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July 29, 2023

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CHINA’S SELFLESS RURAL DOCTORS:Success and happiness redefined

IT’S supposed to be rest time at noon, but he hardly takes any rest. With a wooden crutch under his right arm and a medical kit in his left hand, he climbs up and down mossy stone steps along swampy country roads in the middle of a mountain, where many elderly villagers live.

This is the routine of Yin Chuanbo, a 38-year-old rural doctor who trudges through a 12-square-kilometer lakeside village day in and day out despite his leg impairment. Many of the 1,100 residents inhabiting the mountainous Guzhen Village, nestling in a lake area in central China’s Hubei Province, are “empty-nest” elders whose children live far away from them. Yin takes it upon himself to take care of the health of these old villagers.

A challenge for Yin, who suffered from poliomyelitis when he was a little baby, is that the villagers live far apart from each other — some in the middle of the mountain and others tucked away at different bays along a zigzag shoreline.

It’s a picturesque and pristine place, which boasts a forest coverage rate of more than 90 percent, but for elderly patients seeing a doctor often means a long journey. So Yin has chosen to pay regular home visits to all these elderly villagers, especially those suffering from chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and emphysema, a lung condition that causes shortness of breath.

Over the past 17 years since he became a rural doctor, Yin has worn out 24 wooden crutches because of the outpatient visits all year round, according to a report in China Youth Daily.

Yin’s story has fundamentally changed my understanding of what it means to be a doctor. I used to think that seeing a doctor means going to a hospital and getting treated by someone sitting behind a desk, dressed in a medical uniform. Yin certainly also treats his patients at his rural clinic, but in addition to that, he crosses mountains and rivers to provide timely treatment to fragile villagers who live far from his clinic.

“Seventeen years’ hard work has won him respect from the villagers, who have given him an honorable nickname — the 120 at their beck and call,” China Youth Daily said in the report.

In China, 120 is a hotline for emergency treatment. Every villager now has Yin’s phone number, and he has turned himself into a mobile clinic open round the clock. He does not work shifts; he is available on hand.

This does not mean he can treat all kinds of diseases. Far from that. In difficult cases, he helps refer patients to bigger hospitals outside the village. In any case, he is the first point of contact for the villagers, who otherwise often have no clue as to how to deal with a medical emergency.

Once on a summer day, Yin got a call for help from an elderly villager, who lived on the opposite side of his clinic across the lake. Hearing that the old farmer did not feel well, Yin rowed a small boat toward the villager’s home, as the road condition was rough at the time. In those days, one had to row a boat in a standing position. With a crutch under his arm and waves rising and falling, the doctor soon lost his balance and fell over. He pushed his hands against his weight and finally stood up again.

Such is the hardship Yin has endured over the past 17 years in his relentless effort to answer every call for help from elderly patients. His motive is simple.

“I suffered from poliomyelitis, an infection causing nerve injury, when I was only 10 months old,” he said. “My family was poor then, so I did not get timely treatment.

“Since I have been ‘soaked in rain,’ I wish to hold an umbrella for others,” he said metaphorically.

Yin is an epitome of China’s 1.45 million rural doctors who work on meager payment to take care of the basic health of hundreds of millions of villagers, many of whom live far from big hospitals in towns or cities. In many ways, rural doctors are “the last mile” of China’s medical service. More often than not, a rural doctor like Yin traverses this “last mile” on foot, literally becoming a mobile clinic available at hand.

And Yin never prescribes expensive medicines for villagers. Last summer, he visited a 65-year-old villager who had chronic high blood pressure. He prescribed for her a simple medicine costing only 3 yuan (42 US cents) for a month’s treatment. According to a Xinhua news agency report, Yin assured the patient that such medicine was effective, with little side effects.

The good news is that villagers across China are getting better medical coverage and insurance, while more and more college graduates are encouraged to join the ranks of rural doctors.

Yes, rural medical capacity will increase over time, so will rural doctors’ salaries, but what makes Yin and the likes of him stand out is their simple pursuit for the basic health of villagers, rather than for pecuniary gains. They are our inspirational role models because, as late Chairman Mao once said, they have cultivated “a noble mind” dedicated to the service of the people.

‘I want to save lives’

Xinhua reported earlier this year that Liu Qingmin, a rural doctor in Shandong Province who has served villagers for more than 40 years, has a motto: 24 hours on duty, and providing treatment whether a patient has money or not.

Over the past four decades or more, he has treated many poor patients who wrote him IOU notes worth more than 90,000 yuan (US$12,600). Normally his annual income from medical service is 20,000 yuan, but sometimes his clinic has been in dire financial straits owing to the considerable amount of people writing him IOUs.

In 2009, he underwent surgery for a benign bladder tumor.

“By that year, he had been a rural doctor for 31 years, but all his savings amounted to about 4,000 yuan only,” his wife recalled. “He often paid in advance for patients. In most difficult times, we had to sell our own pigs and chicken to be able to replenish our clinic with new medicines.”

Liu’s medical career began after he saw a pregnant woman dying of hemorrhage in 1979, when he was 16 years old. That year, he had just graduated from high school and become a rural teacher, but the woman’s tragedy pushed him to become a doctor.

“I want to save lives!” he said. Then he studied medicine with a local doctor for two years before opening his first clinic.

Over the years, he has improved his medical skills through professional training at higher institutions, and become a trusted guardian of the health of nearly 2,000 farmers scattered across eight villages in a mountainous region.

His deeds were finally recognized by society, and in 2018 he became a deputy to the National People’s Congress. Thanks to his suggestions to improve rural medical capacity, the government has provided policy support for him to create a rural nursing home, where bereaved elderly villagers can live for free.

Liu and Yin add a new footnote to the meaning of success: Success depends less on material wealth than on spiritual richness. They also reshape and refine our understanding of what it means to be happy.


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