TIMA USA Midwest

Part 1

Written by Monica Chen, Yahmei Hsieh, and Yingying Lee
Translated by H.B Qin


TIMA Chicago

Dr. Yung Cheng (middle) and his daughter Cher Cheng (left) participate in a TIMA Chicago community free clinic
Dr. Yung Cheng (middle) and his daughter Cher Cheng (left) participate in a TIMA Chicago community free clinic on August 20, 2006. Photo/Taisheng Chang

In TIMA USA Midwest Region’s more than 20 years of free clinic activities, dentist Yung Cheng and his wife, Lipeng Cheng, alongside their son, Michael Cheng, and daughter, Cher Cheng, who are also dentists, have been a constant presence everyone notices. The whole family’s participation in free clinics paints a warm and moving backdrop to the Midwest Region’s free clinic activities.

In the early days, Dr. Yung Cheng’s family connected with Tzu Chi because of their Buddhist studies. Lipeng Cheng recalled that the Tzu Chi USA Midwest Region office was on the second floor of a shopping mall in downtown Westmont, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois. Even though the family lived in Indiana, Cheng would use her free time on weekends to go to the Tzu Chi office in Illinois. However, there were fewer volunteers back then, and no one was there on weekends. Although she didn’t get to meet any Tzu Chi volunteers, she didn’t give up on this. 

Once, she read in the newspaper that Stephen Huang, Executive Director of the Tzu Chi USA chapter (now Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters), was coming to Chicago to give a speech, and she drove there from Indiana to attend. After the event, she went to visit the Tzu Chi USA Midwest Region office in Westmont, and was greeted at the door by a volunteer, Tzuyueh Tong; it was through Tong that the Cheng family became Tzu Chi volunteers, and forged a connection with the Tzu Chi USA Midwest Region.

After the TIMA Chicago chapter came into being, Dr. Yung Cheng, who had practiced dentistry in Indiana for many years, was invited to join the free clinic team. He followed his and his wife’s philosophy of “If there’s a need there, let’s go and help,” and they did. Later, the couple’s son and daughter, who became dentists around the same time, also participated in free clinic activities. 

Bone Marrow Donation

Located in Illinois and on the shore of Lake Michigan, Chicago is the third largest metropolitan area in the U.S. after New York and Los Angeles. Tzu Chi volunteers established an office here in March 1993, and in 1994, it was upgraded to a Branch and later to a Region. The Midwest Region volunteers’ community-oriented medical activities began with Tzu Chi USA’s nationwide charitable bone marrow donation initiative. The goal was to gather more data on Asian volunteers to provide more chances of living to patients waiting for marrow.

The Chicago Branch held its first blood test for bone marrow donation in Chicago’s Chinese community in October 1994. In June 1995, the Branch participated in a garden party organized by the Chinese community and maintained the cleanliness of the venue while selling Tzu Chi books. In addition, medical team volunteers called on doctors to provide free clinics for families, with the scope of services covering general family health care, pediatrics, internal medicine, dentistry, obstetrics, and gynecology. The doctors offered attendees free checkups and health consultation services and conducted blood tests for bone marrow donation on-site.

On July 20, 1997, the Chicago medical team cooperated with the Buddhist Tzu Chi Free Clinic in Alhambra, California. The group conducted blood testing for bone marrow donation, aiming to identify a bone marrow match for a 33-year-old Chinese youth surnamed Kuo, who had had myeloid leukemia for a long time. The activity received an enthusiastic response from the Chinese public. In the following years, the medical team held annual blood tests to recruit bone marrow donors for donor registry centers in the U.S. and Taiwan. 

From Consultation to Free Clinics

TIMA Chicago doctor provides timely health checkups to Hispanic schoolchildren
On August 24, 2002, TIMA Chicago provides timely health checkups to Hispanic schoolchildren who didn't complete them when they were newly enrolled or returned to school due to language or economic factors. Photo/Tzu Chi USA Midwest Region

The TIMA Chicago chapter was established in 2002 by restructuring the Midwest Region’s medical team. During the school year, TIMA Chicago collaborated with Warrenville Youth and Family Services to provide free health checkups at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Warrenville, in Chicago’s Western Suburbs, for low-income children in the community, mainly composed of Hispanic families.

