Woman with a heart

Woman with a heart

There’s romantic love of the heart celebrated on Valentine’s Day,

And then there’s heartfelt actions celebrated every day.

Today I want to think about my friend Chris Chen, a woman with a very big heart.

Like a lot of big hearted people she is very tiny. With long black hair and a gallows sense of humor she defies challenges with a ‘you can get on living or get on dying’ attitude.

And getting on living is her specialty.

I met Chris a few years ago in Atlanta, at a dinner with friends in the gift industry. We went to the home of Ed Chu, a handsome man with a collection of honey and a penchant for 15 year old cheeses. We went on to dinner in on of Atlanta’s more exclusive restaurants and we hit it off right away – both of us talking about our favorite charities.

Believe it or not – you do not meet people with common links like this very often! How delightful – and in Atlanta – one of my favorite cities too.

I invited her to visit me- should she ever make it to Burlington Vermont. I was surprised a couple of months later when I had a call – she was in the area – participating in an iron man competition in Lake Placid, on her way to a medical conference in Montréal. Could she pop over for dinner?

In Chris’s case – upstate New York, was ‘in the area’ and she happily drove the 2 hours for dinner, even though her competition was the next morning. We had a great meal together on the Marketplace in Vermont – Chris brought me a pair of earrings she bought at a local gift shop on the way [she always bring presents] and list of cool things to do in New York state. And then over wine and hours, she told me a little bit about her life. She is so young, only in her early thirties, but her life is already so big.

She came with her family from Taiwan as a girl, unhappily her mom passed away when she was a teenager. She went to Medical School, where she was a normal student having fun, drinking beer and leading the American college life; then she was diagnosed with Breast Cancer, and she started to get serious about her life. She had a steady boyfriend who died of leukemia, who was involved in charity work. She was inspired by him and her own brush with mortality, to lead a meaningful life that included service, in fact that evolved around giving back. Doctors without Borders became a focal point of her work. Chris started traveling to areas of need and performing voluntary work as a doctor, she went to China, to Thailand, to Africa and to South America. Some trips were just long lines of people in front of her, looking into one patient, one symptom at a time, and then moving on to the next one. When asked ‘how do you prioritize? She replied “I don’t’- I just take care of who is in front of me.” One trip had her and fellow doctors digging graves for victims of an epidemic, victims even the locals wouldn’t touch. There didn’t seem to be an area too dangerous or a job too unappealing for her.

At some point She started training for marathons- she was not previously an athlete, after marathons came Iron Man. She wanted to be stronger, healthier, and more alive. Now she works in the emergency room in an Atlanta hospital, sometimes 36 hour shifts – she happily covers for other doctors with families so they can be with them. She thinks parents are raising the future. Her pay goes to pay for her travel with Doctors without Borders.

I saw Chris in January in Atlanta; she came straight from an all- nighter in the Emergency Room, still in her scrubs with a big coat thrown over top. We met for breakfast; she gave me a 1972 American silver dollar as a Chinese New Years gift.

She was looking so thin, and she was now fighting a second bout of cancer - this time combining Chinese medicine with western treatments.

She left the following week for a lecture series in Hong Kong and Indonesia, she is now in Darfur. It’s not her first time in that area and she told me the non medical challenges – the bartering with rebels masquerading as soldiers for the food already donated, but not yet reached to the refugees. She told me she would be the lone doctor in a refugee camp of tens of thousands – She will likely perform brain surgery – you know that expression – is not brain surgery – well if you are a doctor in the field – it very well could be. When I said to her – you must look like an angel to all of those waiting people – she said they don’t actually know what to make of her – because they’ve never seen an Asian before. I think they now know the face of an angel is that of a pretty Asian woman with black hair, a quick smile and a great earthy laugh- a woman with a big heart – and a drill – a woman with a laugh, and a pill -Chris Chen, my friend.

Next stop the Congo.

February 10, 2008

Burlington Vermont


Lila Rostenberg said...

An amazing woman! She is really living!

Free Art Printables said...

She sounds like an amazing person. I found your blog through your website. I love your things! Nice blog.
Jen R

Anonymous said...

Thank you for documenting Chris' story so simply and beautifully. Chris whizzed into my life through a friend over a year ago and I've heard bits and pieces of the amazing life she leads, as friend, giver, healer and survivor. She is truly living inspiration.

Anonymous said...

Dearest April, I am truly honored you think so highly of me and painted such flattering image of me in the article. I sometimes lean on your strengths to overcome the loneliness I felt in Darfur. To me and many others who are touched by your kindness and generosity, you are the angel on earth.....

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