Ye Zilong breaks new ground as eye doctor to the poor
Famous eye doctor now heads three private hospitals, which offer free eye operations
A decade ago, Dr Ye Zilong was renowned for his ability to cure eye diseases. His patients included the wealthy, and distinguished government officials including former paramount leader Hua Guofeng, Mao Zedong's designated successor, who called Ye a "light bringer".
But when he was in his mid-thirties, he made a bold decision to drastically alter his career path. Rather than helping only the privileged, Ye wanted to make his skills accessible to the less fortunate. He left the prestigious Tongren Hospital in Beijing and started over.
Today, he heads three private hospitals - in Beijing, Hebei and Shanxi - and every year they offer thousands of free eye operations for the poor and the disabled.
But it hasn't been easy. Private hospitals must pay taxes that public hospitals are exempt from, and while they struggle to secure capital, their public rivals easily receive billions of yuan from the government.
Why did you leave Tongren Hospital a decade ago?
I wanted to have my own business and turn my ideas into reality. I knew that running a private hospital would be hard, but that's why I wanted to try. If it were easy, why would I leave Tongren? Now I'm able to offer better services for clients, set up a good system to train eye doctors and also help the poor. Managing these things on a massive scale would be impossible at a public hospital such as Tongren.
Did you expect to lose money in the first years?
Yes. It was painful when we lost money. But as a Zhejiang native, I do business based on instinct and courage, rather than rigid numbers. My instinct told me China was thirsty for doctors. We have 1.3 billion people but only about 30,000 eye doctors.
When did you start helping the poor?
Running my own hospitals brought me closer to my patients. I found that many people didn't get operations because they couldn't afford them, so I began to cut or exempt the fees for them. I also set up a charity fund with some friends in my neighbourhood.
How big is the fund, and what are the main challenges?
Actually, it's not a question of money. There are companies that are willing to donate. It's more a matter of finding qualified patients - that's the most difficult part of the job.
Why is it difficult? And how do you find those patients?
Local governments are reluctant to tap into their resources to help us locate poor potential patients, unless they're ordered to by higher authorities. I never met a government official willing to help unless it was in exchange for money. To broaden our search, we have to look through unofficial channels. I went to Tibet on my own and brought back people who were suffering [from eye problems] in the plateau area. We also co-operate with temples in Qinghai and Jiangxi . We train monks there, and they return to villages to perform eye checks on local people. They don't ask for money. They have their religious beliefs and are happy to help.
Are poor people willing to receive free operations at your hospitals?
Why would they trust a private hospital? Even if they were beggars on the street, they might not. Some would prefer to pay at public hospitals.
Have you ever actually met someone like that?
Yes, plenty. A scavenger in a village once refused my offer of a free operation for his son who had congenital cataracts. He preferred to pay at a public hospital in Hebei that he trusted more, but that hospital didn't have the necessary equipment and technology to prevent a relapse. The father was too ashamed to come back to me, but the mother returned and apologised. I told her not to worry and that I would treat her son for a reasonable price if they insisted on paying. She was very grateful and burst into tears.
What did the doctors at your hospital think when the scavenger refused treatment?
My doctors were very frustrated and angry about the refusal. I called them into a meeting, asking them to reflect on the case: Did we do anything wrong? Did we put the family to shame, maybe by making them feel that a free operation was an insult? I told them about Mother Teresa, the Nobel Peace Prize winner. She took off her nice shoes when she helped others, because she wanted them to feel dignity.
So you spent a lot of effort training your people?
Yes. I feel I have a responsibility to improve the doctors' abilities and to help the poor. We want to earn money from wealthy people, but we also want poorer people to see the world with their own eyes. I have trained over a thousand medical students from all over the country.
What are your expansion plans?
To move the Baoding hospital [in Hebei] to a new site soon, as the size has tripled. We will also open a new hospital in Tianjin in the next two years.
What do you believe in?
I believe in kindheartedness - isn't that enough?
Ye spoke to Victoria Ruan email@example.com