Editor’s Comment: I have always felt that Dad is the modern Hua Tuo created by the times, which is basically unprecedented (except for Hua Tuo himself maybe) in terms of extensiveness in medical practice, the number of patients treated and the long service time. Dad has been practicing medicine at the grass-roots hospital for more than 60 years (he is still on the job for half a day although he is in his eighties now). In his long career, Dad has encountered various complicated situations. With his extraordinary intelligence, dedication and ingenuity, Dad demonstrated his expertise and professionalism to the fullest extent. Dad has been both bold and cautious, knowing how to adapt to local conditions case by case, having saved countless lives with his comprehensive skills. In a community where more than 300,000 people in the county had access to only two or three surgeons, there was no clear division between surgery, gynecology, orthopedics and so on. My dad made himself to be a general practitioner involving all major areas of clinic practice. As my father said in his memoire, "My surgical life is the longest, with a large number of operations involving a wide range of surgical areas (general surgery, orthopedics, urology, obstetrics and gynecology, nerves, facial features, chest, etc.)." This is one piece of his more works written in 2011 covering his amazing undertakings in clinic visits beyond his hospital. These stories can enlighten young doctors and encourage them to strike for their best.
My surgical career has lasted for more than 50 years since the early 1960s. Besides the three hospitals I have served as full time practitioners (Nanling County Hospital, Wuhu Changhang Hospital, and China Railway Bujiadian Hospital), I have been involved in dozens of external hospitals in “guest practice”, including hospitals at all levels in Nanling and Wuhu, such as the Fourth Hospital, the Sixth Hospital, Xinwu Hospital, Matang Hospital, Jiangdong Hospital, Clinic at Smelter, etc. My engagement also includes on-call house visits, tour medical treatment in rural areas, various on-site surgeries and remote consultation as a visiting doctor. This achievement is hardly heard of in terms of the number of number of operations and a wide range of subjects involved (general surgery, orthopedics, urology, obstetrics and gynecology, neurology, facial features, chest, etc.). In fact, the number of operations performed beyond my own hospitals may well exceed the sum of the operations I have practiced in the three hospitals I have served.
This situation of work overload continued until June, 2007, when my health entered an inflection point, with a red light on. I was rushed to Wuhan Union Hospital for stomach cancer with massive bleeding, and had a total gastrectomy. My gallbladder was also removed in the surgery due to gallstones. My postoperative recovery was reasonably smooth. Postoperative pathology: gastric Ca, poorly differentiated, involving deep muscle layer, all 18 lymph nodes around the stomach were negative, which can be described as “early stage”. The operator said: no radiotherapy or chemotherapy is needed. With this diagnosis, for the sake of dealing with the cancer monster, it’s a perfect ending, it’s all over. But my health was still hit severely with a long list of consequence. I suddenly lost 15kg (from 70Kg to 55Kg). Although there were no common complications such as stenosis, reflux, dumping, indigestion, I felt sudden aging effects now that I have no bile and stomach. Life entered the countdown, and energy and physical strength are much worse. Physiologically, there is always something occurring of annoying discomfort or minor symptoms one after another. Fortunately, I still can maintain the lowest level of normal “healthy” daily activity: I have been working in the first half of the day, and from time to time, I still manage to perform operations at the table for 3-4 hours non-stop. From June to August last year, I made a trip to Silicon Valley, USA, where I visited my two sons and their families, who both have a PhD background and serve the IT industry. I endured the 14-hour flight journey fairly well. So far, it has been more than 4 years since my operation, so I think I was lucky enough to have escaped the cancer. However, what it left behind is a downhill path in life, and I know my future is limited. So I need to cherish life more in the remaining time.
After that incident, besides emergency call for surgery rescue several times, basically I stopped the out-of-hospital consultation practice, but the operations in my hospital have not stopped. Nevertheless, surgery operations beyond my own hospitals accounts for more than half of my surgical career. Here, looking back on the external visiting practice or on emergency calls to help rescue in the middle of other’s operations, there are some remarkable episodes worthy sharing.
