitor visa, was caught by authorities, and was deported back to Japan.

He eventually landed in Taiwan in October 2010, with his entire savings of 100,000 Japanese yen (US$900) on him. He passed through Hsinchu and made his way southward.

When he found no suitable place to spend the night, he slept on the street, for which he was taken to a police station twice. But since his papers were still in order, the police didn’t make things difficult for him. Instead, they treated him to some noodles and let him go.

By the time he reached Tainan, he had all but run out of money. Driven by hunger, he stole a seaweed sushi roll at a supermarket and was caught red-handed. Though the store later dropped all charges against him, the police detained him because his visa had expired. He was sent to the Nantou Detention Center of the National Immigration Agency to be processed for deportation.

“Of all the countries I’ve been to, Taiwan is my favorite,” Igawa said to Dr. Hong and his wife. “Taiwanese people are so warm. I planned to live here for the rest of my life, but that doesn’t seem likely now…” His voice caught as he trailed off.

“We brought you some snacks and thermal underwear,” Hong said. Bowing respectfully to Igawa, he handed over the things that they had brought for him.

“Arigato!” Igawa, obviously touched, thanked the Hongs.

After learning that Igawa had been a vagabond for some time, Hong was concerned that such a lifestyle might have affected his health. He suggested to people at the detention center that they bring the Japanese back to his clinic for a more thorough checkup. A more comprehensive examination revealed that Igawa, in addition to hypertension, had an enlarged heart, myocardial ischemia, weak kidney function, and elevated cholesterol.

Hong cared for him for four months, and Igawa got better. His health stabilized, and he looked a lot more spirited than when he first arrived at the detention center. When his deportation process was completed and he was about to be sent home, Hong and other Tzu Chi volunteers went to the center to say goodbye.

“Dr. Hong, how much do I owe you for the care, medications, and tests that you gave me in the last four months?” he asked shyly through an interpreter.

“Please don’t worry about that,” Hong replied. “All this is free, courtesy of Tzu Chi.”

“Tzu Chi?” Igawa asked, his eyes wide.

“Yes, we’re all Tzu Chi volunteers. Physicians in the Tzu Chi International Medical Association offer free clinics to the needy, including people of other nationalities who are working here,” Hong said. Then he took out a Tzu Chi Monthly magazine. He showed Igawa photos inside that featured Tzu Chi volunteers carrying out relief work in Iwate Prefecture, Japan, after the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami.

“These people in blue and white uniforms are Tzu Chi volunteers. They arrived in heavily hit areas soon after the tsunami to deliver food, supplies, and blankets to victims,” Hong explained. Igawa touched the photos, carefully read the Chinese captions, which he could partially recognize and comprehend, and felt tears fill his own eyes.

“After returning to Japan, feel free to contact the Tokyo Tzu Chi office if you ever need any help,” Hong said, pointing to the contact information of the office in a directory at the end of the magazine. “When you can, you may also be able to help other people in need.”

Hong gave him a Japanese language set of Jing Si Aphorisms by Master Cheng Yen as a farewell gift. Igawa carefully held the books in his hands. With no family in his own homeland now, he cherished even more the care he had received in Taiwan. He could not properly express himself in Chinese, so he bowed deeply to the volunteers and said, “Arigato, Taiwan.”

Three months after Igawa returned to Japan, Hong received the letter mentioned at the beginning of this article. In the letter, Igawa said that he had worked as a construction laborer since his return to Japan and had put away 40,000 yen (US$360), which he had donated to the Tokyo Tzu Chi branch. A receipt for the donation was enclosed in the letter.

Holding the letter, Hong was deeply moved but ambivalent. While he was comforted by the rippling effect of love, his heart went out to Igawa. The Japanese man was already 60, but he had done heavy labor to save money in order to pay back the people who had helped him.

Dr. Hong Qi-fen started taking part in the TIMA free clinics at the Nantou Detention Center in 2009. Outside the monthly free clinics, he also treats detainees brought to his own clinic by center personnel free of charge. He does this in the name of Tzu Chi.

