When cataracts robbed Chen Hairong of her sight last summer, she lost the will to live. 'Before August I could still see the road in front of my home, but as time passed my vision deteriorated and I couldn't see anything,' said Ms Chen, 65, who lives in Huangpi county, Hubei province. 'I couldn't even see my hands.' Incapacitated, she depended on her husband to look after her, an onerous task for the frail farmer who had for years relied on his wife for the same kind of care. 'When he placed a rice bowl before me I had to feel for it, and sometimes I'd knock it over and break it,' said Ms Chen, one of China's four million cataract sufferers. 'Passing each day was painful. I just wanted to die.' But hope arrived in February when Ms Chen heard on the radio that a hospital-on-wheels was passing through her county. Shortly after, a health official visited to say she could register to have an eye operation on the train for free. The three-carriage train, called the Lifeline Express, is a handover gift from the people of Hong Kong. It rolled out of Hunghom Station on July 1 last year, heading for Anhui province. The train has since made stops in two other provinces, Sichuan and Wuhan (where it will stay until early April), to provide free medical treatment to the poor. The $19-million custom-built train - funded by the Lifeline Express Company in Hong Kong - is fitted with the latest medical equipment and has two operating theatres, one radiology room, one laboratory and 20 beds for patients to stay overnight. Among the permanent staff are two eye doctors, one cardiovascular specialist and four nurses from the prestigious China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing. All were selected by the Ministry of Health. In Anhui and Sichuan, doctors restored the eyesight of 600 cataract sufferers - a relatively simple operation that involves replacing the defective lens with an artificial one. Though most cataracts are the result of ageing, some are caused by diabetes, injury or the faulty development of the lens. Executive Councillor Nellie Fong Wong Kut-man, who came up with the idea to build the train in 1996, said: 'I wanted to think of something meaningful Hong Kong people could give to China.' She was inspired by a similar train that travels through India, also called Lifeline Express, which since 1990 had been treating polio and cataract sufferers and giving mothers childcare tips. Loathe to simply dole out cash to the needy, Mrs Fong said: 'Donating a train to China is different from donating money because our train has Hong Kong doctors and the mainlanders would feel we really care about them.' Not only that, but the train would help those normally without access to hospitals. While the concept behind Lifeline Express is similar to that of Project Orbis (a flying eye hospital that visits developing countries to restore sight to the blind), the train can reach people in not only cities but also villages, thanks to the mainland's unified railway system. During Lifeline Express's 40-day visit to Wuhan, 74-year-old Yi Yongji was one of 15 people treated on the third day. Like many others, he spoke of the sense of helplessness blindness brought. A part-time barber and farmer before going blind two years ago, he felt guilty for being such a burden on his wife. 'I felt so frustrated I couldn't help her,' he said. Like Mr Yi, Wen Shikui, 57, used to raise pigs and cows, but since losing his sight over the past five years he had been confined to his home. 'I couldn't work anymore,' Mr Wen said. 'My wife had to pour water for me, wash my face, feed me.' Wan Zaiyong, 48, was another who had to rely on his wife for everything. Worse yet, she was forced to take over his job of raising fish and ducks. 'When I walked, I tripped over bricks and stones,' he said an hour after his operation, his eyes still wrapped in bandages. 'When I put on my clothes, I had a hard time locating the buttons.' Mr Wan, like many villagers, did not know his condition was reversible. He assumed his clouded vision was part of growing old. 'But when the train arrived, people found out more about blindness caused by cataracts,' said Hong Shenglin, deputy director of the Wuhan Health Bureau. 'When the villagers learned about the train through the media, they visited their village clinics and had their condition diagnosed.' In Wuhan, of 2,000 people registered to have an operation on the train, only 500 qualified. Priority was given to breadwinners, younger sufferers who could still contribute to society, those with little family support and those whose blindness was reversible. Despite knowing the train could not cater for everyone, Mr Wen said, 'When we heard the news, we were ecstatic. The villagers came out of their home and beat the drums as if it were Lunar New Year.' The joy turned to thanks when the train pulled in. 'I'm so grateful,' Mr Wan said after his operation. 'When I begin earning money again, I'll buy joss sticks to praise Buddha.' He knows how lucky he is to have had the operation, which normally costs 2,000 yuan (HK$1,870) at a city hospital, twice the average annual income for villagers. 'Our gift sends out a strong message,' Mrs Fong said. 'Every morning when they wake up and open their eyes, they will remember it's a Hong Kong train that helped them.' Doctors not only give the sight-impaired a new lease on life, they also pass on their skills by providing training to local doctors so they can continue to perform surgeries after the train leaves. 'Hong Kong is in a better position to absorb Western technology which we can share with our mainland counterparts,' said Dr Lam Shun-chu, chief of Prince of Wales' Eye Unit and a guest doctor on the Lifeline Express. For the past four years, Dr Lam has spent his holidays in China giving lectures and demonstrating surgical techniques to his mainland counterparts. 'We hope to join hands with the local doctors to achieve a higher level of care,' he said, adding that, for instance, 'we teach them how to operate under a microscope.' But that kind of training is only helpful in hospitals that have such equipment. 'Unlike hospitals in major cities, only 30 per cent in the counties have microscopes,' said Dr Tang Lin, deputy director of Wuhan No 1 Hospital's eye unit, which owns two German microscopes. 'In the village clinics, there are no microscopes.' While the train is equipped with the latest in eye-care technology, its living quarters are frugal, with four people assigned to each compartment and no bathing facilities provided. No wonder Dr Liu Jing describes her job as 'challenging'. Head of the Eye Unit in Beijing's China-Japan Friendship Hospital, she was recruited to work on the train last July. She now performs about 10 operations a day, in contrast to two or three per week in Beijing. 'I've learned a lot from Dr Lam in the past few months,' Dr Liu said. Back in a Wuhan hospital, where Chen Hairong was recovering after being operated on by Dr Lam, she was jubilant she could finally see again. 'Before the bandage came off, I was still a bit anxious, but little by little I began to see,' she said. 'Now I can go back to my home, work on the farm and take care of my husband.'