It is said in the scientific and technological circles that scientific and technological talents should be encouraged to take more external posts or jobs, in order to fully tap the valuable human resources to serve the society. But the current “practice” following the on-going policy is to stick to one post, in the fixed discipline for fixed jobs, with no felxibility allowed. However, in today’s market economy, it is not uncommon for experts to take advantage of the needs for undertaking multiple external jobs for extra financial benefits, making visiting experts or guest doctors lose their original glory. I have experienced the social transformation and different needs of various times in different periods over a much longer time. In contrast, my guest practice was quite unique.
During the 29 years (1956-1985) of working for Nanling County Hospital, the expert human resources of the society were extremely scarce, with very few doctors and even fewer surgeons serving a large population. In fact, for many years there were only two or three surgeons who were counted on to meet the needs for solving the difficult surgery problems in a county with a population of more than 300,000 residents. That is to say, all the surgical patients in this population basically need to be treated by these two or three people. Prohibited by the economic and traffic restrictions at the time, there was very little possibility to outflow the patients elsewhere. Furthermore, in addition to those who manage to come to the hospital, there are many of them who cannot make to the hospital in emergency. It is inevitable to make numerous house visits, consultations and on-site operations. Especially after 1968, as the head of our surgery department, I had to make more frequent house visits and all kinds of consultations for diagnosis.
Here’s a fun episode. At that time, there was only one ambulance in our hospital, driving within 20 miles an hour at its best on those rural sandy roads. Many times, it was only me and our driver heading for an emergency house visit to the rural area. Over time, although I didn’t attend any driving class, I managed to have learned to drive, without a license (at that time, the traffic rules were lax and there were few vehicles on the country road anyway). Over the subsequent few decades, I drove at least 10,000 kilometers to make house calls, with a driving experience of more than 30 years, comparable to a full-time driver. It is mainly my health and age following my last operation that makes me miss the emerging driving era as a legit licensed driver.
That was the era of “serving the people”, and there was never a personal benefit of house visiting and consultation for any out-of-hospital surgery. When we needed to invite experts from the superior hospital to come for consultation on difficult cases, it was the same. Their coming to support was counted as a business trip then, only to reimburse their travel expenses. They needed to leave 20 cents to cover the cost of the meal. In Mao’s era, no matter how famous a doctor is, there was no way of having any extra-salary income.
1. Rural itinerant medical treatment
During the last three months for 100 days in 1965, as captain leading a rural itinerant medical team of 5-7 people, I performed 612 operations, major or minor, in Yandun Commune, Nanling. Among them, 121 people underwent laparotomy, including stomach, intestine, gallbladder, uterus, hernia, hemorrhoids, thyroid, kidney, ureter, bladder, orthopedics, ophthalmology and dentistry. One afternoon, while there was availability of an anesthesiologist on site, I operated on three consecutive cases of vaginal hysterectomy plus pelvic floor repair and reconstruction. The high rate of this disease, often third degree uterine prolapse (or pelvic floor hernia), was in fact incurred as side effects of sustained malnutrition from the notorious great famine in 1960 China. This is unbelievable work efficiency, not to mention that everything was operated on a temporary “operating room” in a remote commune clinic. That day, operations lasted non-stop until three o’clock in the morning, and more than ten other operations were also performed.
There is a middle-aged woman who suffered from intestinal perforation of typhoid fever complicated with peritonitis (such infectious diseases were prevalent at that time, but very rare in recent years). I treated her with intestinal resection. She was penniless and there was no charge on her treatment. Furthermore, after she was discharged from hospital, I rode my bike to pay her a house visit in her rural home in Qingyangmu town for the follow-up and condolences, with some donated gifts gathered from physicians ourselves. This was a trend in answering the call from Mao on serving the “poor and lower-middle peasants”. It also reflects the original holy glory for medical practitioners as “angels in white”.
