Rewriting Her Story: Author Audrey Cheng Fights Back Against Chronic Illness

National Headquarters  |  June 24, 2022
In 2016, Audrey Cheng was invited to the Kaohsiung Online Book Club in Taiwan to share her Chinese book "The Working Queen of Vegas" and to promote Tzu Chi Books. Image source/Audrey Cheng

Written by Chenglin Li
Translated by Hong (Ariel) Chan
Edited by Maggie Morgan

Although Tzu Chi volunteer Audrey Cheng was about to undergo brain surgery for cerebral spinal nerve damage, it didn’t stop her from participating in Tzu Chi USA’s April 16th Walkathon. The Walkathon was organized to raise awareness and donations for the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation, and as a patient, Audrey wanted to tell her story.  Through her own experience, the volunteer and patient was able to stress the importance of Tzu Chi’s medical services for beneficiaries and their families alike. 

Audrey Cheng is so much more than a volunteer and a beacon of hope for those facing medical struggles, she is an established author. The writer has strong fan bases across both Chinese and English readerships, with millions of followers even tuning in to hear her Chinese-spoken pieces streamed online.  

Over the past 25 years, Audrey Cheng has been working diligently on behalf of Tzu Chi at the Las Vegas Service Center. The philanthropist never hesitated to ask to leave work to volunteer for the Foundation. She purchased photography equipment with her own money to make sure that Tzu Chi USA’s impression could be documented. Audrey could often be seen bustling around, busy filming and doing interviews for various Tzu Chi events, taking the initiative to make sure everything ran smoothly. She has always been so sincerely devoted to Tzu Chi’s motto of humanity, kindness, and inner beauty; However, for a human like Audrey, all of that comes naturally.

In 2009, Audrey Cheng had a blood vessel burst for the first time. She took a photo with the doctor in the emergency room, unaware of the severity of her conditions. She was later sent to the intensive care unit, then transferred to another hospital and underwent emergency surgery. Image source/Audrey Cheng

Overcoming Obstacles with Optimism

Since 2017, Audrey has battled cerebrovascular embolism, constantly working through the pain and physical barriers with her tenacious character. A cerebral embolism (or an embolic stroke) happens when a blood clot forms in another part of the body and travels through the bloodstream until it hits an artery too narrow to pass through.

Despite her diagnosis, she still works tirelessly for Tzu Chi and its initiatives, even traveling across the ocean in July 2021 to assist with disaster relief efforts. When Audrey first signed up for the trip, she did not yet know that her condition was worsening. While in Ecuador, the volunteer fell to the ground several times, but somehow she remained devoted to  alleviating the villagers’ plights, standing up with vigor every time.

When the work of the day was done, and the rest of the world had gone to bed, Audrey was still awake organizing manuscripts and photographs of interviews. Her mind was always occupied by the disaster victims; while one hand was busy rifling through the piles of documents, her other hand was wiping away her tears of empathy for the people she was helping.

When Audrey returned to the United States, she broke her knee again, and it was then that she learned that her cerebrovascular embolism had reached 95%. Audrey found out her cervical spine might be injured and dislocated, causing weakness on the right half of her body and pain in the affected area. The only way to repair the damage is through brain surgery.

Many Tzu Chi volunteers have commended Audrey as they’ve personally seen how she optimistically confronts her physical discomfort; her attitude is unchanging and her smile never seems to leave her face. If she does struggle emotionally, Audrey makes sure no one sees it, she perseveres and even encourages others to keep moving forward. 

In 2016, when Audrey’s book “The Working Queen of Vegas” was published, reviews introduced the legendary woman and author saying: “Having once worked five jobs to pay off debts, undergone four surgeries in seven years, and been declared terminally ill three times, she channeled tears into a smile, creating a vivid icon of an independent and modern woman. She has gone from a mere dishwasher in the casino to being selected as the model manager of the hotel where she worked.”

At the Las Vegas Service Center computer community course, Audrey Cheng instructs another volunteer on how to operate a computer. Image source/Audrey Cheng

Another Tug-of-War with Illness

In 2019, Audrey again found herself fighting in the trenches against her disease. “Irregularity and disease have attacked my health so much that 2021 has been my year of disaster,” Audrey said. On a sunny Sunday in November, she suddenly experienced blurred vision. Before Audrey even knew what was happening, she had broken her kneecap. After the Christmas break, the broken knee showed no sign of recovery, forcing her to undergo surgery.

