Queen of kindness
Mark O'Neill, SHANGHAI
It is 7.30am in the laser room of the Huashan hospital, one of the best-known in the city and famous for its treatment of skin and bone diseases.
After dislocating a finger on Christmas Day, I have been coming here for daily treatment. Since then, my understanding of my fellow patients has improved more than the finger.
'I am suing the hospital,' claims Wang Junguo, a balding, middle-aged man, who watched the red laser beam on his immobile arm. 'I lost the feeling in my right arm and went to my local hospital. They did an operation but it went wrong, so I had to come here and have the operation again.
'I am very unhappy about this. But the hospital is part of the government - and who can win a lawsuit against the government?'
The other patients agree, and advise him to save his money. In the small room, nothing is private and everyone knows your illness - as well as where you work, how much you earn, how many children you have, where you live and how much you paid for it.
The queen is Nurse Li, a small, plump lady in her 50s, who opens the room each day, operates the machines and earns 2,500 yuan a month after 30 years in the medical profession.
Her priority is the psychological health of her patients and, to this end, she maintains a constant flow of gossip, stories, jokes and stock tips. 'You do not realise how hard it is for the patients,' she said. 'I must keep their spirits up and try to keep them in good humour. That is very important.'
Never were her skills more in need than one day last week, when a sturdy man in his mid-30s walked in. Liu Jiang had lost the lower half of his left arm and his right arm hung like a stone, a large scar above the hand.
The room falls silent. By comparison, everyone's injuries amount to nothing. Mr Liu worked in Daqing, China's biggest oilfield in the far northeast province of Heilongjiang, explains his mother who has accompanied him. There was an accident at the field and her son was horribly injured. The oilfield chose Huashan, 2,700km away, as the best hospital to treat him.
Only 35, he has come to try to recover feeling in his right arm. After people absorb their shock, the chat resumes. The rice in the northeast is the best in China. You have fresh milk every morning, don't you? Shanghai is crowded and the apartments so small, it must be more comfortable in Daqing, with only 2 million people?
Mr Liu hides his pain and talks about his son's progress at school and how people in Daqing drink grain liquor that is 60 per cent alcohol, not the weak beer and grape wine of Shanghai tipplers.
His father, a soldier, went to Daqing in the 1960s after they found oil there, to develop the city and the countryside around it. 'It was the soldiers who created the dairy industry there. Daqing is the pride of China,' he said.
After he has returned to his ward, Nurse Li says that he will not be able to work again. 'If he can go on living, that will be an achievement. In the northeast, couples stay there after accidents like this. He will be supported by his family. His life will go on.'