BEIJING — Her relatives had always described her as a colicky baby.
When Luo Cuifen was 26, she found out a likely reason why.
Doctors discovered more than two dozen sewing needles embedded in her body, some piercing her vital organs.
X-rays of her head and torso look like a dart board.
Doctors believe the needles were driven into her body when Luo was days old. One in the top of her skull could only have been stuck there when the bones in her head were still soft.
"They wanted her dead," said Qu Rei, a spokesman at Richland International Hospital in Yunnan province, which has agreed to surgically remove the first six of the 26 needles in her body today. "The fact she is still alive is a medical miracle."
Luo does not remember ever being stabbed. Relatives suspect her grandparents. They wanted a grandson instead of a second granddaughter.
"I was horrified," said Luo, now 29, in an interview by phone Monday from her hospital room. "How could they do such a thing to me when I was so young?"
Luo, an impoverished farmer, has had to wait for three years for her operation because she had been unable until now to find a hospital willing to perform the difficult and expensive procedure for free.
Female infanticide is common practice in cultures that prize boys. China's strict one-child policy has exacerbated the age-old prejudice by making the male heir an even more precious commodity. Lopsided sex selection through such means as abortions has skewed the gender ratio; it now stands at about 119 boys to 100 girls. In industrialized countries the balance is closer to 107 to 100.
China's family planning restrictions have also led to a surge in child trafficking. On Friday, Chinese police rescued 40 kidnapped infants purchased in relatively impoverished southwestern China and bound for potential buyers on the country's more prosperous east coast.
Thousands of baby girls are abandoned every year. Some are left on the street or even in the trash.
Luo's case is not the first in which children have been pierced with metal objects. This year, state media reported the case of a 40-year-old woman who had suffered from headaches all her life. It turned out she had a 4-inch needle stuck in her head. Relatives said she had been born out of wedlock and passed from friend to friend as an infant. By the time she came home to stay with her mother she had developed a habit of sobbing hysterically that no one could explain.
A 47-year-old woman late last year had a seizure while doing housework and was taken to the hospital, where she was found to have an embedded needle.
Despite the progress that many urban women have made, the situation in the countryside is often vastly different.
Luo is the daughter of peasants in a village in southwestern China; her mother gave birth to two girls. Her father beat his wife and daughters and denied them meals and the right to sit at the family table, relatives said.
Luo's earliest memories were of huddling in tears with her sister and mother.
When she was 3, her parents divorced and her mother remarried and gave birth to a boy. When he was 2, he wandered off while his mother was working and drowned in a pond.
"Villagers who came to fetch water saw his clothes floating on the surface, and when they went to fish them up they found his body," Yang Yunfen, Luo's older sister, said from her sister's hospital bedside.
Their mother, who later had another baby son, had little energy to devote to Luo's constant crying. Pins began emerging from her body when she was 6 months old.
The first instance started off as an infected wound in her lower back. Her mother poked at it and, to her surprise, pulled out a sewing needle.
There was no hospital nearby and no money to seek treatment, relatives and doctors said.
When Luo was 3, another sewing needle jabbed out from under one of her left ribs.
It took more than two decades before the family learned how many needles had been pushed into her body.
"My mother cried and cried after she found out," said Luo Jiaxing, 20, Luo Cuifen's younger brother. "She kept saying, 'No wonder my daughter cried all the time as a baby. She must have been hurting from all the needles, but she did not know how to speak.' "
Luo says that as an adult she never felt any unusual pain. She married and gave birth to a healthy son who is now 6. After blood showed up in her urine and she discovered what was lodged in her body, she found it difficult to fall asleep or do heavy farm work for fear of shifting the needles to a more lethal position. Her husband supports the family of three on just $400 a year.
Relatives suspect her grandfather because whenever the family brought up the needles, he would fall silent.
"After we found out about the needles, he stopped seeing us or even talking to us," Luo's sister said.
Villagers told relatives after the grandfather died this year that he had hired a fortuneteller who told him before Luo was born that she would be a curse on the family. He also vowed to get rid of her, they said.
"I knew my grandfather looked down on me because I was a girl, but I had no idea he hated me that much until I found out about the needles," Luo said.
Today's surgery is aimed at removing the most life-threatening needles in her abdominal area, including in her bladder, intestines and uterus.
Dozens of doctors, including some in the United States and Canada, have been consulted. Five or six more operations would be needed to remove the rest of the needles.
"When I first heard about this case I couldn't believe it was real," said Xu Mei, the hospital director. "In the X-ray you can see the needles very clearly. They are thick and long, used for knitting bedding covers. It had to have hurt a lot when she was a baby."