She lay strapped to a gurney, her face frozen in a soundless, endless scream. Yan Ping Wang was frightened by what was happening to her but she was unable to give voice to that fear. I sat next to her in the small, private jet as it headed southwest from New Jersey to Texas, trying to assure her she would be safe and, even more, she would be happy when she was reunited with her sister Yan Qing.
“It’s ok, ” I said, after the plane bounced along some turbulence and her mouth widened even more. Her eyes were fixed on mine and, in them, I could see I was not good at calming anyone’s fears, not even my own.
That was in 2005. Yan Ping Wang’s life, for me and many others, was a tale of unpredictability and human fragility. Of the futility of planning a future. It was a story, too, of how institutions we rely on, institutions like health care and the courts, can be powerless when needed the most.
Yet, as Yan Ping Wang and I flew toward Houston and her sister’s home in Sugar Land, I began to see her terrible life story also was a hopeful lesson in the love provided by family. Her family never gave up on her despite what happened on July 8, 1999.
From that day, she lived in a way that was painful to contemplate but impossible to ignore. She died a few days ago, Aug. 23, following a medical procedure at a Texas hospital. She was 50.
On that hot July day in 1999, 14 years ago, Yan Ping Wang was a young chemist with a promising career. She was pregnant with twins. She and her husband had good jobs and were looking forward to becoming parents. She attended a luncheon for a co-worker who was leaving their employer, Bristol-Myers Squibb. Shortly after eating a piece of cake with strawberries, she complained of nausea and dizziness. She spent a few hours resting at the company’s infirmary.
Her gynecologist was contacted and suggested Wang be brought to the hospital emergency room for observation. A friend drove her to St. Peter’s in New Brunswick. Doctors there were troubled by a high white-blood cell account but could find nothing else wrong. Then, a few hours later, her body began to swell.
The woman’s condition spun out of control. The babies miscarried. The next day, her arms and legs were so swollen doctors cut into her arms and legs to relieve the swelling to prevent nerve damage. A week later, when surgeons sought to close the wounds, they discovered her muscles had so badly atrophied that her arms, at the shoulder, and her legs at the knees, had to be amputated to save her life. Within days, she suffered an apparent stroke and then a heart attack; she was in a coma for weeks.
When she emerged from the coma, Yan Ping Wang was unable to speak. She could communicate only with eye blinks. Nearly three months after she was admitted to the hospital, she was released to a rehabilitation facility and then came home to Bridgewater. Her elderly parents had left China and moved in and would remain her primary care-givers until she was flown to Texas in September, 2005. She would live with them and her sister Yan Qing until her death.
Her husband divorced her and remarried. Law suits were filed against the hospital and Bristol-Myers Squibb, but they went nowhere. No diagnosis was ever established. No fault. No blame. No explanation.
No law firm with resources necessary to find negligence—if any existed—would take her case. The courts, like health care institutions, could not help her.
Her family and friends insisted Yan Ping Wang was aware of her surroundings. On Sept. 11, 2001, she lay in her bed sobbing while the television on the wall showed the pictures of the attack on the World Trade Center. “She knew something terrible had happened,’’ said her mother.
Dominique Seyler of Dunellen, an administrative assistant, read one of my columns about Yan Ping Wang and wanted to help. She showed up at Wang’s apartment and became a loyal family friend—she arranged for her transportation to Texas. Seyler believed Wang could understand what was said to her. “She smiled when I spoke to her,” said Seyler.
The family tried a variety of medical treatments. None substantially changed the woman’s condition. Individuals and corporations, many responding to my columns, sent money and medical supplies.
In a written statement, Wang’s mother, Xiuzhen Gu, thanked those who helped:
“During the six hardest years after Yan Ping’s incident, before her move to Texas, we had obtained overwhelming support and care from various community groups in the Greater NJ area. This had given the two of us tremendous help spiritually and financially, which we can never forget and will always bear deeply in our heart.”
The statement expressed the hope Yan Ping Wang would “no longer suffer any pain” and be “in Heaven now.”
Her mother added: “She will always be missed by her loved ones.”
I still think of her and me on that plane to Texas. I tried to comfort her but I’m not sure I succeeded. No, I’m sure I didn’t. If people who read my columns about her helped her and her family, then I had done all I could.
I still wonder now about her silent scream. Maybe it wasn’t so much her fear of what was happening to her but rather a recognition of what could happen to me, to any of us.
On that plane, I told her, “It’s ok,” but, just maybe, Yan Ping Wang knew better.