Pneumoconiosis activist Zhang Haichao gets life-saving double-lung transplant

15 July 2013

Four years ago, a young migrant worker, Zhang Haichao, came to national prominence after voluntarily undergoing surgery to prove that he was suffering from the deadly lung disease pneumoconiosis.

Early this year, Zhang’s condition had worsened to such an extent that his life was in danger and his only option was an even more complex and costly surgery - a double-lung transplant. Zhang successfully underwent the ten hour operation on 28 June and is now in recovery.

Zhang talked to the Southern Metropolis Daily about the operation and his controversial decision to reveal a secret deal with the local government in Henan in which he actually got double the 615,000 yuan compensation that was publicly announced at the time.

The Southern Metropolis Daily report by Sun Xuyang “开胸验肺”的张海超已进行双肺移植 was published on 11 July and is translated by CLB below.

“Open-chest surgery” Zhang Haichao gets double-lung transplant

Zhang Haichao’s ten-hour lung transplant operation was carried out at the Wuxi People’s Hospital by renowned expert, Professor Chen Jingyu, head of the hospital’s lung transplant department. Professor Chen said that Zhang’s double-lung transplant was very difficult because his pneumoconiosis had resulted in numerous nodules in the lung lobes. Moreover, the open-chest surgery from four years ago had caused adhesions between Zhang’s right lung and the pleura, which made removal rather difficult. Normally such a procedure would only take half an hour, but in Zhang’s case, it took over two hours.

The adhesions in Zhang’s right lung had eventually caused a pneumothorax to develop during this year’s Spring Festival, putting Zhang’s life in imminent danger. On February 14, he was admitted to Henan Provincial Chest Hospital for treatment but his condition didn’t improve. In mid-April, on the recommendation of experts in Beijing, Zhang was transferred to the specialist hospital in Wuxi and placed on a lung transplant waiting list. However, due to the lack of donor lungs and the short supply of type-B blood, which Zhang needed, he had to wait for more than two months for the surgery.

“Zhang lost a lot of blood during the surgery,” Professor Chen said, “but he’s young and he’s recovering well at the moment.”

After the surgery, Zhang had to rely on oxygen until 5 July. “I don’t know when I can be discharged exactly. The hospital has been taking great care of me, asking me to only check out when I’m better,” Zhang said. At present, he said, his only discomfort is the pain he feels in his chest.

Last November, Zhang told the Southern Metropolis Daily that he would not consider a lung transplant because, for one thing, the surgery would be too expensive. Moreover, he would have to take medicines all his life and have reduced mobility. He said it would be like “a living death.” However, during the Spring Festival this year, Zhang developed a life-threatening pneumothorax and this made him change his mind.  Zhang said he could not bear the thought of leaving his elderly parents and daughter behind.

Zhang had been advised by his doctors to keep warm and not to go out in the winter. However, last winter, Zhang was determined to find a guardian for his daughter in the event of his own death and travelled extensively in order to find the right person. At the same time, he was helping other workers with pneumoconiosis file lawsuits for compensation and get publicity for their cases. All of these activities led to the rapid deterioration of his condition to the point where his life would be in danger without a lung transplant.

“The doctor told me to be extremely careful from then on.” However Zhang vowed to continue helping other workers with pneumoconiosis the best he could. “They are miserable and I cannot turn my back on them,” he said.

The doctor told Zhang that the life span for patients after a double-lung transplant varied from person to person. “Some patients in the western countries can survive as long as ten to 20 years. For Chinese patients, they generally have a shorter life.”

The truth is revealed

On 8 July, Zhang sent an email to the Southern Metropolis Daily with the subject “The inside story of the large amount of compensation obtained by me and my co-workers.” In the email, he revealed how four years ago, under pressure from local officials and their concern to “maintain stability,” he had agreed to conceal the actual amount of compensation the workers had received for their occupational disease.

“When I was notified that I would have surgery on 28 June, I sent a letter to a friend.” If the surgery was not successful, Zhang told the friend to make the letter public.

