Blood thicker than wa­ter for top liver sur­geon

China Daily (Canada) - - HOLIDAY -

Over four days in Beijing last year, Tai­wan sur­geon Chen Chao-long per­formed 13 liver trans­plant op­er­a­tions. Each lasted sev­eral hours, and he had to sur­vive on just four hours of sleep a night, some­times less.

The op­er­a­tions were to save the lives of six crit­i­cally ill chil­dren.

“Surg­eries de­mand hard work,” said Chen, who in 1984 per­formed Asia’s first liver trans­plan­ta­tion. “But when you see a pa­tient once on the verge of death re­cover thanks to your treat­ment ... you feel the ut­most joy and ful­fill­ment.”

The 68-year-old sur­geon is su­per­in­ten­dent emer­i­tus at Kaoh­si­ung Chang Gung Me­mo­rial Hospi­tal in Tai­wan and has been a mem­ber of the Chi­nese Academy of En­gi­neer­ing since 2007.

In Novem­ber 2001, Chen re­ceived an emer­gency call from Pek­ing Univer­sity First Hospi­tal in Beijing. Its medics needed as­sis­tance with a 12-year-old girl who had con­gen­i­tal he­patic fi­bro­sis and ur­gently needed a liver trans­plant.

“The po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion across the Tai­wan Straits was not good at the time, and even among our peers there were doubts about ex­changes with the main­land,” he re­called. “Also, the air­plane tick­ets for our 14-strong team would cost a fair amount of money.”

Chen and his team were finally able to make the jour­ney to Beijing thanks to the sup­port from Wang Yung-ching, founder of the Chang Gung Med­i­cal Foun­da­tion and For­mosa Plas­tics Group.

The girl’s op­er­a­tion was a huge suc­cess, re­ceiv­ing praise as the largest med­i­cal emer­gency co­op­er­a­tion across the Straits. It marked the start of Chen’s con­tin­u­ous co­op­er­a­tion with main­land coun­ter­parts.

In 2002, he and his main­land peers op­er­ated on a girl called Dong Guonyu from Shan­dong prov­ince who had been di­ag­nosed with Wil­son’s dis­ease, a ge­netic con­di­tion that pre­vents the body from re­mov­ing ex­cess cop­per, putting pres­sure on the liver.

Dong re­ceived part of her mother’s liver dur­ing a tough 14-hour op­er­a­tion, which was car­ried out by 50 sur­geons from both sides of the Straits.

Four years later, the pa­tient and her par­ents vis­ited Chen in Tai­wan to ex­press their grat­i­tude. To­day, Dong is the mother of a 10-year-old child.

In Chen’s of­fice there is a picture drawn by one of his child pa­tients, Liu Min­grui. It’s of a pair of hands tend­ing to a heart, with the words “In love we be­come stronger” writ­ten above. Liu un­der­went a liver trans­plant led by Chen in 2006, when he was nine months old.

“When I was mak­ing a speech in 2014 in Shang­hai, Liu came all the way to give me the picture. Now he is an ex­cel­lent stu­dent and a run­ner for his school,” Chen said.

The di­am­e­ter of the he­patic artery — which pro­vides oxy­genated blood to the liver — is as thin as 1.5 to 2 mil­lime­ters, mak­ing liver trans­plan­ta­tions com­plex and highly risky. How­ever, Chen is famed for his del­i­cate, pre­cise skills and an ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­ity to con­trol bleed­ing.

“Maybe chop­sticks give your hands a bet­ter flex­i­bil­ity train­ing than knives and forks,” Chen joked.

Af­ter re­ceiv­ing an in­vi­ta­tion from Sun Yat-sen Univer­sity of Med­i­cal Sciences, he made his first jour­ney to the main­land in 1995. Since then, he has vis­ited more than 100 times to help with liver trans­plan­ta­tions as well as train hospi­tal doc­tors, in­clud­ing those in re­mote ar­eas.

“I be­lieve med­i­cal sci­ence is a dis­ci­pline of sav­ing lives rather than a prop­erty kept to one­self,” Chen said.

In 2006, Chen vis­ited Renji Hospi­tal at Shang­hai Jiao­tong Univer­sity’s School of Medicine and show­cased a model op­er­a­tion there, which was filmed as a valu­able ref­er­ence. Sur­geons at the hospi­tal ac­com­plished 803 suc­cess­ful liver trans­plant op­er­a­tions last year.

For many main­land doc­tors, Chen is not only a trea­sure ch­est of skills to draw from, but also a bridge for med­i­cal ex­changes and friend­ship across the Straits.

“Wang Yung-ching (the late Tai­wan ty­coon) al­ways told me that as long as we had the ca­pa­bil­ity, we should try our best to help our an­ces­tral home. His idea deeply touched me,” Chen said.

Now on the main­land, Chen is as­sist­ing Beijing Ts­inghua Chang­gung Hospi­tal as it up­grades its doc­tors’ med­i­cal skills and builds an­other liver trans­plant cen­ter.

He has also been help­ing main­land doc­tors re­ceive train­ing at Kaoh­si­ung Chang Gung Me­mo­rial Hospi­tal, and help­ing main­land pa­tients re­ceive treat­ment there.

Chen Zheng, an anes­thetist from Hu­nan Chil­dren’s Hospi­tal who is study­ing at the Tai­wan hospi­tal, said Chen Chao-long has been sup­port­ive and that he is be­ing treated like he has al­ways been a part of the team.

So far, 24 pa­tients from the main­land have re­ceived liver trans­plants, and over 300 doc­tors from the main­land and across the world have en­gaged in ad­vanced stud­ies at the Kaoh­si­ung hospi­tal, ac­cord­ing to its su­per­in­ten­dent, Wang Chih-chi.

“One doc­tor’s ca­pa­bil­ity is lim­ited, but pass­ing on one’s med­i­cal skills to more might save a life on the other side of the world,” he said.

Al­though he has reached an age when most peo­ple re­tire, Chen Chao­long still works in the field to a tight sched­ule: Every Mon­day and Fri­day he fo­cuses on out­pa­tient med­i­cal care; every Tues­day, Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day on surg­eries; and every week­end on aca­demic ex­changes.

In the past two years, he has also trav­eled to the In­ner Mon­go­lia au­ton­o­mous re­gion and Qing­hai prov­ince to help establish med­i­cal cen­ters and su­per­vise com­pli­cated sur­gi­cal treat­ments.

“Doc­tors at Kaoh­si­ung Chang Gung Me­mo­rial Hospi­tal have per­formed over 1,700 liver trans­plants on pa­tients in crit­i­cal con­di­tion,” Chen Chao-long said. “These heart­warm­ing and pow­er­ful sto­ries make me re­al­ize the depth and great­ness of hu­man­ity.”

Chen Chao-long

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