"Though turtles live long, they meet their end. Though dragons ride the mist, they eventually turn to dust. Aged but still full of fire, ambitious till the very end. The natural order isn't the only clock; contentment brings longevity. How fortunate indeed, to express these sentiments through song." — "Though Turtles Live Long" by Cao Cao of the Eastern Han Dynasty
My father was born on November 3rd, 1936, or September 20th according to the lunar calendar. He’s a Rat in the Chinese Zodiac. Following our local tradition, which counts one extra year, he is currently 88 years old.
Father’s name is Li, Mingjie, his courtesy name Hao, and his art name is Cuisheng. Born into a struggling intellectual family, his youth was filled with hardship and adversity. Lack of finances kept him from attending university, a lifelong regret.
In March 1956, my dad graduated from the Wuhu Health School and has been involved in medical work for 67 years. After a stint in schistosomiasis prevention and two years in public health administration, he shifted his focus to surgical clinical work in 1961. He has been practicing for over six decades now. He served in Nanling County Hospital for 25 years, Wuhu Changhang Hospital for 22 years, and China Railway Wuhu Hospital for 16 years. Approaching his nineties, he still hasn’t fully retired. His vision remains clear, his hearing sharp, and his hands steady. He conducts research, reads literature, remains engrossed in his profession, and stays updated with the latest surgical developments. His thoughts are coherent, and he still performs surgeries. Moreover, as the medical industry transitioned to digital documentation, he adapted seamlessly, never falling behind. His age hasn’t dampened his spirit; he continues to contribute to society with undiminished vigor. Truly, he is a tireless father.
My father has dedicated his life to medicine and saving lives. Over the course of more than half a century, he has understood the emotional states of patients, and monitored their health conditions, and with his exceptional intellect, energy, and skilled hands, he has tailored treatments to individual needs. He has brought health to countless patients, saved numerous lives from the brink of death, and restored joy to many families clouded with sorrow.
My father worked diligently at the grassroots level. Despite only having a diploma from a technical health school, he had no formal professor or mentor to guide him. He was self-taught. His medical skills came from personal insights and countless hours spent studying medical books. His natural talent, intelligence, diligence, and unwavering passion paved the way for his medical aspirations. Even in remote and impoverished regions, and in an era when intellectuals were often marginalized, he carved out his own success. As my father often says, ‘My surgical career has been one of the longest, with numerous surgeries across a wide spectrum of specialties.’ He also notes that many of the surgeries he performed at the grassroots level were highly challenging. Some of these procedures are still considered cutting-edge in the world of surgery. For instance, liver and lung surgeries, removal of cervical spine tuberculosis lesions, and repairs of injuries to the duodenum behind the peritoneum – such surgeries were rarely conducted even in the provincial hospitals during the 1960s. Yet, my father took the initiative to perform these complex operations in a modest county hospital and achieved success. He often proudly asserts: ‘In surgery, sometimes, you have to pull a tooth from a tiger’s mouth. It’s not about blind risk-taking! It’s about taking calculated risks, having advanced skills, and providing high-level treatment. Being brave yet cautious, breaking the norm, and always prioritizing scientific and pragmatic approaches are essential.
My father has practiced across a broad spectrum of medical specialties, from abdominal surgery, thoracic surgery, orthopedics, obstetrics and gynecology, neurosurgery, urology, otolaryngology, ophthalmology, radiology to anesthesiology. He has successfully performed many high-difficulty level-4 surgeries in each specialty, which is truly an astounding achievement. These surgeries range from operations for acute pancreatitis in abdominal surgery, carotid artery aneurysm resections in head and neck surgery, spinal tumors in neurosurgery, lung malignancies and esophageal cancer in thoracic surgery, clearing lesions of various osteomyelitis and tuberculosis of the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral vertebrae, and other fractures in orthopedics. Additionally, he has conducted lymph node stripping in urology, hysterectomy and ovariectomy in gynecology, nasolacrimal duct anastomosis in otolaryngology, cataract surgeries, and artificial pupil operations in ophthalmology. He’s also proficient in different forms of anesthesia, including epidural blocks, brachial plexus blocks, spinal anesthesia, intubation general anesthesia, and intravenous composite anesthesia. The breadth of medical categories my father has mastered is unparalleled and unmatched, both domestically and internationally.
