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Nov 25th
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Home Feature Stories Volunteer's Stories Grace Chen: My Life Mentor

Grace Chen: My Life Mentor

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The first time I met Grace, I was immediately blown away. She had an energy and an openness that was truly special and she talked to me as if we had known each other forever. Our hearts connected right away.

We had a wonderful time together that first year, playing music, traveling, meeting with friends, and going to plenty of restaurants together for delicious food. Grace introduced me to vegetarian food, and I realized that meat is not necessary to survive or enjoy life. We went to concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, musicals in New York, and shows in Las Vegas. We traveled to China, Japan, and Sweden.

Grace loved life, and she loved everything that is good in life: travel, music, food (vegetarian of course). Even more, she loved her family and friends. With her open personality, I believe that every person who ever met her, no matter how briefly, felt like she was a true and close friend.

But above all, Grace loved helping people.

Soon after we first met each other, Grace started telling me about the charity organization she was involved with: Tzu Chi. I was suspicious at first. In Sweden, “charity” has a negative ring to it; it is seen as something that rich people do to soothe their conscience and that often does more harm than good by turning people into passive recipients instead of inspiring them to do something for themselves. But Grace patiently explained to me that Tzu Chi was different and that volunteers always followed up with recipients and encouraged them to become self-reliant.

Before long, Grace brought me along on a nursing home visit with the Tzu Chi choir she had started. After we sang for the residents, Grace and the others started chatting with them, holding their hands, hugging them as if she were their own grandchild. You could see how happy all the grandmas and grandpas were to have us there, and I began to see the impact that Tzu Chi could have on people: not only recipients, but volunteers as well.

Apart from leading the choir, Grace was in charge of translating articles for Tzu Chi’s website. She had assembled a number of volunteers to translate and edit articles. She did all the final editing herself and always provided useful feedback to the translators and editors. She also served as host for numerous Tzu Chi events and participated in disaster relief distributions whenever she had a chance. It was only much later that I realized that there was a common denominator to these various projects: Grace always aimed to inspire kindness and goodness in others by using different means to suit different people.

In February 2009, Grace discovered a small lump under her ear. After a few doctor's visits, it was found to be parotid gland cancer, so she underwent several surgeries and radiation in Hualien.

Throughout treatment, Grace was full of optimism. She saw cancer as an opportunity to learn more about life and suffering, a chance to acquire experiences to share with others who were going through difficulties. She was grateful that her tumor was slow-growing and not aggressive and that she was treated by such skilled surgeons.

Even as Grace went through radiation therapy, she never sat still. As she rested at home, she started sending updates about Tzu Chi's Typhoon Morakot relief efforts to CNN iReport so that people around the world would know what was happening. It was successful—CNN broadcast several of her reports and even interviewed her over the phone about Tzu Chi.

Around the same time, Grace started a monthly e-newsletter, which now has almost fifteen thousand subscribers. She compiled all the contents herself and wrote an editorial in every issue to inspire and illuminate readers.

Even while working to benefit suffering people, Grace did not neglect to guide me along my Tzu Chi path. When a major earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010, she persuaded me to join the relief team so that I could offer my French language skills. That trip was truly a life-changing experience for me: I witnessed suffering at a scale far beyond what I had ever seen before, but I also saw the incredible strength and perseverance of the people. I learned that it is possible for a human being to actually make a difference and that when we pool together the contributions of many, great things can be accomplished.

Grace participates in a relief visit to Mexicali in 2006. Photo: Joemei TungIn fall 2010, after Grace underwent a fourth surgery to remove a recurrence of the malignant cancer, we finally got the go-ahead to move back to the States. Once we were back, Grace's efforts for Tzu Chi doubled: she intensified contacts with the press and other organizations, organized outreach activities and gave lectures about Tzu Chi, initiated The Power of 5 campaign, arranged the first Englishlanguage Tzu Chi volunteer training in Los Angeles, and started a mentor program to help non-Chinese-speaking volunteers feel more at home in Tzu Chi.

In June 2011, I was on my third relief trip to Haiti when I got a message from Los Angeles: Grace was in the hospital with leukemia. I flew home as quickly as I could.

