Frontline figures

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 February, 2008, 12:00am

As Sars gripped Hong Kong in the spring of 2003, many people were placed on the frontlines in the battle. Some had prominent roles that thrust them into the limelight; others fought the disease at ground level.

Among the tales of commitment and courage that emerged from the epidemic, few are as moving as that of Joanna Tse Yuen-man, the first public hospital doctor to die from Sars. She passed away, leaving her her own motto: 'There will be a rainbow after the rain.' That thought applies to the lives of many officials and medics who battled Sars.

On the administrative side, a key figure five years ago was then director of health Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun. At the time she faced claims that she failed to respond quickly enough to the outbreak. Dr Chan has since shaken off criticism of the government's handling and in November 2006 became the first Chinese to be elected as the World Health Organisation director-general.

Other senior figures have not fared so well. In July 2004, secretary for health, welfare and food Yeoh Eng-kiong (pictured) and Hospital Authority chairman Leong Che-hung resigned after publication of a Legco Sars inquiry report. Both have since shown their expertise in other areas. Dr Yeoh is now the director of the Centre for Systems for Health at the Chinese University's School of Public Health. Dr Leong is an executive councillor and chairman of the Elderly Commission.

For many key health-care figures, their roles have changed, as well as their values. Professor Joseph Sung Jao-yiu, chair professor of the Chinese University's department of medicine and therapeutics, treated the first batch of Sars patients, including some of his medical colleagues, at the Prince of Wales Hospital Ward 8A in March 2003.

He said the epidemic reminded him of the crucial goal of being a doctor - to save lives. After the Sars outbreak, he quit his post as the department's chief of service and focused on clinical work and teaching students. He has also written a book on the outbreak, and plans to write another on the merits of being a doctor. 'Many young people want to be a doctor, but they may not know what a doctor has to do,' he said. 'They may love the doctor's image in a white gown, but they should also know that a doctor may have to risk his or her life.'

Professor Sung said that since the Sars outbreak he had delivered more than 100 speeches to students and young people. 'I not only go to so-called elite schools. I try my best to give them to all young people so I can share my experience with them.'

While Professor Sung reached out to the community to give an account of his experiences and the lessons to be learned, former colleague and then dean of medicine at the Chinese University Sydney Chung Sheung-chee chose to put things behind him. He was the whistle-blower who warned that Sars was spreading beyond the hospitals shortly after it first emerged in Hong Kong. In March 2003, when Dr Yeoh denied there was an outbreak in the community, Professor Chung was quick to contradict him and was soon proven correct when Sars patients began to be admitted to hospitals in growing numbers.

Professor Chung left the university in 2004 to become professor of surgery at Port Moresby General Hospital in Papua New Guinea. 'I really don't want to talk about it any more, don't live in the past,' he said. Calling himself a 'free and happy' person without a full-time job, he ran in this month's Standard Chartered Marathon and is a scuba diving instructor. He has also penned an English book of stories he encountered in hospitals and is writing a Chinese version.

Another key Sars player, Ko Wing-man, former Hospital Authority director, is now a private practitioner. He finished his contract and left the authority in 2004 and set up a private group practice, as well as doing charity work.

Dr Ko is also exploring the possibility of setting up hospitals and clinics on the mainland. He is adamant he would have left public health-care even without Sars. 'Looking back, Sars was just a convenient exit for me. I would not have stayed long anyway. The values and direction of the public health-care system are becoming very different from the ones I hold on to. The system now emphasises individual responsibilities, so we cannot give the best to our patients. It is getting more similar to the very capitalist system in the US, which I don't like.' Dr Ko said he was still in contact with some former colleagues infected with Sars. 'But apart from that, Sars is a rather remote memory for me.'