Award-winning medical expert devotes his life to public health on the roof of the world
By Ji Jing  ·  2021-08-04  ·   Source: NO.31 AUGUST 5, 2021
Wu Tianyi, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, talks students through their lab experiments in Xining, capital of Qinghai Province, on June 17 (XINHUA)

Wu Tianyi, an 86-year-old medical expert and Communist Party of China (CPC) member, has lived and worked on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau for over half a century. The plateau, the highest in the world known as the "third pole of the world," covers the entire Tibet Autonomous Region and parts of other surrounding administrative areas. Wu, the founding father of China's altitude sickness medication, has dedicated his professional life to the research on this particular type of sickness.

As the CPC celebrates its centennial this year, Wu is one of the recipients of the July 1 Medal, the highest honor of the Party conferred to outstanding members.

The good doctor 

Wu, of the Tajik ethnic group, was born into a family of intellectuals in the 1930s in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. At 9, he migrated to Nanjing in Jiangsu Province with his parents. When the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea broke out in 1950, Wu joined the army. 

"Although I was not tall, I was physically strong. I had only one wish at that time—to serve my country," Wu told Xinhua News Agency. Given his sound academic performance, he was admitted to China Medical University.

After six years of university studies, the war had already ended but the Chinese forces had not yet entirely withdrawn. In 1957, he applied to go to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to work for the Chinese People's Volunteer Army 512 Hospital in Pyongyang, together with his wife.

The following year, Wu and his colleagues returned to Qinghai Province and he went on to become a cavalryman in the army. The equestrian skills acquired at that time laid the foundation for him to ride horses on the plateau years later whilst undertaking his field trips.

In the 1950s, responding to the call of the government, many young people from other parts of the country traveled to Qinghai to contribute to the development of China's hinterlands. However, many of them displayed different degrees of altitude sickness, including heart palpitation, choking sensation in the chest and headache. However, as basic knowledge about altitude sickness was lacking back in the day, many sufferers were treated as victims of pneumonia; some even lost their lives because of the sickness.

Wu said there was a gap in altitude sickness research in China at the time and he wanted to take his shot at cracking this mysterious disease's code.

"The hostile environment, characterized by a lack of oxygen and low pressure, hampered the development of the plateau and threatened local residents' health and safety. It was urgent to find out the underlying cause of altitude sickness," Wu said.

In 1978, Wu founded the High Altitude Medical Research Institute in Qinghai, the first of its kind in China. To gather data about all kinds of acute and chronic high altitude illnesses, Wu led a massive survey of 100,000 people, running from 1979 to 1992. "Everywhere I went, I would ask where the highest point was, because only by traveling up to the highest and remotest areas could we find out the distribution of the disease and its roots," Wu said.

As road condition was poor, Wu had to ride a horse to local herdsmen's tents to conduct the survey and had a yak carry his medical equipment. He had to overcome the stresses of altitude himself such as headache, shortness of breath and nausea. He nourished himself with tsamba, a traditional Tibetan staple made from roasted highland barley flour, and slept in the herdsmen's tents, with temperature falling below minus 30 degrees Celsius at night.

To facilitate his research, Wu, who already knew four languages, including Tajik, English and Russian, learned to speak Tibetan. During the past few decades, he has visited most of the high altitude regions of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, offering treatment to tens of thousands of people and gathering huge amounts of clinical data. The Tibetans nicknamed him the "good doctor on horseback" to express their gratitude.

Wu conducted systematic research into altitude illnesses and put forward a quantitative diagnostic standard for chronic mountain sickness, which was recognized by the International Society for Mountain Medicine as an international standard at the VI World Congress on Mountain Medicine and High Altitude Physiology, held in China in 2004. The standard began to be applied worldwide in 2005. Wu's groundbreaking research in altitude medicine saw him elected as an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering in 2001. That same year, the second phase of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, running from Golmud in Qinghai Province to Lhasa in Tibet, started construction.

The coldness and oxygen deficiency in the high altitude regions posed a severe threat to the health of railway construction workers.

As the medical consultant to the railway construction teams, Wu guided the creation of 45 oxygen supply stations and 38 hyperbaric chambers along the construction route, which rescued all those who suffered from altitude sickness. He also popularized altitude sickness prevention and treatment methods among the construction workers by giving lectures and compiling pamphlets.

Wang Jin, Vice President of the Qinghai Province Cardiovascular and Cerebrovascular Disease Specialist Hospital, who had worked with Wu told Qinghai Daily that when talking with the workers, Wu always used the simplest language possible to explain medical knowhow to enhance their understanding. The same methodology applied to the pamphlets he drafted.

Wu also suggested building toilets with heating connected to the workers' dormitories to avoid them catching a cold, which could potentially develop into life-threatening high-altitude pulmonary edema.

Thanks to Wu's efforts, none of the 140,000 construction workers died of altitude sickness during the five-year construction process.

Breaking bones and barriers 

As Wu had to travel through rugged roads amid high mountains and grasslands during field trips on the plateau, he encountered multiple accidents and suffered no fewer than 14 fractured bones.

In the most serious accident, his car fell off a cliff. Although Wu survived the accident, both his legs were broken, so were four of his ribs, with one almost piercing his heart.

In 1992, his research institute built the largest comprehensive hypobaric-hyperbaric chamber in China which was able to simulate air pressure at altitude ranging from 12,000 meters above sea level to 30 meters below sea level. Wu volunteered to enter the cabin for the first human experiment which simulated the air pressure at an altitude of 8,000 meters. "Since it was designed by me, I should be the first one to enter the cabin," Wu explained.

However, as the staff operating the cabin lacked experience, it was decompressed too fast, leading to a ruptured eardrum for Wu and seriously impaired hearing.

Moreover, longtime exposure to the ultraviolet rays whilst traveling the plateau caused Wu to have cataracts.

Physical and mental hardships aside, Wu has chosen to stay on the plateau as he believes, "Altitude medicine research can only be done on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. This is the root of my research as well as my career and life."

Now, although already in his 80s and living with a pacemaker, Wu is still working nonstop. Last December, his book entitled Wu Tianyi Altitude Medicine, which he had spent three years writing in spite of his poor eyesight, was published. The 3.4-million-character work is an anthology of his research results over the past decades, and a new career high.

(Print Edition Title: The Doctor on Horseback) 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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