When I got to the hospital, Grace had already started chemotherapy, but I was amazed to see that she was still her usual self: a bit more tired, but as optimistic, content, and curious as always. She told me that she was grateful for the chance to learn about chemotherapy, which she had not needed for the previous cancer. I felt that she had already learned enough, that she deserved a break, but Grace’s body had other plans, and she accepted it all without complaint. When her hair started falling out in piles all over the hospital floor, she joked that she was glad she did not care about her looks since she would look ugly for quite a while. She was wrong: even without hair, she was always beautiful.

During this time, we had amazing support from Grace's parents, who flew all the way from Taipei to spend the next several months taking care of her, and her many friends in the area. One of her friends started a Facebook group called “Support Grace for Quick Recovery” and over six hundred people joined immediately. I would help Grace post updates so that she could share her thoughts, hopes, and feelings, and her friends posted hundreds of encouraging words, pictures, jokes, and “likes.” It was only then that I realized just how many people Grace had touched during her life. Some of her friends even set up a website to promote bone marrow donation so that they could help her find a match while also raising awareness to help others in need of bone marrow transplants.

Grace's body reacted well to the treatment. After the first round of chemo, it seemed that the leukemia was already under control. The process was not without discomfort—mouth sores, fatigue, nausea, dizziness—but she never complained, and she was always optimistic.

After completing two rounds of chemo in California, Grace decided to go to Hualien for her bone marrow transplant so that she could be close to her family and Master Cheng Yen. Her case was very special—it is extremely unusual for someone to have two unrelated types of cancer in such a short period of time—so she also wanted to provide a learning experience for Tzu Chi's doctors.

Grace and Johan after chemotherapy in July 2011. Photo provided by Johan AlwallSince bone marrow transplant patients must have their immune systems completely wiped out for their new bone marrow to take root, they must stay in a special ward in an extremely clean environment where only nurses and doctors can enter and only after donning a full set of protective gear, including disinfected clothes, isolation gowns, face masks, gloves, caps, and foot covers. It is not usually possible for family members to accompany patients in isolation, but I was allowed to stay with her as a test case. I slept on a foldable bed next to hers, wearing the full set of protective equipment. Spending five minutes to take off and put on the gear each time I needed to use the bathroom or have a bite to eat was a nuisance, but it was a small price to pay to be there with Grace.

Again, the power of Grace's spirit and amazing strength of her body triumphed: the bone marrow transplant succeeded and the new stem cells found their way to the bone marrow to start producing new blood cells.

The first year after the transplant is crucial for the new immune system to build up a strong defense for the body, so during this time, Grace had to rest a lot and could not be near crowded places. Yet, despite discomfort and all the problems that accompany the transplant, she continued to do whatever volunteer work she could manage, especially translating and editing.

In early November 2012, our worst fears were realized when Grace’s leukemia recurred. She immediately received treatment in the hospital, her doctors got the number of leukemia cells in her blood back under control, and everything seemed to be improving. One day during her hospital stay, she even received a phone call in the hospital from a Tzu Chi volunteer who was helping a young man struggling with depression. Grace chatted with the young man for a long time. She told him about her own situation, counseled him, and reminded him how lucky he was to have a strong and healthy body that allowed him to go out and help people. That was the last time I saw Grace truly happy. She was doing what she loved most: helping a person in need.

Even after chemotherapy, Grace continued to express her love of music. Provided by Johan AlwallA few days later, Grace came down with a fever. She started coughing and had difficulty breathing. While her immune system was weakened by the leukemia treatment, her lungs had become infected. Assisted by doctors and nurses, Grace’s body fought a heroic battle for nearly four months, but it was not enough. On the morning of March 30, 2013, Grace left us.

I was only given five short years to spend with Grace, but I will always be grateful for the time we had together. I am grateful for everything she did for so many people, grateful that she showed me a life that I would never have discovered without her, and grateful for the opportunity to spend time with her, to love her, and to be loved by her. Grace’s time on Earth was short, but her spirit will always live on in the hearts of all the people she touched and inspired.

For Grace Chen's sharing from just before the leukemia diagnosis, please see Issue 30 (Fall 2011).  

We cannot control the length of our life, but we can strive to extend its depth and scope.
Jing Si Aphorism by Dharma Master Cheng Yen

Story taken from USA Journal No. 37, Fall 2013