Heroic Mil­i­tary Doc­tor Cai Ruikang

Cai Ruikang

China Pictorial (English) - - Front Page - Text by Duan Wei and Wang Lin Pho­to­graphs cour­tesy of the Gen­eral Hospi­tal of the Air Force of the Chi­nese Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army un­less oth­er­wise cred­ited

Al­though he is sched­uled to re­tire in 2012, Cai Ruikang has been re­luc­tant to leave his po­si­tion. The 83-year-old doc­tor still serves out­pa­tients on two half-day shifts ev­ery week at the Gen­eral Hospi­tal of the Air Force of the Chi­nese Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army (PLA), in Bei­jing. He is even re­cov­er­ing from a re­cent surgery to re­place part of his left fe­mur.

When asked about his decades of ser­vice as a physi­cian, Cai de­clared, “A mil­i­tary doc­tor work­ing for the peo­ple is not only a doc­tor, but also a sol­dier. I am happy to de­vote my life’s work to my coun­try.”

Mis­sion First

In the 1950s, Cai was re­cruited by his cur­rent hospi­tal af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the Fourth Mil­i­tary Med­i­cal Univer­sity. He once treated a stu­dent pilot in his 20s suf­fer­ing from pem­phi­gus, a skin dis­ease in­volv­ing un­com­fort­able blis­ters. The dis­ease is eas­ily treated to­day but was a tough chal­lenge at that time. In­fected by pseu­domonas aerug­i­nosa, the pa­tient’s body fes­tered, emit­ting an un­pleas­ant smell. Cai per­son­ally cared for him for more than half a year, and even shared a room with him some nights to promptly ad­dress any un­ex­pected changes in his symp­toms. How­ever, ul­ti­mately the stu­dent pilot still passed away.

The case over­whelmed Cai with sor­row and re­gret that per­sist to this day. “Af­ter that,

I stress that my stu­dents do ev­ery­thing they can to save their pa­tients even if there is lit­tle hope.”

In the late 1970s, con­flict fre­quently broke out on China’s south­ern bor­ders. The hu­mid cli­mate and harsh sur­round­ings brought skin ill­ness such as “fes­ter­ing crotch” that plagued Chi­nese sol­diers. As­signed to tackle the emer­gency at the front­lines, Cai and his col­leagues had to nav­i­gate mine­fields to reach scat­tered com­pa­nies and col­lect herbs in the moun­tains.

“No one could tell where were,” care­fully the Cai blazed land­mines said. “We our own paths, watched out for each other and vig­i­lantly lis­tened for enemy gun­shots. Dur­ing those days, I had no idea whether I would sur­vive un­til lunch time when I set out from the hospi­tal in the morn­ing.”

Within a year, Cai marched to the front­lines eight times and treated sol­diers hid­ing in more than 100 caves along the trenches. Through painstak­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion and med­i­cal ex­per­i­ments,

Cai and his col­league

Ma Fux­ian pin­pointed the cause of “fes­ter­ing crotch”: scro­tum ring­worm and scro­tum can­dida, car­ried and passed by brown rats. Cai sug­gested that hospi­tal head­quar­ters send a spe­cial team to ex­ter­mi­nate the rats at front­lines. He also re­searched and for­mu­lated med­i­ca­tion to op­ti­mally treat the dis­ease. The “num­ber one cream” that Cai de­vel­oped for ex­ter­nal use con­sid­er­ably low­ered the mor­bid­ity for

com­mon skin dis­eases among the troops. Even­tu­ally, the “fes­ter­ing crotch” sit­u­a­tion was com­pletely un­der con­trol.

On May 12, 2008, a dev­as­tat­ing earth­quake hit Wenchuan in south­west­ern China’s Sichuan Prov­ince. Cai, who was hos­pi­tal­ized with pneu­mo­nia at the time, showed great concern about the dis­as­ter. When he learned that his em­ployer planned to send a med­i­cal team to the earth­quakestricken ar­eas, Cai, who had barely re­cov­ered, con­vinced his fam­ily and the hospi­tal to let him go along.

“The peo­ple are suf­fer­ing, and I can help,” he de­clared. For 20 days, Cai and his col­leagues vis­ited over 20 earth­quake-hit towns and vil­lages, treat­ing more than 10,000 pa­tients. They also au­thored and dis­sem­i­nated book­lets to help sol­diers and lo­cals with in­struc­tions on how to pre­vent and con­trol skin dis­eases. Doc­tor’s Good­will

From 1956 to 1957, Cai stud­ied at the In­sti­tute of Der­ma­tol­ogy at the Chi­nese Academy of Med­i­cal Sciences, pre­vi­ously known as the Cen­tral In­sti­tute of Der­ma­tol­ogy and Venere­ol­ogy. He no­ticed that some experts who had stud­ied abroad still felt lim­ited in tack­ling skin dis­eases, and some West­ern drugs car­ried sig­nif­i­cant side ef­fects. The in­sti­tute fre­quently con­sulted Zhao Bing­nan, a mas­ter of tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine, when they en­coun­tered tough cases. Cai found that sev­eral Chi­nese herbs fre­quently pre­scribed by Zhao showed a good suc­cess rate in help­ing pa­tients re­cover and their bod­ies func­tioned bet­ter in many ways. Al­though he had stud­ied West­ern medicine in col­lege, Cai de­cided to learn from Zhao to com­bine Chi­nese and West­ern med­i­cal meth­ods.

