Liu Peng (second left) works on an operation on March 31 (YUAN YUAN)
Six operations a day, more than 30 years in a row, no vacation, no spare time. Meet Liu Peng, who has been working as a cardiac surgeon in the Beijing-based China-Japan Friendship Hospital since 1984.
"I come to the office at 8 a.m. and start operating right away," Liu, Director of the Department of Cardiovascular Surgery and Electro-chemotherapy in the hospital, told Beijing Review. "It is normal [for me] to leave the operation theater at 8 or 9 o'clock in the evening every day, including the weekends. This is my routine schedule."
"There's almost no spare time for my family and myself."
The overpowering workload is common for many medical staff in China, especially those in hospitals in big cities as patients swarm the leading hospitals in big cities for specialty treatment.
Risk and reward
"My patients normally have major cardiac and vascular problems. Each operation is a matter of life and death," the 55-year-old said.
Five years after he started to work in the hospital, Liu was assigned to the Nihon University in Japan for further studies. He spent five years there, acquiring advanced medical knowledge and operation skills.
While studying abroad, Liu noticed that even though many senior citizens in foreign countries have hyperlipidemia-high levels of fat in the blood, they rarely get strokes. Then he learnt that it is because when such people are diagnosed as having blocks in their arteries, they undergo an operation to have it removed. The operation is called carotid endarterectomy.
In China, with the rise in living standards in recent times, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and hyperlipidemia--called the "three highs"- have become common. But as no doctors did the operation in China at that time, there was a high incidence of such strokes.
Liu, who returned to his Beijing hospital in 1994, performed the first carotid endarterectomy in the hospital in 2000. The whole process took over two hours, following which the patient recovered. Since then, Liu has done more than 1,000 such operations with his team.
Patients with problems in the carotid arteries mostly have problems in their coronary arteries as well. But two separate operations would make patients face higher risks. After checking the physical conditions of a patient who had problems in both sets of arteries, Liu, who had by then become proficient in carotid endarterectomy, decided to combine the two operations together.
The marathon first operation, done in January 2014, lasted for about five hours. Since then Liu has done more than 70 such operations. "It is very tiring for the doctors but patients don't have to suffer two operations, which is a big relief for them. Seeing the smile on a patient's face is my biggest reward," Liu told Beijing Review.
Liu Peng, Director of the Department of Cardiovascular Surgery & Electro-chemotherapy in the Beijing-based China-Japan Friendship Hospital (COURTESY OF CHINA-JAPAN FRIENDSHIP HOSPITAL)
The man with the courage that drives him to do such daring operations once dreamt of becoming a solider.
"My dream was to be a solider but sadly, it never came true," Liu said. "Operating on patients can be compared to fighting on the battlefield. That's how great it feels and why I love my job."
In 2003, when China was in the throes of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Liu led the work in the infectious diseases department, treating SARS patients. It was at an early stage of the SARS epidemic and there was no comprehensive information on how the disease spread. Still Liu undertook the task without hesitation, not leaving the hospital for more than two months.
For him, it was like riding armed to the battle. It was all about responsibility and not turning back.
However, disputes between doctors and patients have become a major issue in China's medical sector in recent years. Can this affect doctors' dedication to their profession?
Liu thinks the reason for such disputes lies partly in the lack of communication between the two sides.
"Some patients have high expectations of renowned hospitals and think doctors can cure everything," he said. "This is not rational. They should realize that every operation has risks. Even though they sign up for operations after being informed about the risks, they refuse to believe those risks could become true for them."
Often, when patients learn they can't be cured, some vent their anger on the medical staff and even attack them.
"But I would say the majority of patients are very nice and show great understanding of our work," Liu said. "Even if there are some disputes, when I am at the operating table, I focus only on the patient and the operation."
In five years, Liu will retire from the hospital. But he doesn't have any detailed post-retirement plan yet. "I think I will have a very good rest first," he said.
Liu Peng was the first to perform a minimally invasive operation on varicosity in China. It was in the late 1990s. As he explained, "This was a common operation in developed countries in those days, but in China, few doctors knew about this."Describing the operation's advantages in a TV interview, he said it alleviates the pain and discomfort suffered by people with varicose veins.
"People working as teachers or salespeople, professions that demand long periods of standing, are susceptible to this," he said. "It might not be [always] painful but the network of prominent veins on the legs doesn't look good, especially for women who want to wear skirts in summer."
With this operation, patients don't need to stay in the hospital to recover but can leave right away. The operation soon began to be performed in many other places and the China-Japan Hospital became a major training base. In June 2015, the hospital established the first varicosity clinic in China. Today, patients with varicosity can easily be operated on at hospitals in smaller cities.
"Actually, doctors in many smaller cities are qualified to do the operation I do, but many patients still have more faith in doctors in bigger cities," Liu said. "My operation dates for the next 30 days have been fully booked. The wide medical insurance cover in recent years has given the varicosity operation a boost."
But patients have many reasons to come to him--his rich medical experience and operation skills have built up a golden reputation, making him much sought-after.
Copyedited by Dominic James Madar
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