A China connection

The Nantou Detention Center was opened in April 2009 to accommodate illegal aliens in central and southern Taiwan. Lin Yi-jun (林貽俊) was its first warden. While serving at a similar center in Yilan, northern Taiwan, Lin had worked with a TIMA team to bring free clinics to the center’s detainees. Soon after assuming his post at the Nantou center, he got in touch with the TIMA team in central Taiwan. Wasting no time, the two sides launched their first free clinic at the Nantou center on May 3.

Lin pointed out that before foreigners ended up at such a center, they were wary of visiting doctors or hospitals because they did not have valid passports or visas. Being ineligible for national health insurance was a further deterrent. Therefore, they often put their health on the back burner. When they did come to the center and were waiting to be sent back to their country, they unavoidably felt stressed. That wasn’t conducive to good health either. Lin was concerned about their health, so he really hoped that TIMA could offer regular free clinics at the Nantou center.

After evaluation, the TIMA team recommended visiting the center once a month. The center agreed to this arrangement.

The monthly visits to the center began in earnest. Volunteer Peng Xiu-zhen (彭秀蓁) later organized other volunteers to offer additional activities, such as vegetarian cooking and handicraft classes, to help detainees pass the time as they waited to be sent home.

Besides the monthly free clinic, Dr. Hong offered his services on other days. He told the administrators of the center that when TIMA volunteers were not on site, they could take sick detainees to his clinic, just over a mile away. “I will treat them free of charge,” Hong said.

When Hong sees detainees, he not only tends to their physical illnesses but also keeps an eye on their mental and emotional health, and he guides them towards positive thinking. He plants seeds of goodness in their minds, hoping that the seeds may sprout one day.

Hong met Xiaolin after she had been sent to the center in June 2010.

Xiaolin hails from China. After graduating from high school, she married a Taiwanese man in 2005 and settled in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan. She had banked on the marriage to bring her happiness, but it had not worked out that way. Her husband lost his job and began using illicit drugs. Unable to resist the temptation, it wasn’t long before she started taking drugs too.

Her husband was later arrested for drug use. Xiaolin petitioned for a divorce and moved out.

Though she was away from her husband, she could not afford the rent anywhere and began living on the streets. Two months later, police picked her up and sent her to the detention center.

Two days later, she developed a high fever. A center staffer took her to Hong’s clinic for treatment. In light of her drug history, Hong was particularly cautious. He ordered to have her blood drawn for a test, but his staffers could not find a vein that produced enough blood for the tests. Even Dr. Hong himself was unsuccessful. After trying a total of four times, they just could not draw enough blood from her.

“Dr. Hong, please allow me,” Xiaolin offered. She took a syringe and stabbed it in her own arm, apparently knowing exactly what to do and where to do it. Blood flowed into the tube without hesitation, and in no time they had the needed specimen for the lab.

Test results showed a white blood cell count of 18,000, as well as marked heart murmurs. Hong suspected infective endocarditis, which could induce sepsis, a life-threatening condition. He asked center personnel to take Xiaolin to a big hospital nearby for further examination.

The diagnosis there was sepsis induced by infective endocarditis, exactly as Hong had suspected. Xiaolin was hospitalized for two weeks before being released back to the detention center. The center continued to take her to Hong’s clinic for regular follow-ups.

Dr. Hong did much more than care for her health. He also counseled her on quitting the drug vice and kicking her cigarette habit. Six months later, she had regained her health, quit drugs, and stopped smoking.

Before her scheduled deportation to China, Hong and his wife bought 250 cupcakes in Xiaolin’s name to treat all the people held at the center. Everybody wished her the best in her new endeavors in her homeland. Immersed in the happy atmosphere and feeling loved, Xiaolin said with a sigh, “I had the worst of luck marriage-wise, but the best of luck at the center. I have met really great people here.”

The Hongs stayed in contact with Xiaolin after her return to China. They have exchanged emails with her, and they informed Tzu Chi volunteers in her hometown of her situation so that they could continue caring for her.

In her emails, Xiaolin repeatedly thanked the Hongs for their help, and she vowed to help others when she is able.