Due to language or economic factors, these children couldn’t complete their health checkups when they were newly enrolled or returned to school. TIMA provided timely medical services so the students could attend school as usual. Led by volunteers, they received measurements of weight, height, and blood pressure, as well as vision and hearing tests, dental checkups, vaccinations, and sports physical checkups. Since most of the schoolchildren came from Hispanic families, in addition to Tzu Chi volunteers, the church provided volunteer interpreter support, assisting parents in seizing the opportunity for face-to-face consultation with doctors.

Many families had not been in the U.S. for a long time, and there were gaps between their health education level and that in the U.S. – they had not been to the doctor and had no record of vaccinations. In addition to checking their health, we also provided health education.

A group picture of TIMA Chicago, Tzu Chi, and community volunteers commemorates the free clinic on August 20, 2006.
A group picture of TIMA Chicago, Tzu Chi, and community volunteers commemorates the free clinic on August 20, 2006. Photo/Tony Cheng

In addition to routine health checkups upon new enrollment or returning to school, some parents took advantage of the free checkups to address any concerns hanging over their minds. A worried mother once brought her seven-year-old son to the doctor and told him that the boy had a tumor on his private part. After examination, the doctor found that it was only an abnormal object due to uncleanness and performed a simple procedure to remove it. The doctor instructed the mother to pay more attention to her child’s hygiene in the future. She was finally relieved, thanked the doctor, and left with peace of mind. 

Since the TIMA Chicago chapter began, Dr. Yung Cheng and his family have been the “Tzu Chi family” at the free clinic, with Lipeng Cheng acting as her husband’s assistant and their daughter helping to fill out forms and organize paperwork. Later, both son and daughter became dentists, and one would see father-daughter or father-son teams at free dental clinics. Dr. Yung Cheng said, “Many children had never seen a dentist, and some didn’t like to brush their teeth or even know how. There were many symptoms of tooth decay. Since prevention is better than a cure, we taught them oral hygiene and offered healthcare information”. The family provided free dental care kits as gifts for children to encourage them to care for their oral health.

In the early days, since U.S. regulations limited free clinics, they focused on consultation. On July 4, 2003, Tzu Chi volunteer Yahmei Hsieh came to Chicago from Cleveland to take over as Executive Director of the Tzu Chi USA Midwest Region. As she reached out into communities, she witnessed the pain of poverty and illness and the difficulty of not being able to afford health insurance.

Yahmei Hsieh (right) interacting with kid
Yahmei Hsieh (right), then Executive Director of the Tzu Chi USA Midwest Region, attends to free clinic patients at Truman College on August 19, 2007. Photo/Taisheng Chang

I’m grateful for the full support of Dr. Jeng Su, the convener of TIMA. The Midwest Region has begun substantive free clinics and acquired equipment such as X-rays and sterilizers to provide dental services such as scaling, extractions, fillings, and consultation.

Relieving Suffering in Chicago’s Chinatown

Beginning in 2016, the Midwest Region and TIMA partnered with the First Ladies Health Initiative, a grassroots faith-based non-profit organization, holding a joint free clinic – First Lady Health Fair – every year. In addition to TIMA and Tzu Chi volunteers participating in the event, medical students from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern University, and Midwestern University were also present and conducted health checkups for the public. The large-scale community free clinic provided healthcare consultation for Chicago’s low-income residents. The event offered services in dentistry, Traditional Chinese Medicine, family medicine, internal medicine, dermatology, gynecology, pediatrics, and rehabilitation at the site. TIMA doctors of eight specialties participated in the free clinic to guard public health while reminding people to pay attention to their physical fitness and maintain a healthy lifestyle to prevent diseases.

The Midwest Region’s Chicago Chinatown Service Center regularly organized free clinics and flu shots for uninsured, low-income, and older individuals who can’t go to the hospital due to a lack of health insurance or a language barrier. Tzu Chi volunteers and TIMA provided free clinic health consultations, while medical students from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine also came to help with the medical checkups.