There was a case of incomplete abortion with massive bleeding, facing a crisis every minute. I and a midwife rushed to her home at Sanxing Brigade to give an emergency uterus cleaning with rapid fluid replacement, which saved her life.
Another case of vesicovaginal fistula was repaired by my operation, and discharged with recovery after 12 days. This success initiated this kind of operations.
2. First aid visits
Here are a few cases of first aid visits to share.
That was 1968. A 13-year-old boy from a remote mountainous village Yashan fell from the back of a cow, and his right liver ruptured, causing massive abdominal bleeding. I rushed in our ambulance to the Hewan health center where I had to open his chest to complete the operation. There was a need for blood transfusion. I had to send the ambulance back to the county town (at that time, this was the one ambulance we had) to fetch the anesthesia machine and a blood donor. This mountain road was in a very poor condition, about 30 miles away, and it happened to be foggy day in the mountainous area. It ended up taking more than 4 hours for the return trip. I simply could not wait any more. As a last resort, I decided to have the accumulated blood boldly extracted from the patient’s abdominal cavity for the first time to save the case. The self-transfused blood amounted to 1700 ml. Here it also involves a theoretical question whether the blood mixed with bile can be re-transfused safely, which was debated in the community and also finally affirmed in subsequent literature later on. The transfusion helped to maintain the hemodynamic operation during the “waiting” time, and enabled the general anesthesia thoracotomy and liver repair surgery on the spot. The postoperative recovery was fairly “smooth”. But 9 days after the operation, just as he was supposed to be discharged the next day, the complication of intrahepatic biliary tract hemorrhage occurred. The hemorrhage attack was typical: with a burst of biliary colic, blood pressure came down, a list of symptoms followed: pale face, anemia, shock, and repeated attacks. Conservative treatment failed, so after one day’s observation and measures, I decisively transferred this case to the county hospital to perform the proper hepatic artery ligation and external drainage of common bile duct. The operation was a success. This entire procedure is very typical based on classical operation theory: the hepatic artery tremor was felt during the operation, which showed bleeding. After ligation, the tremor disappeared immediately, and the common bile duct hemorrhage was delayed and stopped (as noted in the literature). Life was finally saved. This was an absolute “miracle” for the surgical level of a county hospital at that time, and I was pioneering frontier of surgery.
At that time, our monthly salary was less than 50 yuan. This case cost more than 1,000 yuan in the entire treatment, so he was nicknamed as “1,000 yuan”. How can a poor farmer afford this astronomical amount of money? Fortunately, in the era of Mao’s “curing the wounded and saving the dying”, the poor lower middle peasants’ medical charges could be simply written off following some logistics, which has been passed from mouth to mouth with approbation in the society.
Another example is the splenic rupture at Donghe. My colleague and I were called for the urgent house visit. We performed splenectomy successfully on the spot on a desk of the commune. The wonder in this case was our use of 800ml abdominal blood for self-transfusion to overcome the problem of no blood source.
Although it is defibrinated blood, it is without anticoagulation, yet it does not need to be anti-coagulated (thereby solving another difficult problem of no anticoagulants on hand) as it is the self-blood on the spot. This was a first bold attempt forced out by the emergency in innovation. Life was saved. The road paved out, as it is so-called “the times make heroes”. This innovative practice was later supported and theoretically recognized by the surgery community. Its efficacy report gradually appeared as legit rescue in the literature.
There was a difficult labour case at Xinlin, in Fanchang, with intrauterine transverse position of fetus， and uterine aura rupture, too critical to transport to county hospital. Cesarean section had to be performed on the spot. An office desk was used as the operating table, a cloth was pulled on the top to block the ash, with disinfectant sprinkled on the ground, I performed the operation with an infusion under local anesthesia, which saved two lives.
