Huang Meihua, 12, had both legs amputated above the knee after her school collapsed on her on May 12, 2008. The government provided her with free prosthetic legs, but she says they're heavy and uncomfortable.
Huang Meihua, 12, had both legs amputated above the knee after her school collapsed on her on May 12, 2008. The government provided her with free prosthetic legs, but she says they're heavy and uncomfortable. Andrea Hsu/NPR
Because of her disability, Meihua and her parents have a room to themselves at a temporary school in Mianyang county. Other children live eight or 10 to a room in rows of pre-fab barracks.
Because of her disability, Meihua and her parents have a room to themselves at a temporary school in Mianyang county. Other children live eight or 10 to a room in rows of pre-fab barracks. Andrea Hsu/NPR
Courtesy of the Huang Family
Meihua and her new classmates at a temporary school in Mianyang county. The school is slated to close by the end of the school year, and it's unclear where Meihua will go.
Meihua and her new classmates at a temporary school in Mianyang county. The school is slated to close by the end of the school year, and it's unclear where Meihua will go. Courtesy of the Huang Family
Read producer Andrea Hsu's reflections on meeting Meihua and Meihua's parents.
Huang Meihua is a bright, spirited 12-year-old with an uncertain future. She's pretty and funny and full of spunk.
"If I listed all of my good qualities, it would take more than three days and three nights," says Meihua with a grin.
Meihua is also a double amputee. Both of her legs were crushed in last May's earthquake in southwest China, when her school collapsed around her in a remote mountain village.
Meihua spent several hours trapped in the rubble, but at the time she wasn't aware of how badly she was hurt.
"I was thinking my legs are fine," Meihua says. "After I get out I'm going to write an essay about this and get a good grade. They always ask us to write about something unforgettable, so I was going to write about this."
It took six days before Meihua was evacuated by helicopter to a hospital in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan. By that time, her terribly crushed legs had also become badly infected. Doctors told her if they didn't amputate, she would die.
Meihua and her parents share a room at a temporary school in Mianyang county. It is home to hundreds of children whose schools were destroyed in the earthquake.
While Meihua and her parents have a small room to themselves because of her disability, the other children live eight or 10 to a room in row after row of pre-fab barracks — structures that sprang up all over the earthquake zone to house the millions left homeless.
Uncomfortable Stares, Prosthetic Legs
For Meihua, life at the school is a series of challenges. She hates that the other children stare at her in her wheelchair. Even a trip to the bathroom — a communal squat toilet — becomes an ordeal.
Her mother, 37-year-old Yan Xiaorong, has to wheel Meihua there and then hold her up while she goes to the bathroom.
"Earlier, when we were trying to use the bathroom, some older girls came in," Yan says. "They pretended they were there to clean the toilet, but they really just wanted to gawk at her, to see how we do it."
So Meihua ends up spending a lot of her time in her room. She doesn't like to wear her beige resin prosthetic legs, which were paid for by the Chinese government. She says they're heavy and uncomfortable. She's also self-conscious about using her walker: She thinks it draws even more attention to her handicap.
But her mother insists that she must wear the prosthetics.
"I make her wear them every day," Yan says. "If she wears them every day she'll get used to them, and she'll be able to walk."
Impossible To Find A Good School
Meihua's parents desperately want her to get a good education.
"She's physically handicapped, but that doesn't mean she's mentally disabled," says her father, 47-year-old Huang Sheqin. "The most important thing for us is to find her a very good school."
But the temporary school that Meihua calls home will shut down at the end of the school year. While other children will go to new schools being built to replace the ones that collapsed, it's not clear where Meihua will go. Her mountain village is too remote, impossible to navigate in a wheelchair.
Before the earthquake, Meihua was the best hope for a better future for her family. Her parents are migrant workers.
Her father only made it through ninth grade; her mother never went to school. But Meihua has big dreams.
"I'd like to get a Ph.D. in math or science," she says. "If not that, maybe music or computers, because I wouldn't need to stand up."
Most of all, she'd love to be able to take care of her parents — instead of having them take care of her.