In 1976, Cai be­gan study­ing un­der Zhu Renkang, an­other mas­ter of tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine. He at­tended a year­long train­ing class spon­sored by the Bei­jing Mu­nic­i­pal Health Bu­reau. Zhu’s pre­scrip­tions were me­thod­i­cal and stan­dard­ized. Cai as­sisted him in writ­ing pre­scrip­tions and com­posed a dozen books of notes, mak­ing fur­ther progress in learn­ing tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine.

Learn­ing from those mas­ters not only cul­ti­vated Cai’s skills but also fos­tered his moral­ity as he wit­nessed how each doc­tor respected and cared for poor pa­tients. Cai de­clared, “From the mas­ters, I’ve learned the essence of tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine.”

Over the past five decades, Cai has con­tin­ued to com­bine West­ern and Chi­nese meth­ods to in­no­vate med­i­cal treat­ment and pro­duce bet­ter re­sults. In 1980, 45-year-old Cai be­came the first di­rec­tor of the newly founded der­ma­tol­ogy depart­ment of the hospi­tal. By then, coal tar was com­monly used to treat stub­born skin dis­eases. Though some ben­e­fits were clear, the treat­ment re­pelled most pa­tients due to its dark color and bad smell. It is hard to ab­sorb and pre­vents the

skin from breath­ing. Cai made up his mind to change the pro­ce­dure.

Four doc­tors, a one-story house and an iron pot were all the depart­ment had at their dis­posal. With the help of his wife Liu Xin­guo, a phar­ma­cist, Cai be­gan to con­duct ex­ten­sive re­search even in such poor con­di­tions. Cai moved into a lab­o­ra­tory in Au­gust of that hot sum­mer. He sub­sisted mostly on steamed buns and barely slept, but de­voted all his en­ergy to re­search. The depart­ment be­gan ren­o­vat­ing its us­age of Chi­nese herbs with West­ern meth­ods and test­ing stan­dards. They even tested medicines on their own bod­ies to record how long it took to pen­e­trate the skin and be ab­sorbed to en­sure the safety of the medicines.

Cai’s arms and legs suf­fered con­sid­er­ably from the ex­per­i­ments per­formed on his own skin. Liu groaned that he was vir­tu­ally risk­ing his own life. How­ever, his ex­treme com­mit­ment even­tu­ally paid off. He pro­duced a yel­low com­pound with a slight fra­grance that was ap­proved by reg­u­la­tory au­thor­i­ties. Clin­i­cal tri­als proved its ef­fec­tive­ness in treat­ing pso­ri­a­sis, chronic eczema and neu­ro­der­mati­tis.

Cai be­lieves that doc­tors should lever­age the ad­van­tages of both Chi­nese and West­ern medicine. Within eight years, he built the depart­ment into the pre­mier cen­ter of the PLA for treat­ment and med­i­ca­tion for skin dis­eases. The team de­vel­oped nine new de­vices to treat skin dis­eases in­clud­ing a liq­uid ni­tro­gen mist sprayer, and three of them were sub­mit­ted for patents. A work sta­tion was named af­ter Cai in 2010, at which he fos­tered two spe­cial­ist doc­tors, three doc­toral stu­dents and five post­grad­u­ates. The sta­tion also pub­lished over 40 aca­demic pa­pers.

Cai con­sid­ers a pa­tient’s psy­cho­log­i­cal sta­tus a key fac­tor in any treat­ment. “Tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine sug­gests that emo­tion can cure as well as cause ill­ness,” Cai ex­plains. “West­ern medicine fac­tors in men­tal health along­side phys­i­cal health. We should strengthen pa­tients’ minds by build­ing con­fi­dence in their abil­ity to win the bat­tle against ill­ness.”

In his eyes, ev­ery pa­tient should be treated equally. Cai also be­lieves that a doc­tor should not dwell too much on his own gains and losses. “The pa­tient’s trou­ble is the doc­tor’s trou­ble, but you have to move on and per­se­vere.”

Heav­ily in­flu­enced by his teach­ers, Cai has de­vel­oped a spe­cial first les­son for new stu­dents. For­go­ing any­thing on cur­ing dis­eases or us­ing equip­ment, he stresses how to care for pa­tients.

“A doc­tor needs to de­ter­mine the op­ti­mal method to cure a dis­ease from mul­ti­ple choices—the fastest, most ef­fec­tive and most cost-ef­fec­tive,” Cai said. “With­out ex­cel­lent med­i­cal skills, one can­not cure a dis­ease. With­out good char­ac­ter, one can­not be­come a qual­i­fied doc­tor.”

A fam­ily photo of Cai Ruikang (right), 1976. ,

In 2008, Cai Ruikang and his col­leagues treated more than 10,000 sol­diers and lo­cals in over 20 earth­quake-hit towns and vil­lages in south­west­ern China’s Sichuan Prov­ince.

Cai Ruikang (right) treated sol­diers in caves along the trenches at the front­lines af­ter con­flict broke out on China’s south­ern bor­ders in the late 1970s.

Over the past five decades, Cai Ruikang has con­tin­ued to com­bine West­ern and Chi­nese meth­ods to in­no­vate med­i­cal treat­ment and for­mu­late med­i­ca­tions.

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