3. Surgical practice during special period of “civil fighting”
During the Cultural Revolution, there was a special period of chaos when the various factions were armed fighting with real fire arms. Traffic was interrupted, and hospitals were shut down. Bullets had no eyes, and gunshot wounds ensued. They had to be operated on the spot to repair the damaged liver and lungs, kidney, intestines and stomach, etc. At that critical period, I was forced to take the challenge of practicing these urgent surgeries for rescue, like in a war. Many lives were saved and most of the cases were successful. It was a special war-like time, so in case of accidents during operations, there was no strict accountability check. It was also a unique period when my surgery skills advanced rapidly with tons of urgent surgery practice demanded then. Indeed, practice generates expertise.
This is an era of serving the people, and all this will not bring economic benefits, nor will we pursue benefits at that time.
4. AS guest surgeoN
After joining Wuhu Changhang Hospital in August, 1985, this affiliated staff hospital did not demand a full work load, so I had some extra time to serve as a guest surgeon for other hospitals.
4.1 I served as surgical consultant for Xinwu District Hospital for three years, until the hospital was restructured and turned private. Every Saturday morning, I administered an expert clinic. I was also responsible for managing the patients’ ward. During that period, all surgical operations were conducted by me, and for almost all daily operations I would be present. Mr Chen, the president of this hospital, suffered from gallstones, and I performed the operation right there in the hospital.
4.2 The Municipal Tuberculosis Hospital, later named as Municipal Red Cross Hospital (Sixth Hospital), is located in suburban Yueya Road. This hospital is also responsible for some comprehensive medical treatment for the people in its neighborhood. However, this is a specialized hospital, and the surgery expertise is zero. The hospital leader came to me and asked me to take over the surgical work in this hospital. I was at the time also with “excess energy”, so I organized a queue of surgical directors of various hospitals from all districts and factories in the city, and requested the director of radiology department of our hospital to be the chief shift supervisor (equivalent to the chief resident). The day shift and night shift watchmen came from 4 or 5 hospitals. Where there was a need for operation, I would take my anesthesiologist, Mr. Chen, together with me to the hospital in the hospital car. In this way, in more than a year, we performed hundreds of operations, involving various areas of surgery, gynecology, orthopedics and urology, related to stomach, gallbladder, appendix, lumbar intervertebral disc, uterus, fracture, etc. Meanwhile a number of surgical new talents were also trained there. During this period, a rare case of pyometra was encountered. In order to clear the focus at one time, hysterectomy was performed for the first stage, and the recovery was smooth. That was also the first such operation in this hospital.
4.3 For No 4 Hospital and Municipal Psychiatric Hospital, surgery, orthopaedics, obstetrics and gynecology are not their forte, and there was a lack of related talents. However, as a hospital, their comprehensive medical care is still indispensable. Therefore, when they encountered problems in these area, I was the support they relied on. From time to time, I went on visits to have performed cesarean section, choledocholithiasis and other operations for this hospital.
4.4 Matang District Hospital, located in the south of the city, is a connecting part of urban and rural areas. Although it is a class 2 hospital, there is insufficient technical strength and it often calls for diagnosis guidance. With my anesthesiologist, I served for their surgery emergency rescue. One case with acute suppurative obstructive cholangitis was treated right there by an emergency operation successfully .
4.5. Zheshan Branch, Jiangdongchang Hospital, is a class one hospital in the city, close to Hongmei New Village where I live. So it is convenient for me to be called for help any time. Basically, I took care of all the surgical matters there, which lasted for many years. It’s my “backyard”, sort of. Although they all have deputy chief physicians, they still lack the experience and ability to support all the comprehensive surgeries needed independently. It’s a “win-win” and mutually beneficial for me to support them on call. When my hometown acquaintances and old patients turned to me for treatment, for convenience and economy, I could solve most of their problems there. Hence I have done a lot of operations on the spot.
My child’s fifth uncle had rectum cancer and came from Hefei to me for help. I had a radical operation on him in Zheshan. It took him 7 hours to get through this critical stage because of massive bleeding before sacrum. He was cured
A case of thoracic vertebra fracture with high paraplegia from Nanling had my operation of spinal canal exploration and decompression in Zheshan too. I also performed a caesarean section for a doctor in this hospital,. I also demonstrated vaginal hysterectomy for the training of the surgeons there.
