A celebrated foreign correspondent built his life work on detachment. Then everything changed.

Lewis M. Simons

I came of age as a journalist in the now quaint era when reporters were instructed to keep themselves out of their stories. As one of my early editors once snapped, “No one gives a damn what you think.” Even a byline was a rare reward for exceptional work.

As a result, I spent nearly all of a 50-year career as a foreign correspondent observing, recording, and putting in writing what I’d seen and heard, or sometimes touched and smelled, without mentioning to my readers that, by the way, here’s how what I witnessed affected me. The clear implication was that, although I was there, I was a disinterested observer, a fly on the wall.

At times, this rigid indoctrination led to nightmarish decisions: Should I walk away from a mass torture session during the bloody birthing of Bangladesh when chances were that without journalists watching, it would quickly have ended? Should I go to the aid of the US marine in South Vietnam whose footprints I was following, heart in throat, across a dry rice paddy when a landmine blew off his legs? Should I accept the M16 rifle a Special Forces captain offered me during the 1968 Tet Offensive to help fend off a North Vietnamese assault on the Central Highlands camp where the American troops were sheltering me?

In these and other painful instances over the decades, I opted out. I stood by, scribbling notes and snapping photos, an observer declining to become a participant. The torture continued (and resulted in a Pulitzer Prize for two AP photographers). The marine died before he could be helicoptered away. The Green Berets eventually beat back the assault.

I watched. Then I filed the story.

My purpose, I convinced myself, was to bear witness. Any influence I might bring to events would have to come through reporting, not active involvement.

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Since those days, the lines that once clearly separated reporting from commentary, observation from opinion, old journalism from new, have blurred. Reporters increasingly participate in the events they cover. They freely express their opinions and emotions, in print and on-air. We constantly see newspaper staffers on TV and hear them on the radio, elaborating on their articles with opinion-laced analysis and personal impressions.

In stark contrast to the restrictive, antediluvian rules under which my generation strove to operate, editors today push their reporters in the opposite direction. The resulting endless blogging and tweeting by staff reporters whose bylines simultaneously appear in the news columns leaves readers confused and distrustful.

That kind of activity wouldn’t have even remotely occurred to me. If it had, my editor would swiftly have clamped down or booted me out the door.

Then I met Dondrub Dorje.

In the early autumn of 2000, during a month-long, 4,000-mile reporting trip across Tibet for National Geographic magazine, I paused for two days in Yushu Prefecture with the family of my guide, Aogyan Nyima, who liked me to call him “Franklin.”

 

Suddenly, it was clear: This time, I could not stand by and watch.

 

As is customary in rural Tibet, they were spending a few weeks’ holiday away from their village, along with 20 or so neighboring families. Their tents were set up in a grassy meadow riotously spread with yellow and lavender wildflowers against a backdrop of snow-streaked mountains.

A hacking gas-powered generator provided electric light and pumped Tibetan and Chinese pop tunes over the fancifully-embroidered white tents. At the front of their tent, Franklin’s mother, Gaya, cooked on a portable gas stove. We passed a large hunting knife from which we took turns biting off hunks of chewy yak meat that had been hung and dried in the smoky eaves of their home.

“This is our time for forgetting everything and to eat and drink and have fun,” the father, Samya, told me as we raised endless toasts. Like most Tibetans of the Cultural Revolution generation, neither he nor his wife had been to school. Samya’s boyhood dream of becoming a Buddhist monk had been frustrated.

After the agricultural commune where the family lived during the Maoist era was disbanded, they scrimped and searched for business opportunities. By the time I visited, they were well off members of a new middle class with a small cement factory, a general store, and a blue pickup truck.

They were proud of their four children. Franklin, the eldest, had graduated from college and was a teacher. Their elder daughter was a Buddhist nun; the younger one was in middle school. And, to their great joy and satisfaction, their younger son, at 16, was fulfilling his father’s dream and becoming a monk. “I believe that my son and his generation will save Buddhism and Tibetan culture,” Samya told me as we ate.

As though on cue, a teenaged boy on a motorcycle roared up to our table. He wore a maroon wool robe, and his coal-black hair was cropped close to his scalp. This was the 16-year-old, Dondrub Dorje.