The unique circumstances of that era provided my father with a rare opportunity to showcase his talents and capabilities. Facing a continuous influx of impoverished rural patients, the stakes were high. To not treat was to let die. Treating them was always better than leaving them to their fates. He had significant autonomy. With an endless drive to work hard, he performed surgeries almost daily for decades. With exceptional professional skills, noble medical ethics, passion for medicine, dedication to his patients, persistence, diligence, and unwavering perseverance, he emerged as an outstanding major surgery doctor. My father seized fleeting opportunities, often breaking barriers and shining in his field. His achievements made him stand out, eventually reaching the pinnacle of clinical practice in grassroots hospitals.
For decades, when not performing surgeries, he would immerse himself in medical books, often sacrificing sleep and meals. Rarely did we see him rest; he was a true workaholic. We’ve always felt that my father is the modern-day Hua Tuo, crafted by his era. Considering the breadth of his medical practice, the number of patients he’s aided, and the length of his service, he stands almost unparalleled in history—perhaps with the exception of Hua Tuo—and likely unmatched in the future.
Surgical practitioners need intuition. The stability and flexibility of one’s fingers and wrists are incredibly crucial. My father seemed to be naturally made for surgery. He had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, a bold yet meticulous approach, an innate intelligence, and an innovative spirit. His expertise in surgery enabled him to comprehend concepts instantly and perform operations with exceptional precision. Especially during his younger years, he honed exceptional skills. Additionally, his team spirit was exemplary. Every subordinate doctor trained under him developed rigor, dedication, and a relentless pursuit of excellence, shaping a generation of medical leaders and experts.
As soon as he stepped onto the operating table, it was as if my father became a different person—calm, confident, and masterfully executing each surgical procedure. His surgical precision and speed earned him accolades from peers, patients, and their families. Over the years, his reputation spread far and wide, attracting a steady stream of patients seeking his expertise. Even the relatives of the chief surgeons from top-tier hospitals would seek my father for surgeries, trusting only in his magic hands. The renowned Director of the Surgery Department from the original Yijishan Hospital, Dr. Chen, entrusted my father with the surgery of his wife, Madam Xie, who was the head of the Nursing Department in Changhang Hospital. Despite her being in her eighties and diagnosed with breast cancer, my father’s successful surgery ensured her well-being well into her nineties. She considered my father her lifetime “personal physician”. Similarly, Wang Ping, the Head of the ENT department at Nanling County Hospital, trusted my father to operate on his daughter, Dong Wei, who had breast cancer. Years later, the Chief of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department of the same hospital entrusted the care of her daughter in the same manner to my father.
The director of the surgery department at Changhang Hospital, Mr. Shen, had an elderly father-in-law in Shanghai, a distinguished professor, who was diagnosed with stomach cancer and pyloric obstruction. After being unable to eat or drink for several days and his body deteriorating, his family had almost given up hope. Yet, my father undertook the “risky” direct radical surgery, having saved his life. The patient lived for another five years before succumbing to other illnesses. Conventionally, patients of this age and condition would first undergo a bypass surgery to relieve the obstruction, and only later would they have the surgery to remove the lesion. In reality, few would get the chance for this second operation.
Back in 1970, my elder uncle, Pan Yaoyi, had hepatic and biliary stones along with obstructive jaundice. Refused by a renowned hospital in Hefei, he turned to my father in desperation. At the Nanling County Hospital, my father personally performed the surgery to remove the stones, excise the gallbladder, and establish an internal biliary-duodenal drainage, ensuring his full recovery. In 1986, another uncle of ours, Pan Yaotong, was diagnosed with rectal cancer and similarly turned away by the provincial hospital. Once again, my father stepped in, performing the radical surgery that lasted over seven hours.