A large number of routine operations are performed there, often dozens of surgeries in one month.
5. Numerous weekend house calls
Over time, I have become their perennial consultant in numerous hospitals such as Sanli, Yijiang (the second and third branch hospitals of Nanling), Family Planning Station, Schistosomiasis Station, Hewan, Xuzhen, Chengguan. Almost every weekend, I was on my way back and forth to help with their operations.
Lumbar disc herniation and lumbar spinal stenosis are common diseases in orthopedics, which belong to the Level -3 and Level-4 operation of high difficulty. My confidence in performing such surgeries comes from my many years of clinical experience and my studying orthopedics under Professor Jingbin Xu, the top orthopedic master in China. Not long before my own serious illness and operation in 2007, I drove out in the morning to Nanling schistosomiasis control station, and performed the operation on three cases within one day. The key to ensure success is to completely loosen the compressed nerve root and spinal meningeal sac. The curative effect is then definitive. That afternoon after three surgeries performed, it was still not too late for me to drive home for dinner.
There is another case of Wang XX, a young driver and also a family friend of mine, who also suffers from this disease. She is restless day and night, and cannot move. Dr. Lin, the president of the Second Hospital of our city (who is my junior fellow), and I performed an operation on him in Zheshan Hospital. After decompression of the vertebral lamina, he was able to drive a car again three months after the operation. For more than ten years now, he has had no symptoms and has enjoyed normal activity in work and life. He has made himself a billionaire today.
6. Save the performance at operation table any time
6.1. Once in a private hospital of Guniushan, Nanling, they had a surgery on-going but could not find the expected bilateral ureteral stones during the operation. Their dean gave me an urgent call for rescue and he was waiting outside on the parkway. I immediately took a taxi, and in less than an hour, I went on the operation table, taking out the bilateral stones and smoothing the urine flow to have saved the surgery.
6.2. Once there was an urgent case of subacute perforated peritonitis of a transverse colon cancer in Yijiang Hospital. At three o’clock in the midnight, they called for my help. I had to get up to rush for a taxi. It also took me one hour to get onto the operation table, and I stepped down at dawn with the first stage excision and radical cure of the lesion. It has achieved long-term curative effect, saving the patient as well as the doctor initiating this surgery. In fact, they are all my disciples and trainees in the past. Of course, I feel the responsibilities to be on call to help them any time needed, without hesitation.
7. Tangshan Earthquake
In the July 28, 1976 Tangshan Earthquake, the official death toll was 240,000. On August 3rd, I was called to go to Tangshan for earthquake-related medical treatment and rescue. Before getting on the bus in Wuhu, the central authorities gave us a telex: the wounded are being transferred to the south so we do not need to go northfor their treatment. As the appointed team leader, I organized a medical team of 25 people from Fanchang, Jingxian, Nanling counties plus 25 additional logistics security guards. The task given to me was to receive and treat 100 wounded people. Of course, all expenses are covered by the state. It is ordered as a serious political task for us to accomplish. We set up a temporary treatment site beside the railway at a small town Eqiao. Then I led the team to the Nanjing station in a specially assigned emergency train to take over the patients in orthopedics. About three months after our treatment and care, we had completed this glorious task and sent all of them back to their hometown safely. It is a historical monument.
Most of these patients involved fractures, peripheral nerve injuries and spinal cord injuries with paraplegia. There were not many operations, most of the treatments are of rehabilitation. This large-scale urgent medical activity involves dozens of sites like ours in Wuhu area, whose leaders include authorities of orthopedics like Jingbin Xu, director of the 127 Hospital of the People’s Liberation Army, and Naiyi Chou, director of the former Yijishan Hospital (the medical captain who led medical teams to South Yemen twice). We medical team leaders meet regularly and discuss all clinical problems and measures. I am both the captain and the backbone of orthopedics, having participated in the entire process of this rare undertaking.