We were introduced, and Dorje smiled shyly. Remaining astride his rumbling cycle, he declined his mother’s offer of food and rode off across the field to join a bunch of boys kicking around a soccer ball. The next day, Franklin and I resumed our journey across the plateau. Then I returned home to Washington.

Several months later, I went back to Tibet to continue reporting. Flying into Xining, the largest city on the Tibetan plateau, I caught up with Franklin. That first morning, as we stood outside our hotel, I noticed coming toward us a small robed figure leaning heavily on another man’s forearm. It was Dorje and Samya. The boy was bent sharply forward, like the handle of an umbrella, and he could hardly walk. They were on their way to a regional hospital.

 

I put my life into reverse. Sleeping days, I spent nights calling and emailing people in Asia who I’d met during my decades as a correspondent, pleading for their help.

 

I learned that Dorje had been diagnosed with severe scoliosis; his spine was forcing his organs together, gradually crushing him to death. The Chinese doctors knew what was wrong, but told the family that they did not consider themselves capable of carrying out the complex surgical procedures required to fix it.

I listened with sympathy. They didn’t ask for my help and I did not offer it. I wished father and son well and said goodbye.

Months passed. I was back in Washington when I received an urgent email from an American I’d met in Tibet. He had been trying, without success, to have Dorje admitted to a US hospital. Dorje was dying. Could I help?

Once again, that old, nagging issue: Dorje, his family, their experiences, what they had to say about life in Chinese-dominated Tibet–all this would make its way into my magazine piece. Clearly, there would be a conflict of interest if I became involved in their lives. Personal sympathy, if I acted on it, would color my story.

At that time, my wife, Carol, was suffering from a brainstem lesion. We had just consulted our fourth doctor, Fred Epstein, a cowboy-booted, Ferrari-driving, world-renowned neurosurgeon at New York’s Beth Israel Hospital. Key among his medical achievements was a unique procedure he’d developed for removing brain tumors previously considered inoperable. He had saved the lives of scores of children around the world.

Epstein made some recommendations to Carol. As the consultation concluded, I noted the Tibetan artifacts in his office and told him about my story. “I’m a great fan of the Dalai Lama,” he said. He told me that he and the Buddhist leader were working on a plan to have American physicians study Buddhist healing techniques with monks in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s refuge in India.

As I mulled the email from Tibet, Carol and I discussed the exceptional convergence of Epstein, Tibet, Dorje, and me. Suddenly, it was clear: This time, I could not stand by and watch. Although my expectations were minimal, I emailed Epstein, explaining Dorje’s situation. A few hours later, his reply was on my screen: “Get me the pictures.”

Franklin airfreighted the X-rays to New York. Fred’s response stunned me: “If you can get the boy to New York, I’ll cover the cost of the procedure.” The surgery would be “very high risk.” The window of survival was closing. Without surgery on his spine, Dorje would very likely die within three months. (I didn’t tell Dorje about this grim prognosis until I began writing this account. “Wow,” he responded. “All I thought was that I would become paralyzed slowly and then maybe die.”)

I put my life into reverse. Sleeping days, I spent nights calling and emailing people in Asia who I’d met during my decades as a correspondent, pleading for their help. The greatest challenge was getting Dorje a Chinese passport–a difficult and complex matter for a young Tibetan–and the nerve-racking effort filled nearly all the time he had left. At last, a sympathetic Chinese diplomat in Tokyo, a friend of a friend, came through and Dorje got his passport.

An American Embassy officer in Beijing expedited a US visa. Dorje’s family scraped together savings and contributions from fellow villagers and bought a plane ticket. Franklin took Dorje to Beijing for a night’s rest and a quick lesson in how to use indoor plumbing.

Then he was off, a now-17-year-old Tibetan boy who’d never been away from home, who spoke no English, who was in excruciating pain and could barely walk, on his way to a state-of-the-art hospital in Manhattan for an operation that could save his life, or kill him.

Things got off to a somewhat bumpy start. The wheelchair I’d requested didn’t appear at JFK. Our daughter, Justine, had asked a friend, an American tea importer who spoke a smattering of Tibetan, to meet Dorje at the airport. He later described a small, hunched figure in a monk’s robe agonizingly making his way along a corridor, pressed against the wall for support. They drove to Beth Israel Hospital.

We should have known: Dorje wouldn’t be admitted for another week. First, they needed to do a series of tests. Meanwhile, where could he stay? They headed across town to the West Side apartment of Justine’s mother-in-law, Olivia Huntington, where the exhausted boy was put to bed.