The more than 1,500 character letter revealed that following the media uproar caused by his open-chest surgery four years ago, provincial government officials ordered that the matter be dealt with as quickly as possible. The company that Zhang had been employed at, Zhendong Abrasive Materials Co. Ltd. had dozens of other workers with the same disease. They had become ill at different times but now they were all demanding compensation at the same time. In order to smooth things over, officials from the city of Xinmi, where the factory was located, visited each worker in turn to negotiate compensation deals.

“From the moment that I got the medical test results and was classified as having a Grade Three occupational injury, the local leaders came from everywhere to patiently to discuss my compensation.” Zhang was fully aware that the medical expenses facing him later would be excessive and that he did not have work-related injury insurance to cover the bills. Zhang’s initial demand was for two million yuan. Negotiations continued for many days with no result.

On 31 August 2009, Zhang learned that three co-workers, Gao Shuiwu, Shang Wenge and Wang Youcai, had signed compensation agreements ranging from 270,000 yuan to 315,000 yuan. “After days of negotiation, several leaders and representatives of the employer continually implied that I was just about the last holdout and most workers had already accepted compensation deals. Media interest was beginning to fade at that time and I knew an extended deadlock like this would not benefit me at all.”

After talking to his family, Zhang agreed to accept 1.2 million yuan in compensation. However, as part of the deal, Zhang agreed not to file a lawsuit against Xinmi Epidemic Prevention Clinic for concealing the results of his earlier physical examination or the Zhengzhou Occupational Disease Prevention and Treatment Centre for its earlier misdiagnosis. Moreover, the terms of the agreement and the true amount of compensation were to be kept confidential.

Zhang formally signed three compensation agreements on 16 September 2009. The first agreement showed the compensation from his former employer was 615, 000 yuan. The second agreement stated that the township government offered a subsidy of 285,000 yuan. The third agreement said the municipal government provided 300,000 as a relief fund. The total compensation added up to 1.2 million yuan. The first agreement was in triplicate. The employer, the department involved in the mediation and Zhang each kept one copy. “The second and third agreements were kept by the employer only. They didn’t give me a copy, saying it was useless for me anyway. By doing so, they wanted to prevent me from making the matter public.”

The 1.2 million yuan compensation package was made in two tranches, both from the employer’s account. The first transfer of 900,000 yuan was made before the agreement was signed, and the remaining 300,000 yuan was transferred later.

Working to help other victims of pneumoconiosis

Months later, Zhang found out that the other workers had signed similar contracts. “Because my co-workers and I worked with the authorities to hide the real amount of compensation, that actually reduced the company’s economic exposure and the difficulties faced by the local government, and as a result, those who were compensated later only got around 100,000 to 200,000 yuan.”

Zhang argued that: “Even though I have helped to conceal the truth about the large amount of hush money, I have never done anything to harm others in enriching myself, neither have I received any charitable assistance from the public.”

Over the last four years, Zhang has travelled the country helping individual workers with pneumoconiosis and whole communities devastated by the disease. Often he has paid for the delivery of medicine and oxygen tanks to workers with pneumoconiosis in his home province of Henan. And in February 2010, he donated 10,000 yuan to China Coal Miner Pneumoconiosis Prevention and Treatment Foundation.

The problem facing Zhang at the moment is that, even after getting 1.2 million yuan, the hugely expensive double-lung transplant operation has left him with just 300,000 yuan and he will have to take costly anti-rejection medicines regularly in the coming days in order to stay alive. “My medical expenses, plus the school fees for my daughter Qiqi, will amount to around 100,000 yuan a year,” he said.

Zhang said that the reason he decided to come clean about the actual level of compensation was because “hopefully this this can now become the national standard for pneumoconiosis compensation, and that every worker with pneumoconiosis will get a second chance at life, and give their families a little more security.”

Several Zhengzhou officials in the know have confirmed Zhang’s statement. The spokesman for the Xinmi municipal government, Li Shaoguang, said however that many of the officials who handled Zhang’s case had moved on and could no longer be contacted. The office of Zhengdong Technology Co. Ltd. (the employer’s current name) refused to comment on Zhang’s statement, claiming no one in authority was available.

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