Rock-steady Wu helps cancer pa­tients cross trou­bled wa­ters

Liver spe­cial­ist, 96, still in­spir­ing col­leagues and med­i­cal stu­dents at Shang­hai hos­pi­tal

China Daily (Latin America Weekly) - - China - By LIN SHUJUAN in Shang­hai lin­shu­[email protected]­

It was a Tues­day morn­ing and chief sur­geon Wu Mengchao of Shang­hai’s East­ern Hepa­to­bil­iary Surgery Hos­pi­tal, sur­rounded by his young stu­dents, had just helped re­move a liver tu­mor from a pa­tient. The op­er­a­tion took the 96-year-old Wu about 35 min­utes, whereas it would usu­ally take two hours for an av­er­age sur­geon.

De­spite his ad­vanced age, Wu, the na­tion’s top hepa­to­bil­iary sur­geon, does not show the slight­est hes­i­ta­tion in his sur­gi­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties. His glasses and mop of gray hair are the only signs of his ad­vanc­ing years. His mind re­mains sharp, his eyes are clear, and his hands are rock steady.

Be­ing the first doc­tor in China to es­tab­lish a the­o­ret­i­cal ba­sis for liver surgery, Wu re­moved his first liver tu­mor in the 1960s. Since then, he com­pleted more than 16,000 oper­a­tions over a 75-year ca­reer.

Re­tire­ment has never been a choice for the de­ter­mined doc­tor, who con­tin­ues to do surg­eries at least twice a week.

“I’m still work­ing be­cause I’m still ca­pa­ble and hope to guide more young­sters,” said Wu, founder and direc­tor of the hos­pi­tal, which is af­fil­i­ated to the Shang­hai-based Se­cond Mil­i­tary Med­i­cal Univer­sity.

For him, the fight against liver cancer is far from over.

One in two of the world’s liver cancer pa­tients live in China, he said. A lead­ing cause of the con­di­tion is hep­ati­tis B, which is en­demic in the coun­try and other parts of Asia. An es­ti­mated 200 mil­lion Chi­nese have liver dis­eases, in­clud­ing hep­ati­tis B.

Though al­most 60 per­cent of Wu’s pa­tients lived for at least five years after surgery, China in gen­eral lags be­hind most de­vel­oped coun­tries in its over­all five-year sur­vival rate for liver cancer pa­tients.

“We still have a long way to go to im­prove our liver surgery tech­niques,” he said.

In 2005, Wu was hon­ored with the State Pre-em­i­nent Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Award, China’s high­est award in sci­ence. Wu do­nated his 5 mil­lion yuan ($770,000) award to as­sist his stu­dents’ re­search.

Born in Fu­jian prov­ince, Wu fol­lowed his par­ents to Malaysia at the age of 5 for a bet­ter life. De­spite his fam­ily’s poverty, his par­ents in­sisted he had a de­cent ed­u­ca­tion. Hence, Wu spent his next 13 years in Malaysia mostly tap­ping rub­ber trees in the morn­ing and at­tend­ing school in the af­ter­noon.

By the time he re­turned to China to sup­port the fight against Ja­panese in­vaders in 1940, he had be­come so ex­pe­ri­enced in tap­ping that he could even per­form stunts with a tap­ping knife, which he joked served as great prac­tice for his ca­reer as a sur­geon.

“I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in hand­i­work,” said Wu, ex­plain­ing why he chose to be­come a sur­geon, although at med­i­cal col­lege his lack of height was con­sid­ered a pos­si­ble stum­bling block.

Stand­ing at 1.62 me­ters tall, Wu of­ten has to stand on a stool dur­ing surgery. But once he stands there, a sense of calm de­scends in the op­er­at­ing room.

“It’s al­ways stun­ning to see how en­er­getic he is at his age, es­pe­cially when he’s in the op­er­at­ing room,” said Cheng Yue’e, a 55-year-old nurse who has worked with Wu for more than 30 years.

“His oper­a­tions are quick and ac­cu­rate.”

Pro­fes­sor Yan Yiqun, direc­tor of the No 1 he­patic de­part­ment at Wu’s hos­pi­tal, at­trib­uted the high five-year sur­vival rate for Wu’s pa­tients to the sur­geon’s unique meth­ods, which re­duce the sur­gi­cal time and help pa­tients re­cover faster.

“Most of the sur­gi­cal tech­niques I use come from Wu’s meth­ods,” he said.

Wu said one thing he keeps re­mind­ing his stu­dents is that they have to put their pa­tients’ health first.

“Lay down like a bridge to carry them over trou­bled wa­ter,” Wu said, cit­ing the motto he learned from his late men­tor, Qiu Fazu, who was known as “the fa­ther of mod­ern Chi­nese surgery”.

Wu’s col­leagues and pa­tients said on cold days he will warm his hands in his pock­ets be­fore check­ing a pa­tient.

“Most of my pa­tients have hep­ati­tis, which scares oth­ers away. But as a doc­tor, I must re­spect and love my pa­tients,” he said.

Since his wife died six years ago, Wu has led a sim­ple life work­ing at the hos­pi­tal, ac­cord­ing to Cheng.

“His meals are ba­si­cally light and sim­ple, and he doesn’t eat much,” she said.

“He usu­ally has a cup of milk and an egg for break­fast, and noo­dles for sup­per. He has lit­tle for lunch.

“Con­tin­u­ing to work is ex­er­cise for him, mind and body. The sight of him still work­ing reg­u­larly in the hos­pi­tal is an en­cour­age­ment for all of us. No one feels old.”

Yet Wu said he can­not defy na­ture.

“Of course, I feel tired. But I’ll keep work­ing as long as I have the en­ergy,” he said.

The big­gest com­fort, he added, was “see­ing so many of his stu­dents grow­ing into lead­ing ex­perts in the med­i­cal field, and the es­tab­lish­ment and ex­pan­sion of the hos­pi­tal, which is es­sen­tial to the fight against liver cancer”.

Wu’s hos­pi­tal opened a branch in Shang­hai’s sub­ur­ban Jiad­ing district in 2015. This al­lows the hos­pi­tal — the most sought-after by liver and gall blad­der pa­tients na­tion­wide — to un­der­take more than 100 surg­eries a day.

“My ef­forts alone are not enough to help Chi­nese peo­ple get rid of the dis­ease,” Wu said. “I wish to train more suc­ces­sors to im­prove our op­er­at­ing tech­niques in the re­main­ing years of my life.”

Wang Xiaoyu con­trib­uted to this story.


Wu Mengchao (mid­dle) per­forms a surgery to re­move a pa­tient’s liver tu­mor at Shang­hai’s East­ern Hepa­to­bil­iary Surgery Hos­pi­tal on Oct 23.

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