Blood thicker than water for top liver surgeon
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.”