Back in the 1980s, numerous patients would report their symptoms over the phone, and my father could make a diagnosis then and there. For instance, his colleague Cheng Daben had a perforated stomach. The young doctors at Yijishan Hospital misdiagnosed it as renal colic and treated it by administering laxatives to clean the intestines. The urinary system imaging examination the next day proved them all wrong! This not only delayed the crucial time for life-saving treatment but also exacerbated the perforation and leakage, pushing the patient into critical condition! The patient, in excruciating abdominal pain, desperately called my father and urged a return to our hospital, where an emergency surgery to cut into the stomach cured him. The husband of the head nurse Gao at the undergraduate department, Tao, experienced a similar ordeal. Nowadays, it’s more common for patients to seek medical advice remotely through mobile “WeChat” at any time and place, resolving many medical issues this way. What’s particularly remarkable is that all the surgeries for our immediate family members were personally performed by my father. This demanded immense confidence, determination, and mental fortitude.
We once knew a young rural doctor who, feeling constrained in his medical career, chose to pursue an English teaching degree instead. When discussing my father’s medical skills, he expressed deep admiration: “Do you know? Your father is one of the most incredible doctors in the world. He can perform complex surgeries that many top-tier hospitals have yet to introduce or popularize.” He shared several cases with us, and even though we might not have understood all the medical intricacies, one thing was clear: my father consistently pushed boundaries, always striving for surgical excellence.
Later, when we asked my father about any complicated surgeries he wished to perform but couldn’t, he mentioned microsurgery, limb reattachment, and other surgeries requiring advanced equipment that were beyond the reach of the county hospital at the time. He also expressed admiration for the fields of stem cell regenerative medicine, gene-editing techniques, genetic engineering to reverse aging cells, and precision medicine, recognizing them as the frontiers of medical research, while humbly admitting that as a grassroots clinician, he could only admire them from afar.
After the Cultural Revolution, with the resumption of professional promotions, my father climbed the ranks seamlessly, from Medical Practitioner, Physician, Attending Physician, Associate Chief Physician to Chief Physician. His progress was smooth, never missing a step. In all three secondary hospitals, each with over a hundred staff where he served throughout his life, he was the sole Chief Surgeon. In fact, in the entirety of these institutions, there were only one or two with such a distinguished title. Compared to his peers who graduated from technical health schools like him, almost none had the chance to rise to such a senior position. Even graduates from medical colleges in his generation, the majority in secondary hospitals couldn’t attain such a high-ranking title. The criteria for grassroots hospitals were even more stringent. One needed to excel in clinical practice, publish academic papers, and be proficient in English. Typically, only one chief position each was reserved for internal medicine and surgery specialties. They preferred having a vacancy rather than compromising on quality. This emphasizes how my father was truly a rare gem among his contemporaries, standing head and shoulders above the rest.
The era shapes individuals. My father never attended elementary school, high school, undergraduate, or postgraduate courses. His formal education consisted of only middle school and a medical diploma from a technical health school. Yet, he relied primarily on countless hours of medical practice, learning through hands-on experiences. With sheer skill and determination, he ascended the ranks to become a Chief Surgeon in general surgery, ultimately earning a reputation as a renowned all-around physician.
While doctors are respected, many lead modest lives. A bit of hardship in life didn’t bother my father, but the challenge he faced was how to save up money to buy medical books. Those thick professional volumes like “Surgery” and “Orthopedics” were expensive, yet indispensable for his work. Who could have imagined that many of these medical books were acquired by my father secretly selling his own blood? Each time he would donate 300cc of fresh blood and receive 30 yuan – an amount that would typically take him half a year to save. My father would brush it off, saying: “humans have a hematopoietic system, so losing a little blood doesn’t matter. There are often stories of doctors donating their own blood in emergencies to save patients, and I’ve experienced this myself several times during my medical career”. But acquiring professional books by selling one’s blood, such instances are probably rare across all of history and around the world and perhaps only characteristic of that particular era in China. Perhaps only in that specific era could a reputed doctor resort to such means to own medical books.