The Chicago Chinatown Service Center is currently undergoing redevelopment, which everyone expects will be completed in August 2024. According to the plan, there will be a free clinic space on the fourth floor to provide free medical services in the future. “We hope to recruit more doctors and medical students to join us,” said volunteer Hueyshann Sue, “We also hope to inform the public about the services that we will provide here in the future.”

When the Midwest Region engaged in charity work, TIMA doctors would provide collaborative free medical services, including consultation to people experiencing homelessness during distributions for them. Once a year, the Region held a large-scale free clinic at Truman College for low-income families or people who can’t afford healthcare premiums, where TIMA doctors provided medical services to residents of various heritage, including Indian, Chinese, Hispanic, and others. Language interpreter volunteers were on site so that each person with a language barrier could communicate with the doctor.  

Tzu Chi has done a great job! In addition to free services, there are also volunteers who assist in taking care of the patients, which is very touching!

The Midwest Region joins the First Ladies Health Initiative’s Health Fair
The Midwest Region joins the First Ladies Health Initiative’s Health Fair for the third time. In addition to the participation of Tzu Chi and TIMA volunteers, 31 students from the medical schools of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Northwestern University help with basic health checkups and medical records, serving 109 people. Photo/Scully Chen

Adapting to State Regulatory Restrictions

Tzu Chi USA Midwest Region’s 13 local offices span more than a dozen states in the American Midwest, home to not only extreme weather but also some of the country’s most impoverished towns and communities. It’s been a known fact that hundreds of tornadoes ravage the Midwest each year, besides floods, fires, blizzards, and other calamities. Midwest Region volunteers must travel over 100 miles to reach and help those affected. While Tzu Chi volunteers conduct damage assessments and provide disaster relief distributions, TIMA volunteers offer free clinic services.

In June 2008, heavy rainfall for more than a month caused many Mississippi River tributaries to rise and flood, leaving tens of thousands of people homeless and forcing 25,000 to evacuate in ten Midwest states. In Iowa, 83 of its 99 counties incurred flooding, and Cedar Rapids, the second largest city in the state, was hardest hit, with more than 100 inundated streets.

From July 3 to 6, Tzu Chi volunteers held distributions and free clinics in Cedar Rapids, with TIMA volunteers from all over the U.S. coming to participate in the events. The doctors who took part in this trip were Dr. Minglong Shen, Dr. Amy Huang, Dr. Hiro Huang, Dr. Jeng Su, Dr. Yihsiung Huang, and Dr. Quanmin Wang. Concurrently, TIMA Chicago doctors naturally took this medical mission upon themselves.

A local TV reporter interviews Tzu Chi volunteer Chong Hsieh
A local TV reporter interviews Tzu Chi volunteer Chong Hsieh on July 5, 2008, when Midwest Region volunteers were in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, distributing disaster relief and providing a free clinic. Photo/Zhanqiang Yang

Since Iowa regulations don’t allow out-of-state licensed practitioners to engage in direct contact medical practices, the volunteers began to seek support from local practitioners. Fortunately, Dr. Yihsiung Huang urgently inquired about local dentists with Michele Lewis, a local dental material supplier, and then contacted Dr. Jerry Walker and his son, Dr. Todd Walker, who joined the clinic as a father-son team.

Many older residents had lost their dentures in the flood and were in great need of help. Dr. Huang contacted a local denture company, personally visited, and introduced Tzu Chi’s intent to assist. However, those in charge had reservations and couldn’t decide whether they would be willing to help. Nonetheless, the day after Dr. Huang returned to Chicago, he received a phone call from the company offering free dentures. It turned out that a newspaper article about Tzu Chi made them change their mind. When they read that an organization founded by Master Cheng Yen, a Buddhist nun, was distributing dentures in Palo, Iowa, they decided to assist.

