A Pathologist’s Tribute
In Memoriam: Gao Yaojie – a courageous and compassionate Chinese gynecologist and obstetrician who passed away at the age of 95
I first met Gao Yaojie when I was a toddler. She and my aunt were classmates at Henan Medical College in China, and they both lovingly held me when my parents brought me to visit my aunt. Twenty years later – when I became a medical student at the same school – Gao Yaojie was already a renowned OB/GYN doctor and department chair at a city hospital. She frequently took care of me – both in terms of my life and my studies.
Over time, I learned that Gao Yaojie was heavily involved in the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS, particularly among the poor farmers in our home province. These farmers had contracted HIV from selling their blood under unsanitary conditions, with contaminated instruments, and through improper procedures. Gao Yaojie supported and helped the children of these farmers, as well as the orphans whose parents had died from AIDS. However, her actions were seen as embarrassing and a loss of face by the Chinese government, especially the Henan Provincial authorities. They placed her under house arrest, restricted her communication with the outside world, and even prevented family members from seeing her. She was also denied the opportunity to travel to the US to receive the Jonathan Mann Health Award – a humanitarian award issued by the World Health Organization and back then presented by Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations.
During the SARS pandemic in 2003, I obtained Gao Yaojie’s phone number through a friend. I called her on many occasions. She was a lonely and retired doctor – still confined to her home by the provincial authorities – and whenever she spoke about the HIV-infected farmers in the Henan countryside, she couldn’t stop. I listened to her talk about the tragic situation of these farmers and their orphans, the hardships she faced while advocating for them, and the shameless actions of the Henan government in suppressing and obstructing her efforts. She was often so upset that she couldn’t help but sob during our conversations. I was speechless and silently shed tears with her. Notably, our telephone conversations were under surveillance and were cut off several times.
In March 2006, under pressure from the United Nations, the US government, and overseas social media, Gao Yaojie was finally allowed to travel to the US to receive another award – the “Voice of Life,” presented by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
When I picked her up at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, I was overcome with emotion and hugged her as if I were hugging my mother. She smiled and said, “Oh, boy, I thought I might not see you before I die, but here you are! You haven’t changed much!”
I took her to her sister's house, but she showed no interest in resting. Even before she had finished greeting her sister, she took my hand and settled on the couch. She was keen to chat with me; it was as if she feared it could be her last time. She insisted on sitting next to me at the dinner table and continued to talk about the Henan AIDS endemic, ignoring her sister and daughter’s attempts to interrupt her. She kept talking and talking…
I had no appetite and felt choked up. Before leaving, I hugged Gao tightly. She held my hand tightly and saw me off, repeatedly reminding me to take care of the DVDs, slides, photos, and books she had given me. “Don’t worry, Gao,” I said. “I may not have the courage and ability to do the work you are doing, but I can spread the truth through social media.” I also handed her a $12,000 check that I raised with the help of four volunteer friends. I hoped this small amount of money could help her support a few orphans suffering from AIDS. It was raining when I left. As I got in the car, I looked back from the window and through teary eyes saw her standing by the door, waving goodbye.
In 2012, I moved to New York City, where Gao lived in a sparsely furnished apartment provided by Columbia University. Every weekend, I visited her with fresh flowers and spent hours chatting with her, mostly just listening to her talk. I hoped that, in some way, I could alleviate her inner loneliness and mental suffering. Her children were angry at her and refused to contact her because of the punishment imposed by the Chinese government. It was truly heartbreaking and shocking. And the AIDS problem remains unresolved; the Chinese government appears to cover up the endemic HIV/AIDS issue caused by contaminated blood donations and transfusions.
On December 10, 2023, this brave old lady – a retired OB/GYN doctor who was recognized and respected worldwide, especially by the poor Chinese farmers – passed away at the age of 95.
Although she is no longer with us, her spirit continues to inspire hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Like the small planet bearing her name – 38980 Gaoyaojie, which orbits the Sun – I hope she will forever be remembered as she flies through this vast space.
Rest in peace, Gao Yaojie!
Consultant pathologist at NYU Long Island/Long Island Community Hospital and St. Joseph’s Medical Center, New York, USA.