by Muyi Xiao

Li Mingjin, a 38-year-old coal miner, worked hard and was the sole breadwinner for his family. For 19 years, he toiled deep in the belly of the earth beneath Shanxi province. But in November 2014, by the time he was diagnosed with lung cancer, he was too sick to continue working. His wife, Ning Xianfang, was left to care for him and their two daughters, six-year-old Siyao and four-year-old Mengmeng. Without his employment or any form of health insurance (they had opted not to buy insurance from the government), the family’s economic situation quickly became dire. While working as a staff photographer for Tencent, I spent four days with Mingjin and his family and worried for what was in store for them, and we continued to be in touch thereafter.

In November 2014, the family moved to the capital city of Beijing to seek better treatment for Mingjin. Their meager savings lasted only a month. To conserve the money they had borrowed from relatives and neighbors, Mingjin and Xianfang decided that he would volunteer for a trial treatment, which was risky but would cost less initially; the first four chemotherapy treatments were free. When he learned that he could save even more money by forgoing the medicine that protects one’s heart and liver during the trial, Mingjin decided to take the chance. The initial results were good. His tumor responded well to the first four treatments of chemotherapy and the mass shrunk by 5 millimeters during the trial period. However, even though the doctors recommended continuing treatment, Mingjin had to stop after the fourth dose because the family had run out of money.

Without money to cover school fees, Siyao and Mengmeng had to drop out, but their family’s problems were only just beginning. By February 2015 they had run out of money to buy food and Mingjin and Xianfang were growing desperate. Far from home, the couple made an agonizing decision: So that everyone could survive, they decided to try to sell one of their daughters. With some money, their other daughter could go to school, everyone would have food, and, maybe, Mingjin would have money for the cancer treatment.

Xianfang told me that the girls knew a little bit about the plan, and one day Siyao cried out to her mother, “Don’t sell me!” However, a few hours later, she came back and said, “Mom, I thought about it. You can sell me. I’m the older one, I should be more responsible and I’m able to take care of myself. Just don’t forget to buy me back when dad is cured and you have money.”

After this story was published in China by Tencent, the outlet ran a crowd-sourced fundraising campaign which raised 150,000 renminbi (U.S.$22,845) in donations in just six hours. With that money, Mingjin was able to continue treatment and the family stayed together. Mingjin’s daughters were able to go back to school.

In the spring of 2016, Mingjin started to feel worse. He has not received treatment since the beginning of the year, because he used up all of the money from the fundraising campaign. Instead, he’s using inexpensive Chinese traditional medicine.

Tencent won’t solicit more donations for the family because its campaigns are organized by a third party charity which Tencent told me declined to raise more funds because Mingjin’s family failed to provide valid receipts for their use of the money they received.

The better news is that Mingjin’s two daughters are back in school, and Siyao is smart and just received a small scholarship that helps cover some of her school expenses. Because the kids are back in school in their hometown and because Mingjin’s elderly mother’s health is not good, making her mostly homebound, Xianfang told me they do not want to return to Beijing for treatment.