Tzu Chi’s disaster relief efforts in the Midwest received considerable attention during this mission, with reporters from two local TV stations coming to the disaster relief service center for interviews on the first day of distributions and a reporter from the local TV Channel 9 asking questions about Tzu Chi’s aid in Parkersburg and Palo, Iowa. Moreover, to this day, Tzu Chi is remembered in Cedar Rapids after leaving a lasting impression on the city’s residents. 

Dr. Quanmin Wang, who is not licensed to practice in Iowa, assisted in checking the information of care recipients during the distributions. Dr. Hiro Huang, Dr. Jeng Su, and Dr. Amy Huang also helped during the distributions because they weren’t allowed to see patients either. Dr. Amy Huang from Chicago, who had been busy working day and night since she became a resident, was eager to participate, entirely devoting herself to the disaster relief effort.

Dr. Su, who couldn’t immediately apply for a provisional license to practice medicine in Iowa, assumed different roles. In addition to accompanying and introducing new doctors and seizing the opportunity to let them know more about Tzu Chi, Dr. Su and Dr. Wang cleaned up the distribution and clinic site and took care of the recycling.

Even though Dr. Yihsiung Huang couldn’t assume a medical role because of his license, he still had no time to spare, busy organizing hundreds of dental instruments from morning to night. He handled every task meticulously to provide the most professional environment for the volunteer doctors and their patients, from determining the site’s layout and setting up the chairs and instruments to prepping the medical tools. After tidying up the clinic, Dr. Huang also carefully reminded each dental assistant of the place and usage of the devices and insisted on providing the most heartfelt medical services, even in a temporary clinic in a department store.

Serving Without Pause Through the Years

TIMA Chicago has a strong lineup of doctors who, for over a decade or even decades, had been showing up at free clinic events whenever Tzu Chi called on them, devoutly providing free medical services to the public. Some of them also took on TIMA work outside of free clinics. From the images recording the history of Tzu Chi USA Midwest Region’s free clinics, one can see their unswerving perseverance, even as their hair turned gray with time.

Dr. May C. Kuo, the current convenor of TIMA Chicago, began his connection with Tzu Chi in 2009. Over the past 14 years, one could see him at almost every Tzu Chi free clinic activity, large or small, as he applied his medical expertise with a diligent smile, soothing the minds and bodies of those who sought treatment.

Before participating in Tzu Chi free clinics, Dr. Kuo and his medical school classmates had been providing free clinics at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Chicago for more than a decade. As his children started their own families, he accompanied his grandchildren to the Tzu Chi Academy in Chicago on Sunday afternoons, where he came into contact with Tzu Chi and began to participate in Tzu Chi’s free clinic activities, as well as taking on the job of school nurse at the Academy. With Dr. Kuo at the Tzu Chi Academy, students and parents rested assured, as he not only brought new medical knowledge to everyone but also became the person to consult for general medical information.

Dr. May C. Kuo (left) of TIMA's Family Medicine Department explains medical conditions to the patients he consults. Photo/Dennis Lee 

From Chinatown to the African-American community in Chicago’s South Side, Dr. Kuo, now over 80 years old, has long supported Tzu Chi’s free clinic efforts. “When you participate in free clinic activities, everyone is a volunteer, and you’re always on call,” he shares. Kuo would be present and provide medical consultation to those in need in different places with a phone call. He even gave his phone number for patient follow-up. It is thus not surprising that Kuo’s most recent patient meeting was at a supermarket. He helps everyone who asks and makes it as convenient as possible, highly considerate of difficulties some have in transportation or other aspects.

September 7, 2019 First Lady Healthy Fair Tzu Chi USA Midwest Region and TIMA volunteers group photo
On September 7, 2019, when Tzu Chi USA Midwest Region and TIMA volunteers join the First Ladies Health Initiative for the First Lady Healthy Fair, providing a free clinic for low-income individuals without heath insurance, the team takes a group photo. Photo/Dennis Lee

Obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Senlian Yang is a well-known infertility specialist who has supported Chicago’s free clinic initiative for more than 20 years. One can witness his dedication to Master Cheng Yen and Tzu Chi when he participates in sign language, drumming, and Sutra of Infinite Meanings interpretation performances at Tzu Chi events.

