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The China syndrome: rural health care

In rural China, debt is often the most pernicious killer.

Editor's note: While the U.S. health care reform battle rages in Washington, D.C. China has been quietly revamping its own massive health care system — with decidedly mixed results. In this three-part special report, Kathleen E. McLaughlin and photographer Sharron Lovell tracked the effects on both urban and rural residents.

RONGJIANG, China — As their wife and mother lay dying, emaciated and contorted with pain from the final stages of her terminal colon cancer, the Yang family’s last hope arrived in a shiny gold box sent from 1,500 miles away.

They had seen the Chinese herbal medicine advertised on television, with promises to ease pain and rejuvenate health. It only cost about $15, but its failure seems to have broken the family’s final hope that Yang Xuehan might survive. They seemed to believe that if it came from Beijing, it was more potent than any medical treatment available in their tiny, remote village.

After spending their entire life savings and borrowing from all their friends and neighbors to pay for her expensive cancer treatments, the Yang family was desperate for anything that might at least salve her suffering. Her brother-in-law, seated at the end of her bed with the rest of the family gathered around, shook his head sadly and glanced back at the dying 36-year-year-old woman in the bed.

“It just doesn’t work,” Yang Yuanping. “They sent it from Beijing and it didn’t do anything.”

Yang had been through 18 months of testing and treatment since she got sick. With the borrowed funds, her family sent her to the best hospital in the area – a regional treatment center in the larger city of Kaili. After only a few treatments, the doctors sent her back to her village, saying there was simply nothing more they could do for her. Yang died at the end of May, leaving behind a grieving family that includes a 12-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. “We paid all this money and she never got better,” said Yang’s mother-in-law, diligently massaging her daughter-in-law’s legs to try to ease her pain.This is, of course, a story that could have happened anywhere in the world. Cancer is a killer. Yang might not have been saved by the best of doctors anywhere. But because of gaps in China’s health care system and the massive financial toll her illness took, she leaves behind a family so deeply in debt that her children’s schooling and entire future seems clouded. Her husband earns less than $50 per month as a farmer. He owes others more than $15,000 from the failed medical care.