Shortly after the quake, Gao Zhihong was transferred to Xuzhou, Jiangsu province, and then Cangzhou in Hebei for treatment on her legs. She did not return to Tangshan until 1980.
Gao’s boyfriend broke off their relationship when he learned she would never walk again. “I was desperate, I cried myself to sleep every night for several years,” she said.
At the time, she was unaware that her future husband was in the same position. Yang Yufang, then 26, was also paralyzed in the quake, and was sent to larger cities for medical treatment. He found it hard to accept that his life had changed for good.
“When I returned to Tangshan, I put some clothes over my head, so I couldn’t see the destruction in the city. Also, I was afraid to be seen; I was so ashamed of being crippled,” said Yang, whose father and brother died in the quake.
Although it took a long time, he was eventually able to accept the reality of the situation. “What happened had happened. I couldn’t rewrite history. There were only two paths in front ofme— tolive or to die. I chose to live,” he said.
“There was no use being angry or resentful. Once I had chosen to live, I had to face reality, to accept it and make the best of it.”
Although Gao and Yang returned to Tangshan independently, they both moved into a clinic owned by the city, and met as patients there in 1981.
In the past four decades, more than 1,800 people paralyzed in the earthquake have been treated at the clinic, and 120 of them still live there.
Inthe 1980s, all college graduates were assigned jobs by the government, and in 1982, when Gao had recovered, she was given a job as a preschool teacher. Despite her background as an engineering major in college, she was gratified to be given a teaching job.
In those days, college graduates were seen as real talents andwereoftenknownas “State treasures”. Gao still keeps in touch with her college friends. “They are successful and making their contributions. They are leaders in factories, and some are even successful politicians. Sometimes I envy their success, but my life is peaceful and happy,” she said.
She remembers Aug 15, 1982, her first day at work clearly: “Iwasso excited. Iwas no longer a loser. I had a job and I earned money. I love children. Sometimes when kids cried and would not leave theirmomand dad, some parents put the child on my legs. Because I could not feel my legs, I never tired of the children sitting on them.”
Once Gao had a job, she took her paralyzed mother under her wing. “At first, one ofmy brothers took care ofmy mother. He treated her very well, but I sometimes worried about him. Without a job and with a paralyzed mother to look after, what girl would marry him?”
To resolve the situation, Gao arranged for her mother to move into the clinic. She has taken care of her ever since.
Gao was so busy teaching her studentsandcaring for her mother she failed to notice that Yang, her fellow patient, had fallen in love with her. It took three years, but in 1984, they marriedandmovedinto a 15-square-meter room provided by Gao’s employer.
They still live there. Although they only own a queen-sized bed, a wardrobe, two motorcycles adapted for the disabled and two wheelchairs, the tiny space is packed.
They would like to move to a bigger place, but money is an obstacle. “We can feed ourselves but can hardly afford a newhouse,” Gao said.
Yang earns a living as an itinerant key-cutter, patrolling the streets with his tools. He also writes stories and poems. Sometimes the couple read Yang’s poems at home, or share them with patients at the clinic, which they consider their second home, and at memorial occasions.
“I have experienced so much. I received help and love from others. Without their help, I would have died long ago. I have so much to say — that’s why I started to write,” Yang said, who has written a novel and a play about the earthquake, and both will be published soon.
“After I became paralyzed, difficulty and I became twins,” Yang said.
Gao echoed his sentiments: “Some of the things most people can do in five minutes take us a lot of effort to accomplish. Losing the ability to walk was devastating, but we are grateful because we are alive and we have each other.”
Zhang Yu contributed to this story
Contact the writer at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Yang Yufang, a paralyzed earthquake survivor
Although left paralyzed, Yang Yufang and his wife Gao Zhihong survived the Tangshan earthquake.
Left: Deng Yaping plays table tennis in her wheelchair in a local hospital. Center: A memorial to the victims of the 7.8 magnitude tremblor. Right: Yang Yufang fixes a lock at his home.