Hong, center, and Igawa Michiru, of Japan, left, at the Nantou Detention Center, where the latter is being held pending deportation for an expired visa. Huang Yu-ren


Hong’s Tzu Chi tie

Over the years, countless heart-warming stories like these have unfolded at the center. Without health insurance, locked up in a strange land, the detainees really appreciate Hong’s help, but Hong thinks nothing of what he has done for them. He feels he is merely doing what he should do.

Hong grew up without a care in the world. He did very well in school, and his life was largely easy. He did not really know what suffering was. He had no idea about the hunger, adversity, and hardship that prevail in many corners of the world.

He came to know Tzu Chi after a strong earthquake struck central Taiwan on September 21, 1999. In its wake, Tzu Chi funded the rebuilding of Qiaoguang Elementary School in Caotun, Nantou County. Hong’s daughter was a student there at the time, so he learned about the foundation.

He occasionally helped out at TIMA free clinics after that. He thought of his help as nothing much more than a routine service for free—he would go to a free clinic and see some patients, and then go back to his old life and carry on living as usual. His involvement with Tzu Chi was superficial then, and his understanding of the foundation was limited.

Then came another earthquake, this time in Wenchuan, Sichuan Province, China, in May 2008. Team after team of Tzu Chi volunteers traveled to the disaster area to help the victims. At the strong urging of other volunteers, Hong joined in to help provide free medical services in Sichuan.

When he arrived in Luoshui, one of the areas badly damaged in the quake, he was totally unprepared for what he saw. The massive devastation and destruction of things as far as his eyes could see really shook him up and opened his eyes to a world of misery and suffering that he had not known existed.

One day in Luoshui, a dozen quake victims who had missed the free clinic that morning asked Hong to check on them. However, Hong had to go with his group to another free clinic site. If he obliged, he would open the door to similar requests, which would undoubtedly mess up the team’s tight schedule. He painfully declined their request, and he went with his team to do what had been scheduled for that afternoon.

He later learned that those people just waited there until the next morning when another free clinic would start on that spot.

What he saw and experienced in the disaster area had a huge impact on him. The physical destruction and the helplessness of the victims shocked him to the core. After he returned to Taiwan, he became an active participant in TIMA free clinics, and he also started training to become a certified Tzu Chi volunteer. One year later, his wife also became a Tzu Chi volunteer and began caring for the foreigners housed in the detention center.

Hong reflected on his life journey over the years. “I used to work hard and take great comfort in seeing my bank accounts swelling. My life was like a money-printing machine, seemingly exciting at first but, like that machine, lacking spiritual fulfillment or any vibes of life.” He was once of the mindset that since he had worked hard, he deserved to travel to different places in the world every year and indulge himself. But now all that has changed. Now the focus of his life is helping others. Seeing patients is no longer just a job to him; instead he is driven by a sense of mission. He puts himself in the shoes of his patients as he works to lessen their misery and add to their joy.

TIMA members work in a free clinic at the Taipei Railway Station for foreigners working in Taiwan. By the end of 2016, in a span of 13 years, TIMA had held 65 such clinics at the station. Huang Ming-cun


Free Medical Services For
 Street People

By Gao Yu-mei

Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting

If you have a chronic illness, you need to stay on medication. If you have a wound, you need to have it cleaned regularly to stave off infection. Both are hard to do for street people. Seeing a need, Tzu Chi began working with the Zenan Homeless Social Welfare Foundation to take care of the health of street people.

It was nearing noon. Leaning on a walking stick, Yi-yuan (not his real name), tottered along a street in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan. The vagrant had been walking around for most of the morning, peddling chewing gum. Business was bad this day and he hadn’t sold a single package. His stomach growled with hunger.

The half of a steamed bun he had eaten for breakfast had long been digested. He knew he had to hurry to the local homeless station set up by the Zenan Homeless Social Welfare Foundation to get something to eat; otherwise he might pass out on the street as his blood sugar kept going down.

The Zenan Foundation provides two meals a day to street people, using ingredients that are mostly donated. Thanks to the compassion of these kind-hearted people, some vagabonds are saved from starving.

