At the height of the corn harvest in the long muggy days of August, 10-month-old Zhang Peng began refusing to drink milk, crying fitfully at night as he struggled to sleep. Soon his twin sister Zhang Xue fell ill.
Several times, their parents brought the sick babies, who had trouble urinating, to the nearest hospital 20 miles from their farming village. Doctors could not diagnose the problem but gave the children herbal powder and injections.
Then last month, Chinese media revealed that infant formula contaminated with melamine, an industrial chemical used to make fertilizer and plastics, was sickening babies.
The news shocked the Zhang family and so began a monthlong ordeal that would see them shuttling back and forth between their home in Shandong province and a hospital in Beijing, 450 miles away.
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“We had no idea what was wrong. We were so frightened and worried,” the children's mother, Liao Shanfang, told The Associated Press.
After the tainted milk scandal broke in mid-September, Liao and her husband Zhang Rongwei took their twins again to their local hospital in Linyi.
This time, Zhang Peng, the boy, was admitted for a five-day stay but he only got worse. He began vomiting and when he could urinate, it came out in a blood-tinged stream. His sister's symptoms weren't as serious; she had sporadic fevers.
From birth, both babies had been given breast milk and formula. The Zhangs first used a cheaper brand that gave the children diarrhea, then switched to one made by Sanlu Group Co., although it cost almost twice as much. Sanlu was the first company implicated in the scandal.
Unable to do more, doctors in Linyi told the Zhangs to seek treatment in Beijing.
The couple hastily arranged for a car ride – at a cost of 300 yuan, about $45, a small fortune – to the Children's Hospital, where they arrived Sept. 23.
Hours later, Zhang Peng was diagnosed with two large kidney stones that needed surgery. His sister had a single stone the size of a grain of rice.
“My heart stopped when I read the test results for Zhang Peng,” Liao said.
With no choice but to split their lives – and their children – the couple brought their daughter home to her paternal grandmother. Then they returned to Beijing where they spent the next three weeks, sleeping at a relative's an hourlong bus ride from the hospital.
While hospital treatment was free, the trip to Beijing was not without high cost. The burden of harvesting the family's corn fell to Zhang's parents.
In a good year, the couple's income is about $1,300. Liao estimated that while they were in Beijing, the family spent about $1,000 and with Zhang unable to work, their losses mounted.
Despite the weeks of heartache, the twins, who turn 1 this month, are on the road to recovery. Zhang Peng was discharged from the hospital Monday; his sister was treated by a traditional Chinese medicine doctor.
The toddlers still drink milk but only brands unaffected by the scandal. They cost nearly five times what Sanlu milk cost.