Dr. Jeng Su introduced Dr. Yang to participate in Tzu Chi’s free clinics. Since medical regulations in the United States are complicated, doctors can’t write prescriptions or examine patients at free clinics. Dr. Su mainly consulted with patients, explained their conditions, and told them what tests they should get, plus how to handle their conditions properly, thereby putting their minds at ease. Despite regulatory limitations on free clinics, it is still helpful to patients to receive a doctor’s analysis and explanation.

Dr. Yang has a dazzling and rich academic experience. He was an associate professor at the University of Chicago Medical Center and a professor at Advocate Christ Medical Center, where he taught courses on the female reproductive system, reproductive immunobiology, and others. He continued to teach students until 2020.

According to Yang, faith brings him great strength. “Many years ago, I performed a C-section on a pregnant woman who had high blood pressure and diabetes. During the operation, amniotic fluid entered the bloodstream, causing the blood to be unable to coagulate,” he recalled. “The bleeding continued, and her heart stopped beating. They rushed to perform first aid and did CPR three times. I started to recite the Amitabha Buddha prayer. The nurse who believed in Christianity also prayed at the same time. This patient gradually regained signs of life later,” Yang recounted.

Gynecologist Dr. Senlian Yang offers a medical consultation.
Gynecologist Dr. Senlian Yang offers a medical consultation. Photo/Dennis Lee

I almost lost a patient. Some people might not believe that, but my faith did increase my confidence and gave me the strength to calm down.

Yang, now 85, loves practicing medicine and helping people. His two sons and daughters-in-law are all doctors, making it five physicians in the family. “Being a doctor is not about making money, and it’s not a lucrative profession; it’s a way to help people and relieve their pain,” Dr. Senlian Yang believes, and he certainly takes joy in it.

Dr. Quanmin Wang has been participating in TIMA’s overseas free clinics since 2000. He has traveled to El Salvador several times, as well as the Dominican Republic and Bolivia. Dr. Wang has also contributed his expertise during TIMA Chicago’s free clinic activities.

To everyone’s amazement, Wang mainly uses acupuncture on the hands and legs. For instance, he applies needles to the calves instead of the abdomen for stomach pains. Therefore, his patients can receive acupuncture while sitting in the free clinic, even if there is no treatment room or bed. The patients don’t need to lie down, lie on a bed, or take off their clothes for acupuncture while on their backs, making it more convenient and faster in the free clinics.

Destiny made the arrangements for Dr. Quanmin Wang to join the pathway of Tzu Chi’s free clinics. Serving in the clinics has allowed him to visit places he wouldn’t have otherwise, where he helped many people.

Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor Quanmin Wang instructs patients on how to relax their tendons and dissipate blood stasis through exercise.
Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor Quanmin Wang instructs patients in the free clinic on August 20, 2006, on how to relax their tendons and dissipate blood stasis through exercise. Photo/Taisheng Chang

Volunteers Make Free Clinics Possible

In addition to doctors providing consultation, the preparations for every free clinic activity beforehand, the setup of the site, the services during the patient visits, and the post-clinic work are all time-consuming and laborious, and all rely on the selfless dedication of many volunteers who are united in their efforts. The dental, medical, and other related equipment is rather heavy; the volunteers handle and place this equipment, while the medical volunteers do the sterilization and other professional tasks, making it possible for free clinics to proceed smoothly.

Chong Hsieh, Executive Director of the Tzu Chi USA Midwest Region, and his wife, Yahmei Hsieh, were the conveners and important facilitators of free clinic activities. All the big and small tasks, from the invitation of doctors and venue arrangements to staffing and meals, were arranged and planned by them with the volunteer team. In addition, when a free clinic was in progress, volunteers from the Midwest Region’s catering team would quietly prepare meals for the free clinic team. Yahmei Hsieh, a good cook, would also go to the kitchen to help prepare a sumptuous vegetarian lunch so that all the volunteers and doctors could have a hot meal to replenish their energy and continue their work in the afternoon. Thus, the medical and volunteer teams collaborated as closely as a family.

TIMA Midwest

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