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China Focus: A train headed for brightness

Source: Xinhua   2016-04-27 22:24:46

BEIJING, April 27 (Xinhua) -- Ophthalmic surgeon Zhou Shangkun will never forget the deaf, elderly patient in northwest China's Gansu Province whose life was changed as she boarded the train.

"She became blind after suffering from cataracts," said the doctor, who works at an eye hospital affiliated with the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences. "I operated on her on the Lifeline Express so she can see again."

The Lifeline Express is a train that doubles as a mobile ophthalmic hospital and travels to remote areas across China to provide medical care to the needy, mostly those with cataracts.

Cataracts have the highest morbidity of all ophthalmic diseases that cause blindness in China. It is not just elderly people who are prone to the disease. Young people may also suffer due to damage from ultraviolet rays or genetic reasons.

According to Lifeline Express, quoting the health authorities, Chinese mainland has close to 5 million people living with cataracts, most in rural areas.

The condition is curable. However, statistics from 2012 showed that fewer than 100 ophthalmic hospitals, or 30 percent of China's total, were in rural areas.

SYMBOL OF HOPE

Lifeline Express makes it possible for villagers to receive free operations. The train is painted with rainbows, symbolizing hope.

Its four carriages house a canteen, a dormitory, an operating room and a sickroom with 50 beds, allowing patients to stay on the train before and after their operations.

A Xinhua reporter who visited the train saw it was equipped with an electricity generator, operating table and advanced medical devices.

"(The operating room) is not much different from one in a hospital, except that it is much narrower," said Zhou, who remembered operating on the deaf elderly woman last year.

There were two nurses to bring her in, one in front of her and the other behind, as she couldn't see anything.

"We used local anaesthesia," he said. But he was not sure if the deaf woman understood his instructions as she couldn't talk, so they had a backup plan to use general anesthesia just in case.

The operation was successful. "She was so excited to see the world again. She gave us a thumbs up. I took a photo, which I always keep," said the doctor.

The first Lifeline Express train was donated by people from Hong Kong in 1997 to celebrate the region's return to China.

Now there are four such trains operated by the Lifeline Express charity. As of the end of 2015, mobile hospitals had served more than 170,000 patients with cataracts in 151 locations across China. Each train makes three stops a year. Funded by donations from Hong Kong and Chinese mainland, the mobile hospitals are able to cure more than 12,000 cataract patients a year.

A train typically carries seven crew members, including two doctors. Each trip takes three or four months.

Local media begin promoting the service half a year before the trains arrive, while local hospitals screen the villagers. Those who need operations are later taken to the trains.

Zhou, the surgeon, has travelled with the train twice in 2014 and 2015. At each stop they performed more than 1,500 operations. "The most we have done is 48 a day," he said.

Dong Shuzhen, 64, once managed the train's charity operations as the first "train captain" and has been with the mobile hospital for 15 years. Now retired, she still works on the train as a volunteer.

Dong remembers seeing numerous cataract patients who badly needed treatment. "In Henan, central China, we saw a family with four generations of people all living with the disease. The youngest, a child, was already incurable. In some villages, young women have difficulty finding a husband because of the disease," she said.

Lifeline Express also works to help people in more permanent locations. In addition to the trains, it has set up 15 ophthalmic training centers and 47 clinics to date.

One train is currently in Beijing for mechanical repairs and opened to the public for free eye exams last weekend.

Zhou Shangkun taught two medical students while he was in Gansu. "They are now able to perform operations independently," he said. They are still in touch.

"The train leaves, but hope stays," he said. "Local people continue to benefit even when we are gone, so more and more people can return to brightness."

Editor: Hou Qian