“Yi-yuan, how’s business today?” a fellow vagrant, A-feng, asked half teasingly and half out of concern.

“Uhhh,” Yi-yuan sighed. “Don’t even mention it. Poor me... Have you eaten? I’m ravenous.” Short of breath, Yi-yuan settled down on a stool at the Zenan Foundation’s Taoyuan station.

At the sight of him, Zhang Zi-wen (張子文), the head of the station, asked, “Yi-yuan, have you stayed on your medication? Dr. Chen is coming tomorrow. If you haven’t taken care of yourself, you’d better brace yourself for a good scolding from the doctor.”

“Yes, yes, I’ve been taking the medicine, but I can’t help it if my blood pressure has a will of its own,” said Yi-yuan, a little slurred in his speech. A previous stroke had impaired his speech and mobility.

At the Taoyuan station of the Zenan Foundation, Dr. Chen treats physical illnesses and acts as a psychological counselor for homeless people. By listening patiently to them, he helps ease their anguish and worries. Xie Jia-cheng


A good doctor

The doctor that Zhang was talking about was Chen Yang-lin (陳仰霖). Dr. Chen has practiced in Yingge, which neighbors Taoyuan, for nearly 30 years. He is a caring physician. Nowadays not many doctors make house calls for patients, but he still goes to the homes of people who have difficulty moving around.

Mr. Zeng, bedridden due to a spinal cord injury, lived near Chen’s clinic. It was hard for him to have bowel movements, and he was extremely uncomfortable. His wife called Chen’s clinic for help.

At Zeng’s home, Chen carefully examined him by pressing on his abdomen. Then he said to the wife, “It’ll be better if I get it out.” When he was done, Mr. Zeng’s face visibly relaxed. Mrs. Zeng thanked Chen over and over. He simply replied, “I just did what I should do.”

Chen has a busy practice at his clinic, but he still sets aside the second Tuesday morning of every month to see street people free of charge at the Zenan Foundation’s Taoyuan station. He started serving there at the invitation of Tzu Chi volunteer Wang Shu-hui (王淑惠).

Wang has long been a support volunteer at TIMA free clinics. That’s where she learned about the Zenan Foundation and its commitment to serving underprivileged people, including the homeless. The foundation provided food, shelter, and shower facilities for street people. It also offered them psychological counseling and helped them find jobs. But at the time, it was in no position to provide free medical services.

Having cared for disadvantaged people for a long time, Wang knew the helplessness of people who had ended up on the streets and how difficult it was for them to get medical attention. In 2008, she invited a group of loving medical professionals to work with the Zenan Foundation and conduct regular free clinics and health checkups for the homeless.

In response to her appeal, Dr. Chen and his wife, Lin Su-ling (林素玲), who is a nurse, started visiting the Taoyuan station every month to render services.

Staff from the Zhongli station of the Zenan Foundation and Tzu Chi volunteers from Longgan, Zhongli, invite a street person to a Dragon Boat Festival event that was held jointly by the TIMA Northern Taiwan chapter and the Zenan Foundation. ​Qiu Ting


Continuous care

Ye-zi, also a vagrant, showed up at the monthly free clinic at the station. His face was yellowish and covered in stubble, his eyes vacuous. Dr. Chen could tell by looking at him that something was wrong with his health.

“You’ve lost quite a lot of weight,” Chen said to Ye-zi. “Are you still drinking?”

Ye-zi sighed. “I know what you’re getting at, Dr. Chen. I was in pain all last night. If I hadn’t drunk some alcohol, I wouldn’t have slept a single wink.”

Chen was about to advise Ye-zi to cut down on booze, but when he saw his vacuous eyes, he swallowed the words. The doctor knew that some street people use alcohol to numb themselves and to temporarily forget what they once had in life, the pain of being separated from their families, and the anguish they have inflicted on their loved ones. Only in an alcohol-induced stupor can they imagine themselves to be different people, the people they want to be.

