Surviving Sars taught surgeon best lesson in life - live for today

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 July, 2007, 12:00am

Song Wan learned a lot of valuable lessons when he contracted Sars in 2003, but the most important one is that life is short.

'Contracting Sars as a doctor made me realise that if you want to do something, you'd better do it early. Otherwise, you may not have the chance later,' the 43-year-old said. He recovered and still works at Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin, where he caught severe acute respiratory syndrome.

That is what prompted him to start a book about the development of heart surgery on the mainland, which has just been published.

'I am interested in history personally, but before Sars I had no energy to collect information for the book,' the mainland-born heart surgeon, who teaches at Chinese University of Hong Kong, said.

'But after that, I was enthusiastic: I travelled to China to collect pictures from the old surgeons and record their precious memories.'

The book - Cardiothoracic Surgery in China: Past, Present and Future - is the first of its kind in English. It collects articles by 33 contributors, mostly surgeons who practised on the mainland or helped with the development of heart surgery.

The collection highlights the struggles and sacrifices of leading mainland surgeons, who gave up comfortable lives practising overseas and went back to their homeland to set up hospitals and medicine schools during the second world war.

Two remarkable examples were Huang Jia-si and Wu Ying-kai, who fought hard to keep the level of cardiothoracic surgery on the mainland as close to international standards as possible throughout the decades of turmoil, including during the Cultural Revolution.

The book also tells of the first mainland cardiac operation in 1940, when even basic tools and drugs like antibiotics were hard to come by.

Although most of the stories surrounded the efforts of the medical professionals and how the evolution of surgical techniques helped transform a nation, Dr Wan said there were anecdotes exemplifying the sacrifices made by the surgeons.

'The early surgeons decided to serve their country with little support and few facilities. What they had was determination and self-sacrifice.'

He said the book would remind young surgeons to focus on what was valuable in their careers.

'Hong Kong surgeons know very little about the history of their discipline as well as those who practised on the mainland,' he said.

'A lot of them just want to make more money and improve their personal lives.'