8. Remote consultation and diagnosis
During an online chat, my son Wei in the U.S said that he had severe “heartburn” from time to time, as he said, “it comes and goes, but when it strikes, it is unbearable.” His family physician asked him to have a gastroscope and checked his heart, but he never thought he was suffering from biliary colic. A healthy middle-aged man, with sporadic pains striking and leaving, what could have been the cause? On this side of the ocean thousands of miles away from him, I remembered that he had mentioned one year earlier that his annual physical exam found gallstones but it was asymptomatic then. It must be biliary colic kicking in! But he didn’t agree with my suggestion. He was convinced that it had nothing to do with gallstones because the pain was from the heart area. I am professionally sensitive and experienced, insisting on my diagnosis: this is gallstone colic, and it can be cured by surgery. He then followed my advice to see his doctor again, reminded him of this possibility, and then had an ultrasonic examination, coming back with a definite diagnosis. A laparoscopic operation was performed, and it cured him instantly. He has been amazed by this experience of my remote diagnosis and has enjoyed a healthy life since.
There have been many similar incidents. One day, our head nurse called me and said that her husband suddenly had severe abdominal pain. I knew that he had a history of bleeding from gastric ulcer, so I naturally thought that it must be related to perforation complicated with peritonitis. I told him to go to the hospital immediately and make preoperative preparations, such as taking an abdominal fluoroscopy, checking blood, etc. At the same time, I went to the emergency department. Although no “gas layer” was found under the diaphragm, I still went on with a decisive surgery and managed to perform radical gastrectomy for him. It is more than ten years now, and he has enjoyed a healthy life.
Many of my out-of-hospital practice and visiting operations, and my being so interdisciplinary in medicine, are the special products of my era. According to today’s standards of high specialization, such practice is neither standardized nor rigorous. Nevertheless, my special skillset has managed to save many lives and cured many diseases. It is an indelible mark in the career of my medical practice, demonstrating a significant contribution to society. It has made a difference to my patients and hard for them to forget. In my life, I have had countless sleepless nights, with eating and sleeping in total disorder, but the sense of self-satisfaction in saving lives is more than enough to comfort me with deep pride and joy. Nothing could have been better, I have no regrets!
More recently, with the rapid development of science and technology, medicine is also making great strides, evolving with each passing day. In the ascendant, medical instruments and drugs also see revolutionary development, especially striking to me are the new drugs and the orthopedic equipments, such as stapler, occluder and repair mesh, etc. As I have been on duty all the time, I feel extremely fortunate to have got on this “last bus”, although most peers in my generation are now blocked at the door. However, the currently popular techniques like laparoscopy surgery, minimally invasive technology is still a blind spot for me, due to the equipment requirements beyond my reach.
In recent years, a large number of new concepts and terms have appeared in medicine, such as translational medicine (TM), targeted therapy (TT), evidence-based medicine (EBM), etc. I keep up with the times, continuously update my knowledge and keep on following up. Both in theory and clinical practice have been undergoing changes.
According to the requirements of fine division of labor in modern clinical medicine, in the past five years after my own gastrectomy, I have basically given up other related professional work outside general surgery, such as orthopedics, obstetrics and gynecology and even urology. This, too, is a way to help create bigger room for new talents to be superior to masters, and shows the progress of society. My professional title is “General Surgery” chief physician, and I will stick to this area for the remaining path of my career, never fall behind in my lifetime and stay young and energetic!
My eldest granddaughter is a senior with the 8-year medicine practitioner curriculum in Tongji Medical University, Wuhan. She is expected to follow me to become the next doctor in my family. Well-educated, standing from a high starting point, she came to my hospital as a trainee and intern during the Spring Festival holidays last year. When she wore a white medicine costume, she looked like a brand-new doctor in the 21st century. This baton is passed down to her, and I feel that it is a perfect legacy carry-on for my medicine career, there’s nothing more I could have asked for. Admittedly, this profession calls for enduring dedication, involving huge risks and hard work. However, it also provides a platform where the value of life is most experienced and demonstrated!