From student to author to hospital volunteer, this N.S. teen is making waves from China

One could say the life of Ahnaleigh Simmonds is coming full circle.

The 15-year-old African Nova Scotian was born with a life-threatening condition that has since pushed her to study medicine to one day help kids like her.

Simmonds, who is originally from Dartmouth but now lives with her family in China, was born premature at the IWK Health Centre with gastroschisis, in which some of her gastrointestinal organs had grown outside of her body.

She spent the first year of her life in hospital undergoing many surgeries, setbacks and ultimately, recovery.

“If anything, it definitely inspired me to keep going forward with my passion for medicine,” Simmonds told CBC Radio’s Information Morning Halifax from her home in Shanghai.

Simmonds was born with a birth defect called gastroschisis at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax. (Submitted by Ahnaleigh Simmonds)

And that passion has been able to flourish during her volunteer work at an international hospital in Shanghai — administering vaccines, conducting patient surveys and helping organize events.

Her hard work even got her featured on the Wall of Love, a bulletin board that highlights volunteers inside Jiahui International Hospital. Simmonds was also featured in an online article posted by Jiahui Health.

“It’s honestly really amazing to see all my work be shown in that way,” Simmonds said.

When she was five years old, her parents, who are both teachers, moved the family to Thailand in search of new opportunities outside of Canada.

A large bulletin inside of a hallway.
This bulletin board highlights Simmonds’s volunteer work and is featured inside the Jiahui International Hospital. (Submitted by Ahnaleigh Simmonds)

After some time in Bangkok, the family moved to Shanghai, where they still reside. They welcomed Simmonds’s little brother four years ago.

On a routine visit to the Jiahui International Hospital in 2022, Simmonds saw a poster asking for volunteers. Despite only being 13 — three years shy of the minimum age for volunteers — she applied and was accepted that December.

“They were really surprised not only that I was of African descent, but because I was this young and I was this interested in medicine and I can speak fluent Chinese. They were just really impressed,” she said.

A young woman administers an injection into a model arm.
During her volunteer work, Simmonds helps administer vaccines, conducts patient surveys and helps organize events. (Submitted by Ahnaleigh Simmonds)

Since then, she has participated in an emergency room simulation workshop and the hospital’s scholar program that offers hands-on clinical experience for high school students. She has also taken an advanced first aid training course.

“Whether she’s helping with flu vaccine, in-patient nutrition survey, or seasonal events, Ahna’s vibrant personality lights up the room and makes patients feel at ease,” the article on Jiahui Health’s website said.

Being Black in Shanghai

Simmonds has family in Upper Hammonds Plains, North Preston and East Preston.

Despite living most of her life in Asia, she said she’s proud of her African Nova Scotian heritage and is always happy to help educate others. She said this often comes up when people stop and stare at her family — but more out of curiosity than prejudice.

WATCH | Ahnaleigh Simmonds shares her experience as an African Nova Scotian teen from Dartmouth living in China

What it’s like being an African Nova Scotian teen living in China

Fifteen-year-old Ahnaleigh Simmonds has been living in Shanghai, China, with her family for nine years. She was recently recognized by the Jiahui International Hospital for her volunteer work that’s inspired by her own medical journey.

“It’s a really cool experience just to get to communicate and to share my heritage, share where I’m from, share my identity with other people from a variety of backgrounds,” she said.

During the pandemic, she actually co-wrote and published a book called I’m From Nova Scotia: Exploring My Black Heritage, with her grandmother, Andrea Marsman.

A young Black woman holds a book on a white background.
Ahnaleigh Simmonds co-wrote her book, I’m From Nova Scotia: Exploring My Black Heritage, with her grandmother, Andrea Marsman. (Submitted by Ahanleigh Simmonds)

The book is currently on the curriculum list of some schools in Nova Scotia.

“Having that connection to my African roots, having that connection to the initial Black communities that settled in Nova Scotia, it’s just really meaningful to me,” Simmonds said.

Marsman, who is a teacher and longtime member of the Black Educators Association of Nova Scotia, said she’s exceptionally proud of her granddaughter.

“She had a very rough start in life and we didn’t even know she was going to make it, but she has just such a strong tenacity, great work ethic and she excels at literally everything that she tries. She’s just phenomenal,” Marsman said.

A big sister holds her younger brother outside of a hospital. They smile for the photo.
Simmonds and her little brother, Leniko Simmonds, outside the Jiahui International Hospital in Shanghai. (RJ Simmonds/Facebook)

Marsman said Simmonds also plays piano and basketball, she does martial arts, serves on student council, and she was just a lighting technician in a school play. Her grandmother said she does all of this, but Simmonds insists she’s just a regular teenager with a proper social life.

Marsman said she encouraged her granddaughter to volunteer at the hospital, given her interest in medical science and her pursuit of becoming a doctor.

Four young women stand together at a table.
Simmonds has been volunteering at the Jiahui International Hospital for about a year and a half. (Submitted by Ahnaleigh Simmonds)

She said when Simmonds and her family came home last summer, they visited the IWK Health Centre.

“She came from such a disadvantaged space, and many people would believe that if you had so many challenges early on, that it might impact the rest of your life in not a positive way,” said Marsman. 

“She wanted to say, ‘Look, this was the catalyst for me to be the best that I could be and appreciate the fact that I’m here on this planet.'”

A young woman holds a model heart, next to a sign that says, mechanical heart valve.
Simmonds recently completed a school assignment that involved creating a 3D model of an artificial heart valve. (Submitted by Ahnaleigh Simmonds)

Simmonds will soon finish her Grade 10 year at Western International School of Shanghai. She said she’d like to write another book about kids accepting their heritage.

When she graduates high school, her plan is to return to Canada to pursue her post-secondary education to become a doctor.

“I’m looking into pediatrics right now or some form of surgery, maybe gastrointestinal surgery [for] children that were like me, so that I can help them as well,” Simmonds said.

“And I can look into more of my own story and maybe find new ways to help kids like me.”

A young Black family standing on a sidewalk together.
Ahnaleigh Simmonds, right, with her mother, Kaysha Noylander-Riley; her father, RJ Simmonds; and her little brother, Leniko. (Submitted by Ahnaleigh Simmonds)

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

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