No miracles on the front line, just care

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 April, 2010, 12:00am

When Chung Chin-hung took over the Prince of Wales Hospital emergency room in 1984, the operating procedure was very different from today.

For a start, the room was full of interns and junior doctors waiting to be trained as specialists in other fields. And patients were only offered minimal service, being referred to other departments almost as soon as their initial check-up was over.

Chung, who has been hailed as 'Hong Kong's father of emergency medicine', was the driving force in propelling this first line of care into a specialty in 1997. In recognition of his contribution, Chung was awarded the Hospital Authority's Outstanding Staff Award this year.

'The emergency room is an exciting place because you see people from all walks of life in life-and-death situations,' he says.

Chung began his career as a surgeon in the 1970s and became the city's first emergency medicine consultant in 1984.

One of the most memorable cases of his career was working at Wan Chai's Tang Shiu Kin Hospital after the Lan Kwai Fong stampede that left 20 people dead and 100 injured on New Year's Eve 1992. 'Many were already dead when they arrived at the hospital,' he says. 'I felt bad, as I could not do anything to help.'

Chung says this feeling of helplessness comes with the job. 'We see people [in a terrible state] after traffic accidents. But we are not fairies and cannot perform miracles.'

He says doctors have to distance themselves from tragedies. 'If we put too much personal feeling into the work, we would become depressed and not be able to do the job.'

There were also weird moments in the emergency room, such as the time he saw a patient who refused to speak. 'We had to probe like detectives and finally found out that he was an illegal immigrant from Vietnam. To hide his secret, he kept silent.'

Chung said his current job as chief of service at the North District Hospital emergency room in Sheung Shui was the most challenging. The hospital had the least manpower of the three emergency rooms he had worked in and had to deal with cases that would be rare in other districts.

'A few years ago mainland women kept arriving to give birth at the last minute,' he says. 'As we are the closest hospital to Shenzhen, it is natural that they come to us.'

Different emergency rooms also attract different types of injury. Chung said hospitals in the New Territories saw more patients with snake bites, and those in industrial areas saw more workplace injuries, such as finger or hand injuries from accidents with machines.

Even the methods of committing suicide have changed over the years, he said. A decade ago, people drank disinfectant, but now burning charcoal was common.

He said queues at emergency rooms were getting longer, as more services were being offered - from blood testing to computer scans.

Chung, who will retire next year, also had some tips for patients to shorten their waiting time - visitor numbers peak at 11 am and 9 pm, and there are more patients on Mondays.