Tong recovers from brain surgery, copes through charity, calligraphy

Jacqueline Tong (11) struggled to sit through class during her sophomore year. Her head ached terribly, and she felt fatigued. She’d had these splitting headaches and episodes of nausea before, but the pain had never been as excruciating as this.

Tong started to experience these symptoms when she was 10. In a taekwondo tournament, her opponent had punched her in the chin, dislocating a vertebrae in her neck. The symptoms were occasional, so she didn’t think much of them. But in September 2016, when she was a sophomore, doctors noticed a piece of her skin that they were not certain if it was melanoma. Although the diagnosis came back negative, Tong’s pain and symptoms significantly worsened after the operation.

“I actually tried going back to class two days after my surgery, but it hurt to walk and I was so weak that campus security had to drive me to my classes in the golf cart and help me with my backpack,” Tong said. “My teachers didn’t even let me in the class and sent me home, saying that I needed to rest for another week. So I did.”

But despite having to take time off from school to recover from her surgery, she remained resilient, determined to continue studying and not fall behind.

“Academics became really difficult because I asked my friends to record the lectures at school, but after school I would spend three to four hours watching the lectures I missed, trying to make sense of what we learned that day,” Tong said. “I felt really exhausted because I was doing two times the work anyone else did, [as] looking at the computer made me incredibly nauseous as did moving my head.”

However, there wasn’t a conclusive answer as to what Tong had. Eventually, the doctors settled on a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, a condition accompanied by muscle pain and fatigue.

Then, doctors discovered a cyst in Tong’s pituitary gland, and she underwent brain surgery last February. Following the operation, she couldn’t move her head or her eyes, and she couldn’t speak.

“I communicated with my mom via blinking, once for ‘yes,’ twice for ‘no,’” Tong said. “I had to measure the amount of water I drank to the milliliter, making sure to calculate each drop precisely, otherwise my life would be in danger.”

The misery of this meticulous regimen, coupled with the waves of additional nausea and headaches that the medication gave her, was unbearable.

“There were times where I just really felt so depressed I just sobbed angrily for 15 minutes, wondering why I was reduced to such a failure, and couldn’t even do good even when I wanted to,” she said. “I felt like I was being cursed.”

When she left the hospital after two weeks, she took the rest of the school year off to recover at home. She found solace in her family and friends, church community and in reading the Bible, as her faith plays an important part in her life.

During this time, she discovered calligraphy and soon found it to be a source of comfort to her. She started to create art pieces with the goal of not only inspiring others, but also to aid underprivileged children in China.

Tong then asked her pastor if she could leave the pieces in her church and have people take what they liked and leave donations. From April to July, she had raised $900 solely from donations for her artwork.

Then, in early August, Tong wrote an article for an international magazine, garnering more awareness about her cause. People from outside of her local community reached out to her, which was when she began selling her pieces on her website. The funds she raised were eventually distributed by her pastor and his family to eight churches in China.

“For myself, the fundraising effort gave me a sense of purpose and self-worth again and I was really comforted by the fact that I’m not a failure, and no matter how physically weak I am, I can still find ways to fulfill my purpose of helping others,” she said.

Tong was also contacted by an editor from We Chinese in America, a Chinese magazine, asking if she could write an article detailing her experience. After she wrote the article, the editor referred her to a speech teacher, recommending that she try a class as a way for her to interact with friends and go outside more.

“I didn’t want to [go] at first because I was really tired, but then I started going and I think that helped me to get back into my normal life,” Tong said. “I got really into the class and as I was studying and preparing, I started not to think about my symptoms [all the time].”

When her speech teacher heard about her story, she encouraged Tong to enter a speech competition in July. The competition was for second-generation Chinese people in Southern California. Tong shared her story of experiencing adversity and being able to overcome it in front of 200 to 300 people, and ended up winning three awards: Best Appeal, Best Original Composition, and second place in the overall competition.

“Before the speech, I was so nervous,” Tong said. “But when I went up on the stage, I actually wasn’t nervous at all. After the first two sentences, I said to myself, ‘I don’t care about the results, I’m just going to tell my story to other people and see if it can make a difference in their lives.’ That was actually the best version of my speech I gave. I just felt happy to be talking to these people.”

Tong returned to Westview for the start of the school year, and she said she feels much better than before.

“I have this more content, optimistic attitude on life,” she said. “I’ve learned that no matter what situation, no matter how helpless you feel your life is, there’s always a way out.”

She no longer feels cursed; rather, she considers herself “the most blessed of all.”