Knowing there is probably a sad story behind every street person, Chen refrains from admonishing them when they do not follow his advice and continue to drink and smoke to the detriment of their health. He feels that scolding won’t do any good and that instead he should use his expertise as best he can to improve the quality of their lives. He often reminds himself and the people around him: “Try putting yourself in their shoes. Then maybe we’ll be able to come up with a better way to help them learn to take better care of themselves.”

Chen moved his stethoscope to various parts of Ye-zi’s body and listened closely; then he slightly knitted his brows. He judged that the reason for the patient’s weight loss needed further study. “I’m going to arrange for you to have a thorough examination at a big hospital,” he said to Ye-zi.

Through a free clinic like this, Chen and other TIMA volunteers guide the homeless to pay more attention to their health and help them get proper care when they are diagnosed with major illnesses. Only with good health will the homeless have a chance of getting back on their feet again.

Wang recalled an episode that had stuck in her memory. It happened one day when she was arriving at the Taoyuan station to volunteer at a free clinic. Before she could go through the entrance door, a man stopped her and told her he wished to donate to the station two bags of rice he was holding. He said he had once received care from the Zenan Foundation and through their help had found a steady job. Though his income was not much, he had been able to leave behind his life as a bum and move on to a better life. Those two bags of rice were a token thank-you from him to the foundation and embodied his wish to pay back to society.

Wang remarked, “Whenever I see any of the street people regain their footing as a result of our help, I feel renewed energy to keep going. By giving them a hand when they are down and out, we hope to help them feel some warmth from society.”

Dr. Kao Yee-hsin (高以信) cleans a diabetic patient’s wound at the Tainan Station of the Zenan Foundation. TIMA members from southern Taiwan pay monthly visits to the station to offer free medical care to street people.  Zhong Yi-rui


Medicine for physical illness, an ear for mental pain

“Raise your left foot a little higher. Use some more force. Hold on steady to the banister. Take your time. Very good.” It was Yi-yuan’s turn to see the doctor. A nurse helped him up a flight of stairs to the second floor.

Dr. Chen observed Yi-yuan closely as he walked towards him, then said to him, “You’re walking a lot better now! Do you still peddle chewing gum every day?”

Winded from the climb, Yi-yuan answered, “Yes, I do. But I often don’t earn enough money to buy food. When I don’t have stuff to eat, my blood sugar goes haywire.”

Having been a “family doctor” for street people for a number of years, Chen is well aware of the effect irregular meals have on the homeless and how it compounds the difficulty of getting their blood pressure and blood sugar under control. At the same time, he knows that it is a situation the homeless cannot do much about. “I can only adjust their medicine the best I can to help their conditions stay as stable as possible.” Chen often puts himself in the shoes of the homeless, and he has earned their trust as a result.

He thought back to the days when he first began seeing the homeless. “When I talked to or examined them, I could often feel them sizing me up.” But their wary, skeptical attitudes have long faded. Chen’s continuous care of them and thoughtfulness have won them over.

After he finished seeing Yi-yuan and went on to the next patient, Yi-yuan sat off to one side and didn’t leave. Chen occasionally glanced at him from the corner of his eye and knew that he was waiting for him.

When Chen was done with the last patient of the day, he pulled a chair over to where Yi-yuan was sitting and said, “Yi-yuan, do you have something to say to me?”

Yi-yuan had once studied abroad. After he finished his studies and returned to Taiwan, he went into business and made a lot of money. Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last. Some investments went awry. He was scammed at a casino. Then his business partner ran off with their money. The fatal blow came when his wife and children left him. Once on top of the world, he fell into an abyss of misery. The successful businessman became deeply mired in debt.

Devastated, Yi-yuan took to drinking to drown his sorrows. He eventually ended up on the streets. At the Taoyuan station, he encountered Dr. Chen and other volunteers. Their sincere care led him to trust them.

His eyes never leaving Yi-yuan’s face, Chen listened attentively as he poured out his sorrows to him, and he nodded every now and then to acknowledge something he had said. “We must help them feel that there are people in the world that still care for them and are willing to listen to them,” said Chen. He is not a psychiatrist, but at the station he listens to his patients as though he is. “Having an audience helps them to let off some steam, so I lend an ear when they open up to me. I may not be able to solve their problems,

Summer 2017