Nerves of steel, heart of gold
By Li Xiaoyu  ·  2024-04-08  ·   Source: NO.15 APRIL 11, 2024
Wang makes a presentation in neurosurgery in French during his mission to Guinea (COURTESY PHOTO)

Wang Xingwen, a 49-year-old neurosurgeon at the Xuanwu Hospital affiliated to Capital Medical University in Beijing, has performed over 4,000 surgical operations in his 24 years of career, sometimes working up to 22 hours at a time on cases of exceptional complexity. Out of the 640 operations he performed in 2023, only two resulted in failure. According to him, in neurosurgery, there should be no errors, as a single mistake can cause permanent damage. Therefore, the focus should be on improving the chances of success and minimizing the risks of failure.

It was this dedication that led him to his mission in Africa. In September 2020, he began his 18-month foreign aid medical mission as a member of the 28th batch of Chinese medical workers to work in Guinea.

Angels in white

With 10 months of preparatory training, Wang gained a good understanding of the French language, the conditions in Guinea and diplomatic protocol, which gave him the confidence to face the challenges ahead. However, upon arriving in the capital Conakry, his commitment and resilience were severely tested by the extreme heat and humidity, mosquito bites, and the danger of venomous snakes. During his breaks, Wang would climb a water tower to admire the sea and think of his family in silence. Despite the challenges he faced, he remained dedicated to his humanitarian mission, realizing that he was both a caregiver and a representative of friendship.

Over the course of 18 months, Wang conducted more than 100 surgical operations. These procedures were often performed under challenging conditions, with frequent power cuts during the dry season. Additionally, he treated patients suffering from deadly diseases and gunshot wounds during times of political unrest. These experiences went beyond his initial expectations for the mission.

In June 2021, an impressive operation was performed at the China-Guinea Friendship Hospital on a patient who had suffered fractures of the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae. The surgery was performed by Wang and local doctors. Unfortunately, an unexpected acute haemolytic reaction occurred, which put the patient's life at risk. After confirming the condition was caused by malaria, the medical staff administered an injection of artemisinin to stabilize the situation. Despite difficult working conditions and an operation lasting over 10 hours, the medical staff continued to work tirelessly to save the patient. At the end of the day, Wang was deeply moved to discover that his colleagues were waiting for him with a hot meal.

Filling medical gaps

Before Wang's medical team arrived, the China-Guinea Friendship Hospital had only a basic neurosurgery department. Wang saw this as an opportunity to advance microscopic neurosurgery in Guinea, aiming to narrow the gap between local and international standards and accelerate the country's development of this crucial specialty.

The hospital had only one operating microscope, which had been donated by China 10 years ago. Thanks to the assistance of Wang and Chinese engineers, the microscope was refurbished. It was later used to perform a minimally invasive operation for a patient with a cervical spine fracture. The patient's mobility showed significant improvement two days later, and on the fourth day, he was able to get out of bed. Local doctors were impressed with the speed of the patient's recovery after the microscopic neurosurgery.

The efficiency of the operation particularly impressed a Guinean assistant who expressed a desire to learn the technique. The head of the neurosurgery department also called for the adoption of Chinese methods in Guinea after observing several other successes in microscopic neurosurgery. 

Wang notified the relevant departments in China about the situation and received significant support from Xuanwu Hospital. The Beijing Ling Feng Foundation generously donated training equipment, which was then shipped to Guinea. The medical team assembled the equipment, established the first local neurosurgery laboratory, and compiled the training material in French. In July 2021, after six months of preparation, the first Guinean training workshop in microsurgery was held, training local doctors to use microscopes for surgical operations. "While providing much-needed medical assistance, we have also passed on treatment methods to enable local medical personnel to continuously improve the efficiency and quality of local medical services," Wang said.

Wang Xingwen (left) guides a Guinean doctor during a surgical procedure (COURTESY PHOTO)

Capacity building

The medical team also organized a forum of neuroscience experts in Guinea, covering a wide range of disciplines such as neurosurgery, cardiology, resuscitation, pathology and anaesthesiology. As French is the official language of Guinea, Wang chose to teach in that language. To ensure accuracy, he created slides in English, which were then translated into French and checked by a French teacher online. Wang spent two to three hours each evening learning his notes in French, investing a total of more than 200 hours in preparing a 40-minute presentation. He found this task is surprisingly more arduous than the surgical practice itself.

After 18 months of hard work, the medical team has achieved its goals. They have trained local neurosurgery personnel, upgraded their technology, purchased equipment worth 4.5 million yuan (about $626,000), and established 13 medical standards and systems. In January 2022, the Guinea Neuroscience Centre was formally launched. This occurred just before the departure of the Chinese aid team.

The difficulties he faced and the bonds he forged in Guinea afforded Wang many opportunities for personal and professional development during the mission. He stays in regular contact with his Guinean colleagues, and feels one of the cores of his job is as an ambassador for China's friendliness and spirit of sharing.

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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