Olivia, taken by surprise, phoned us: “What does he eat? Is he a vegetarian?” “Put a bowl of rice, bread and a glass of milk outside his door,” Carol suggested. Hours later, Olivia reported back: “The food is gone.”

On the day of the surgery, June 10, 2001, Justine and I arrived at the hospital at 6 a.m. I learned for the first time that I was officially Dorje’s legal guardian. His father had sent a note: If Dorje died, he asked me to have his son cremated and spread his ashes in a river.

 

“Because you have saved my life,” he recited, “I will do something great for my country.”

 

As Dorje lay silent on a gurney in a dimly-lit hallway, the admitting physician, unsettlingly named Dr. Slaughter, shuffled form after form before me for my signature. I kissed Doje on the forehead, and he was wheeled away.

Fred Epstein offered me the closed-circuit TV in his office where, for the next 14 hours, I watched a team of three surgeons plus anesthesiologists, nurses, and technicians remove two diseased vertebrae from Dorje’s neck. They replaced these with cadaver bone and built a titanium ladder flanking his spine, from chest height to the base of his skull. Fred had put the team together, but he did not participate in the procedure.

The operation, Fred told me afterward, cost his clinic $250,000. The money came from a fund established for just such circumstances. If there were any way I could help recoup any of the cost, he would be grateful. I promised that I would try. I had no idea how.

Dorje remained in the hospital for more than two weeks. Justine and I recruited local Tibetans to visit him daily, to act as interpreters between him and the hospital staff, particularly during physical therapy. We found willing volunteers in colleges, restaurants, and shops around the city. Who knew so many Tibetans lived in New York?

Once he was well enough to leave the hospital, he was moved to a Ronald McDonald House nearby. Our son, Adam, then on summer vacation from college, became the “accompanying blood relative” the House required to help Dorje with daily life and to transport him to rehab sessions. Winks and nods were duly exchanged.

By August, Dorje was walking. He completed rehab and was pronounced fit. Franklin had gotten himself a visa, and we brought both of them to our home in Washington. Dorje relaxed, gained strength, and practiced his English, which was improving rapidly.

His only request was for an official NBA basketball. Ball in hand, he walked up the street to our neighborhood playground, where he spent an hour shooting hoops.

On the day he left, Sept. 7, we stood outside our house and Dorje read from a slip of paper a little speech he and his brother had written out phonetically: “Because you have saved my life,” he recited, “I will do something great for my country.” I couldn’t hold back the tears as we hugged for what I expected would be a final farewell. Much later, he told me that he, too, wept in the car to the airport

Several weeks later, finalizing the Geographic story took me to Dharamsala in India’s Himalayan foothills, where, for the fourth time in my career, I interviewed the Dalai Lama. It was, as previously, an extraordinary experience. I have always found this unique man to be quite literally ringed in a mystical aura, his straightforward insights sharply penetrating some of humanity’s most vexing problems.

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Lew and Dalai Lama in garden of Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala, India. Lew wore a traditional white silk scarf, which the Dalai Lama presented him.

Immediately, my self-imposed conflict once again rose to the surface. My primary purpose was to interview Tibet’s spiritual leader, but I was determined as well to ask him to introduce me to some of his wealthy admirers, particularly the actor Richard Gere, so I could appeal for a contribution to Fred Epstein’s surgery fund. Obviously, I no longer could pretend to be a disinterested outsider. But the Dalai Lama saved me from actually having to make a pitch. No sooner had I related Dorje’s story than he sprang to his feet. I remember the conversation as if it occurred yesterday:

Dalai Lama (excited): “How can you and Dr. Epstein–foreigners–do all this and I do nothing! I will contribute 50,000!”

Me (impressed): “You mean 50,000 rupees?” (This was India, after all, and that sum would have equaled about $750–generous, I thought.)

DL (blithely): “No, 50,000 U.S.”

Me (bowled over): “Where do you come by $50,000?”

DL (giggling): “I write books, you know, and they make a lot of money.”

Me (stuttering): “God bless you, Your Holiness.”

I called Fred that night and, with great delight, told him the news. “No way,” he shot back. “I can’t take the Dalai Lama’s money. Out of the question.”