I once thought that I could just bounce back to the bustling world and continue my mission of chivalry work. However, this is only the prelude to the nightmare as diseases come one after another like crashing waves.

Tzu Chi volunteer, Audrey Cheng

“Even though I was feeling bad at the time, I still moved forward.” Audrey Cheng said, “After the pandemic, I continued to be busy with recruitment at Tzu Chi USA, and teamed up with Las Vegas volunteers to send donated pandemic prevention materials, such as masks, face shields and protective gears, to hospitals and institutions in disadvantaged communities.”

During a follow-up examination, Audrey’s neurologist decided to perform a full-body scan to get a better picture of her condition. The tomography results revealed a nasal tumor, which had grown from the size of a small red bean to a ping pong ball in less than a month. The doctor suspected that it was likely a malignant tumor, and it needed to be surgically removed as soon as possible.

During the operation, it was found that the tumor had grown downwards and adhered to a wisdom tooth. Considering that the tumor might be malignant and to avoid hidden risks, the doctor decided to remove the wisdom tooth during the operation. Misfortunes never come singly; Audrey’s post-operative wound was not sutured properly, and the severe infection and inflammation resulted in a high fever that was unrelenting. Audrey went back under the knife, where she had yet another wisdom tooth removed. During the operation, Audrey could hear the instructions of the anesthesiologist. It turned out that the operation had not been completed, but the anesthetic had already expired. The good news was that the tumor was diagnosed as benign. Though things had gone anything but planned, Audrey characteristically returned to Tzu Chi, happily devoting herself to yet another cause.

“The Worst is Yet to Come”

Audrey said: “The worst is only yet to come. When I started to lose my center of gravity again, and felt as if walking on a tightrope as I went up and down staircases, I was surprised to find that my fall a year ago caused more than just one injury. Worse, my case of cerebrovascular embolism is relatively serious.”

Since taking a sick leave in November 2021, Audrey said: “I have two diseases, one is Brain Stenosis; the other is Severe disc height narrowing, which makes my right hand weak. Although with the former I have undergone surgery to place a stent, I still need to take medicine for recuperation; with the latter I cannot be scheduled for brain surgery until March because of a coagulation system disorder. And because of severe pain, the doctor suggested morphine, but I refused, and now I need to take high doses of painkillers.”

Many people would have stopped long ago, before the surgeries and before the continuing ailments. Audrey did not. In order to continue reporting for Tzu Chi, she had to strictly control the timing of her medication intake; her schedule is arranged according to the needs of work itinerary, so as to cooperate with Tzu Chi activities “without fainting.”

I hope my personal story can encourage friends who are still struggling in adversity, and hope that they can laugh through tears and find courage.

Tzu Chi volunteer, Audrey Cheng

There are countless other fighters like Audrey around us, who may not be able to obtain medical services to help relieve their pain for a myriad of reasons, and their body and mind have been affected by the disease. But if we all give just a little, we can help these patients a lot, in life-changing ways. Tzu Chi Medical Centers provide services for those who are suffering in sickness, soothe the anxiety and helplessness of the patients themselves and their families, and offer them the strength to recover no matter the circumstances.

About Audrey Cheng:

Audrey Cheng began to write at the age of seventeen, and her works were scattered in various newspapers and magazines. She has also worked as a medical examiner in a public hospital in Taiwan for many years. She traveled to the United States in 1988, but remained committed to her passion for writing and continues to produce creative work. She has worked as a reporter for a local newspaper in Las Vegas for ten years, and is also a member of the Chinese Writers Association of America. Currently, she is the banquet manager of the Venetian Casino, Las Vegas. She joined Tzu Chi in 1997 and found a platform to freely express her words. 25 years of Tzu Chi volunteer service is her most honorable qualification.

Portfolio:

“American Taiwanese” (1995 Cub Culture)

“Working Queen of Vegas” (2016 Tzu Chi Humanities Center)

“Endless Love Without Borders” (2016 Tzu Chi Humanities Center/Translation Editor)

“When Western Big Brother Meets Eastern Dharma” (2016 Tzu Chi Humanities Center)

“Rejoicing” (2017 Tzu Chi Humanities Center)

“Emily’s School of Happiness” (2018 Tzu Chi Humanities Center)

“Beacon in the Dark” (2018 Tzu Chi Humanities Center)

“My Road to Happiness” (2019 Tzu Chi Humanities Center)

Storyteller 3 (2021 Booker Culture Publishing Division / Co-author)

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