On June 3, 2007, my father faced the greatest ordeal of his life. Suddenly, he began vomiting blood and developed an inexplicable fever reaching 40°C. The once indomitable spirit, who often claimed to be “forever young and vital”, was suddenly brought to his knees. He lost over 2000ml of blood, putting him in grave danger. He was rushed to the hospital and was diagnosed with ‘low-differentiated gastric adenocarcinoma.’ On June 21, he underwent major surgery in Wuhan, having his entire stomach and gallbladder (due to pre-existing gallstones) removed. He narrowly escaped the clutches of death. Having worked tirelessly throughout his life, he always took pride in his robust health and positive attitude. Who would’ve thought? A man so rarely ill could be brought down so severely. This incident was the most significant challenge he had ever faced and marked a turning point in his health journey.
My father has always been the backbone of our family, typically appearing youthful and vigorous, especially for his age, without a hint of any vices and never having stayed in a hospital before. Despite the hardships, life was always vibrant for him. Thankfully, his sudden illness led to an early diagnosis and timely treatment. Being under the best medical care and surrounded by family during his recovery gave everyone peace of mind. After the surgery, he aged noticeably, and it took him over six months to regain his strength. Now, he speaks with such vigor and frequently performs surgeries, which is a huge relief for our entire family.
Now semi-retired, my father, at the age of 88, is astonishingly spry for his age. Despite his modest living, he keeps an orderly life and continues to be eager to learn new things. Although he no longer drives, his curiosity about the latest tech developments remains. Just this February, he was asking me about the etymology and background of OpenAI and ChatGPT. He’s more tech-savvy with smartphones and computers than many youngsters I know, ordering food from Meituan, hailing cars from DiDi, and shopping on Taobao. He also frequently consults English professional materials, absorbing new knowledge, proving the adage true: you’re never too old to learn. He even outpaces English-major graduate Wei in English technical vocabulary, truly an exemplary lifelong learner.
Before his major illness, he was a whirlwind of energy, performing surgeries, driving, browsing the internet, writing memoirs, and enjoying chess games. In the decade since his surgery, even with a decline in his physical condition, he hasn’t given up his lifelong passion for clinical medicine. He may have set aside other specialties, such as orthopedics, gynecology, and urology, but he remains steadfast in his dedication to general surgery, continuously contributing to the field and aiding patients. Medicine is an eternal bond he could never sever.
Gentle in nature and kind to all, my father has always been upright and warm-hearted. His patience and attentiveness when diagnosing patients, regardless of their socio-economic status, genuinely exemplify the benevolent spirit and humanistic essence of a doctor.
With progressive thoughts and a modern mindset, he always treated his children as equals, never reprimanding them, let alone resorting to physical punishment. He has always gently guided us, both through his words and his actions. Our individual successes are his greatest solace, and the growth and antics of his grandchildren bring him immense joy and satisfaction.
This book is a compilation of some of the medical papers my father published after the Cultural Revolution. Although it’s not exhaustive, it preserves many invaluable experiences and theoretical summations from his medical career, standing as an enduring testament to his dedication. These papers encapsulate how a doctor from a grassroots hospital refined himself through challenges, continuously pushing his boundaries. They embody a physician’s fundamental principles, conscience, responsibility, commitment, and mission, spotlighting the gallantry of medical professionals in their efforts to save lives and epitomizing the profound essence of “healing the world.”
Recently, as we were compiling some of these medical papers, my father reflected on his journey spanning over 60 years, filled with both pride and nostalgia. While his papers primarily encapsulate his clinical experiences and might not be heavily research-oriented, their practical utility is undeniable. They are meticulously crafted, adhering to strict academic standards, and represent the crystallization and theoretical evolution of his medical practice, holding a certain legacy value. The excellence he has demonstrated throughout his life, his unwavering dedication to medicine, his relentless pursuit of knowledge, and his humble, upright, and benevolent character serve as a priceless heritage for our generation.
Given the vast timeline, locating all his papers was challenging, and unfortunately, many have been lost over the years. We’ve done our best to gather as many of his past medical writings as possible, compiling them into this volume as a birthday gift for our 88-year-old father, who has been practicing medicine for 67 years non-stop. We wish him a happy birthday, good health, and a peaceful twilight year!