Chico singer clings to life in China
Liang Zhang’s name isn’t easy for Americans to pronounce, much less remember, which is why he decided to Americanize it. Shortly after arriving in Chico from his native China in 2000, he became “Mike” Zhang. He’s unusually tall and husky for a Chinese man, and he presented quite a picture when he introduced himself, saying, with a big smile, “Hello, I’m Mike,” in an accent as thick as hot-and-sour soup.
His name was the only thing about Zhang that Chicoans tended to forget, however. He lived here only two years, but he left a lasting impression. A baritone with extensive training in China, he has a voice that’s a force of nature, and anyone who heard him sing during one of his many performances in Chico remembers how he could effortlessly modulate between delicate grace and booming robustness, hurling sound to the farthest reaches of an auditorium.
Today, however, Zhang lies comatose in a hospital in China, clinging to life after suffering a series of devastating infections of the pancreas compounded by internal bleeding. For six weeks he’s breathed through a ventilator and been fed intravenously, and his body is slowly diminishing. His wife, Abigail, is with him, as are his brother and father, and they talk to him, though he cannot respond.
Doctors have been less than upbeat. “The many doctors give him poor chances of surviving,” Abigail writes in a letter to friends in Chico, which the couple still consider home.
Compounding the worry about Zhang’s survival is another grim factor: He has no health insurance. “Every day, the family is presented with a total bill for the day,” Abigail writes, “and the family must pay cash in full, or the hospital will simply cease to care for Mike. … The day that Mike’s family and I fail to pay the bill, they will stop giving him medicine or treatments of any kind.”
For people who remember Zhang, the thought of such a vigorous, healthy man being reduced to such desperate circumstances is hard to imagine. Before he left for China just weeks ago, he was in the prime of life, happily married and eager to return to his native land and begin a new life as a teacher and performer. Then everything came crashing down.
Liang Zhang grew up in North China, the name now used for the region formerly known as Manchuria. As Abigail’s grandparents, Royce and Joyce Delmatier, described it during a recent interview in their north Chico home, Zhang’s father was the manager of a large shoe factory, and the family had a comfortable life. Zhang began studying voice at the age of 16, and at 19 he was one of 10 students selected annually for vocal training at the elite Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.
After graduation, he taught voice and Italian diction at Guizhou and Northeast Normal universities. He always wanted to study in the United States, and in 2000 he came to Chico State as a visiting scholar and master’s degree student. While here he performed in Smetana’s opera The Bartered Bride and in the North State Symphony’s production of Mozart’s C Minor Mass, as well as in several other performances and recitals.
Here he also met Chico native Abigail Delmatier, thanks to her grandmother, Joyce, who is a popular church piano accompanist. She first encountered Zhang at the Asian Bible Church, where she accompanied him during a recital. “I told Abigail she had to meet this man,” she said during a recent interview in her north Chico home. “She’s always had this great love of music.”
That love for music turned into much more, and the couple were married in the summer of 2002. He’d just completed his master’s degree, and she’d just finished her first year in college at Chico State.
That fall they moved to Kansas City, where Zhang enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of Missouri campus there and Abigail began her sophomore year in college. Four years later they both graduated, he with a doctorate with honors in music, she as No. 2 in her class with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.
Less than three months ago, Zhang began a new job at a university north of Shanghai. Because of his experience, he was to begin as a full professor, be given a condominium to live in, and have health insurance.
But when he got “deathly ill” just three weeks into the job, it turned out “something had misfired,” as Joyce Delmatier put it. There was no insurance. In the meantime, Abigail had quit her job in America and was preparing to join him in China, so she didn’t have insurance either.
Zhang’s father quickly came to his bedside, as did his brother Allen, who lives in San Jose. They began dipping into their savings to pay the bills. Abigail and her father, Karl Delmatier, joined them three weeks ago.
During his six weeks in the hospital, Zhang has frequently run a high fever and has undergone several surgeries. Most if not all of his pancreas has been removed, but there is good news, Abigail writes in a recent e-mail: After a week of internal bleeding that threatened to be fatal and as many as a dozen surgeries to repair broken or bleeding vessels, “the doctors mostly have his bleeding under control now.”
She also writes that, after her mother, Lynn Delmatier, and grandmother went to Rep. Wally Herger’s office in Chico to ask for support, the U.S. Embassy became more helpful, working with Chinese officials to ensure that the hospital has the medicines and blood products it needs to treat Zhang.
Her letter to the community, which appeared as an advertisement in the Chico Enterprise-Record, resulted in a number of donations that are buying live-saving surgeries and medicines the family no longer can pay for, she writes in her e-mail, and she is deeply grateful. For now she is getting by on love, determination and prayer. “The Lord wouldn’t bring us this far to let us fall now,” she writes. “He will finish the good work He started.”