Vol. 6, No.1
(Photo courtesy of Brittany Lin)
othing had prepared Yijie "Brittany" Lin '07 for the cacophony she encountered on her first visit to the foster home in central China where she would spend nine months caring for critically ill orphans.
"It was definitely instant madness," Lin recalls. "It was basically 22 kids, 2 and under, within a three-bedroom apartment. There was so much noise at the same time that you couldn't hear anything."
Lin's time at the foster home in the city of Xi'an was made possible through funding from a Florence "Meg" Long Walsh Leadership Award, granted annually to a graduating senior by the School of Arts and Sciences' Second Decade Society. The painful lessons Lin learned—during a year streaked with sorrow, disappointment, and moments of joy—served to strengthen her resolve, she says, to return to China after she completes her medical school studies at Harvard, where she began this fall.
"It was more difficult than I thought to get people to become involved," says Yijie "Brittany" Lin, of the year she spent at a foster home in central China, caring for critically ill orphans.
Lin arrived in Xi'an in September 2007 with ambitious plans for fundraising, arranging overseas medical missions to the foster home, and other enterprising efforts beyond the daily care of her young charges. Her goals for the foster home, called Starfish Children's Services, stemmed from a very personal motivation—the twist of fate that had brought her to the United States as a child, while an infant cousin whom she never knew had been denied any future at all.
In her application for the Walsh leadership award, Lin wrote: "On a cold autumn evening in a village of Southern China, a man carrying his baby girl, not even a week old, walked across the moist field to a nearby bridge. He stopped at the middle of the bridge, and without a word, without a tear, threw his newborn daughter into the cold harsh river below."
Thankfully, due to her parents, Lin's life took a course different from that of her cousin and thousands of other baby girls, who, under China's one-child policy, are abandoned (and in the worst cases, killed) soon after birth.
When Lin was a young child, she lived in China with her grandparents while her parents, both trained as physicians, made a new life in the U.S. Her father waited tables, and her mother worked as a nanny while they both attended graduate school to become engineers. They "had a very determined mindset to get through those times," Lin says.
At age 6, Lin joined her parents and entered the privileged existence they had painstakingly prepared for her. "What they taught me is that if you're persistent and you believe in yourself, you will succeed," she says.
As an undergraduate at Hopkins, Lin's packed schedule reflected this inner drive. She revived a mentoring program for underprivileged Baltimore children called S.T.A.N.D. (Students Taking a New Direction) and served as president of Alpha Epsilon Delta, the premedical honor society. A psychology major with a minor in business, she did research in labs at Johns Hopkins and in California.
A few months after graduation, she headed to Xi'an, where she quickly became an invaluable addition to the foster home's staff of nannies and overseas volunteers. She changed diapers and consoled babies. Fluent in Mandarin, she frequently translated for English-speaking staff members and Chinese medical workers when a child was rushed to the hospital.
"There was always something she was being pulled off of and put onto because something needed to be done," says Cynthia Klaja, a Starfish Children's Services board member and frequent visitor to the foster home, who at one point accompanied Lin to an orphanage in Inner Mongolia to arrange for a child's adoption.
As the year progressed, Lin came to recognize the distinct personality of each child in the foster home. She formed a particularly warm bond with a girl named Antoinette, whose health improved after her jaundice was diagnosed and treated. Antoinette was adopted by a family in Spain, Lin says. "Unfortunately, they didn't want to remain in contact with the foster home, so I do not know how she's doing," she adds.
When she wasn't tending to the foster home's daily demands, Lin tried to organize medical missions that would bring American surgeons to Xi'an to repair the birth defects that afflicted many of the home's children. "It was more difficult than I thought to get people to become involved," she says.
Chinese bureaucracy and the exigencies of everyday life in the foster home also disrupted her initial plans for improving the children's long-range prospects. Lin, as well, weathered the heartbreaking deaths of a few of the foster children. Such grave disappointments yielded important lessons. "I just focused on what I learned, rather than on the outcome."
Lin wants to return to China and open a clinic for orphans, both girls and boys. As a physician she'll have more access to the money and assistance that will be required. "I don't see this project as finished. I see it as the first step," Lin says.
And just as she has all along, her little cousin will guide Lin's way. "Even though she had a short time on earth," Lin says, "I feel like she has impacted a lot more people than [many] who live a full life."