Nothing I said would convince him otherwise. I was then in the awkward position of having to tell the Dalai Lama, who was waiting for a bank account number to which to transfer the funds, that Dr. Epstein had said thanks but no thanks.

That September, Fred was bicycling near his home in Greenwich, Conn., when his front wheel lodged in a pothole. He was thrown over the handlebars, his helmet cracked, and he suffered a traumatic brain injury. He was in a coma for 26 days, and hospitalized for nine months.

Fred’s career was over. Although he regained speech and some ability to move, he never really recovered. This superb surgeon, who had saved hundreds of lives, died five years later at 68. I passed along the awful story in an email to Dorje. He was studying English at a local college near his village and replied immediately: “I will pray for him.”

Dorje was heartbroken but, as a Buddhist monk, stoic. “Without him,” he emailed me, “I might not be alive by now and we would not have met in this way. Very likely, I could be just a young monk you once saw in Yushu. He was a good man and all I try to do is to perpetuate his good deeds (also yours) by becoming a good person. That’s the most important thing for me.”

At around this time, Dorje told me of his dream–to make movies–which he determined he could successfully combine with the monkhood. “Being a monk, all I have is time,” he told me. “I know how to make documentaries with a low budget but of high quality. And there is nothing else that I need to worry about because of my monkhood. There is really not any excuse to not make films.”

His English was becoming fluent. Each email from Tibet displayed eyebrow-raising progress. In 2009, he announced a major surprise: he was applying for admission to Duke University’s film program. He submitted as part of his application a short video he had made of his home village and was accepted–on a full scholarship.

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Dorje, in yellow, and his father, Samya, at a celebratory party at Duke after graduation.

The next four years flew by, and each time we saw him, we were stunned by his accomplishments. In February 2011, while at Duke, his video, Stone Scripture, was shown at the University of Toronto.

In May 2014, he marched into Wallace Wade Stadium with the rest of the class, doubtless the only one wearing a monk’s robe beneath his cap and gown. His father was in the stands with Carol and me, thanks to a Duke fund to bring parents from overseas who are unable to cover the cost of attending their children’s graduation.

Strolling on the university’s magnificent lawns and taking photos, Dorje reflected on what had transpired since our first meeting on the Tibetan grassland. “Despite our being from two different worlds, for some miraculous reasons, not only do I consider myself as Carol’s and your adopted son, but the person I am today is because of you,” he said. “I became healthy, and I have been motivated to be somebody worthwhile. Karma worked in a miraculous way. I never regret anything, even having the illness. I feel grateful all the time.” Once more, Carol and I were overcome.

The latest surprise came soon after graduation, when neighbors of ours in Washington introduced Dorje to a BBC filmmaker who was planning a major documentary for Disney on baby animals, among them the elusive snow leopard of Tibet. “I know where they are,” Dorje assured us. Within weeks, he was hired to join the film team.

Born in China is scheduled for worldwide release in 2017. The film’s executive producer, Brian Leith, acknowledged in a recent email that his team would not have found the rare animals without Dorje. “He makes it happen and we’re getting some fantastic footage–the best snow leopard footage ever shot anywhere–and Dorje is largely responsible for this achievement.”

Looking back, I remember that when he was recovering with us in Washington, we asked him what had affected him most during his first days in New York, as he awaited surgery. He said that it was a scene in Riverside Park, when he sat in a rented wheelchair watching young people jogging and rollerblading. “I wanted to be like them,” he said. He has achieved that and so much more.

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Lew, Dorje and Carol (L-R) during Christmas 2013, when he visited us in DC. He came to several Christmases and Thanksgivings.

Dorje recently worked as a cinematographer and editor on a film project for a Taiwanese producer, and is now planning a documentary of his own. Perhaps he is on his way to fulfilling his vow to do that “something great” for his country.

As for me, helping this remarkable young man overcome a life-threatening illness was more than worth my stepping across the boundaries I’d set for myself all those years ago. Nor do I regret having lived and worked within those lines for as long as I did. Dorje gave me a moment to reconsider, and that challenge brought me the greatest satisfaction of my career. 

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Lewis M. Simons was a correspondent for the Associated Press, the Washington Post and Knight-Ridder Newspapers. He received the 1986 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for exposing the Marcos billions looted from the Philippines, He and his wife, Carol, were classmates at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.