China Views: Dr. Li, a Heart for China

Dear Family and Friends,

She is tall, by Chinese standards. She is beautiful, which is not uncommon for women from Gansu province in the west of China. She has the typical oriental jet black hair, coifed in a decidedly occidental style. She has quite good English, much of it self-taught. She has a direct way of getting your attention when she speaks quietly, as she did during a consultation regarding Don’s 24-hour heart monitor results: “I know you are not my patient, but if you were, you would be in my Intensive Cardiac Care Unit.” You see, she is the intervention cardiologist who arguably saved my life.

When asked, Dr. Li says that she has always wanted to be a doctor, from the time she was a little girl, surrounded by some of the ”less prosperous” Chinese in underdeveloped Gansu province, at a time when all of China was less prosperous than it is today.  She saw both the need of the people and the dramatic impact that a good doctor can make in a difficult situation.

Following success in high school, she gained admission to one of China’s limited number of medical schools. Further study eventually held to her receiving a PhD degree in cardiology at one of the largest, best-equipped hospitals in the more prosperous east of China, studying under the leading cardiologist in the land. Following her academic success, she returned to her home province to fulfill her dream of helping those in the less-developed west of China.

After serving with distinction in Gansu for a number of years and rising to become a Vice President of the largest hospital in the province, she realized that she had been diverted away from her dream of helping those in medical need towards a career as an administrator helping those with other kinds of needs. So, she moved to a different hospital but found that the need there was not as great and that the motives of some colleagues were less-focused than her own. 

Therefore, she moved to our city of Guangzhou where she is now the director of the cardiac care unit, with 20 doctors and 50+ other staff working under her direction. The hospital is large -- more than a dozen buildings cobbled together over the years into a dense campus in the middle of an older part of the city. Despite the administrative load that her position entails, she takes time -- at least five hours every week -- to meet with walk-in clinic patients. She will tell you that this is the part of her job that she likes best: talking with and listening to patients. It is a continual, concrete reminder of why she chose this grueling profession in the first place.

Dr. Li is motivated, even driven, to extend her outreach to the needy. Nearly every weekend, she travels to an outlying area to provide instruction at some smaller, less well-equipped hospital that has fewer well-trained staff. There, she shares the latest knowledge with medical professionals who have their own set of needs.

We met Dr. Li when Don was referred to her by our Western-style clinic for consultation on the results of his 24- hour Holter heart monitor test, “You have ‘sick sinus’ syndrome with B-T’ [bradycardia (slow heat beat), followed by tachycardia (fast heart beat)]. Your R-R interval (time between beats) was greater than 5 seconds on some occasions, where we like to see R-R intervals of no more than 2 sec. Overall, we saw 800+ such troubling incidents during the 24-hour test. I would recommend that you have a pacemaker implant.” 

We took the diagnosis under advisement and explored, with the Western clinic, the option of travelling for two hours to Hong Kong to have the pacemaker installed there, under “more Western” conditions. When our  primary care physician in Guangzhou described the situation to a cardiologist in Hong Kong, the latter advised against any travel and recommended implantation of a pacemaker as soon as practical. When we contacted Dr. Li to discuss how quickly such action could be taken, we learned that she was out of town, giving one of her weekend lectures at a hospital in another province. However, she said that she and a colleague could do the procedure when she arrived home that evening. Well, as it ended up, her plane was delayed due to bad weather so that the implantation did not begin until shortly before midnight. She did not get to her home until after 2:00 AM. She was back at the hospital to see us the next morning, where we were ensconced in a rare, spacious private room on the top floor of the hospital. 

During our eight-day stay in the hospital, we and Dr. Li had several opportunities for some extended, relaxed conversations. She said that she used such times to rejuvenate herself after the rigors and demands of the “normal” cardiac department three floors below. Through these chats we learned that she and her husband have an 18-year old son who is a strong student with plans to study intervention cardiology (there must be a genetic link there:)) or architecture. The former would be pursed in China; the latter would be pursued in Australia. In short, she is a justly proud mother, as well as an exceptional doctor. [We have recently learned that her son will follow the medical route to a bright future.]

Even with all that she is doing, Dr. Li is seeking additional avenues through which she can volunteer her services. She was quite interested in our volunteer service to teach English in Inner Mongolia. We are helping to explore some options for her with various non-governmental organizations (NGOs). 

Always looking to doing something productive in her “spare time”, she has enrolled in a Harvard University massive online open course (MOOCs) that examines important concepts in some of the world’s most important literature. We gave her our personally annotated copy of a book by Dr. Francis Collins, the Director of the US National Institutes of Health, which examines aspects of human life from a scientific, logical, and personal point of view. We also gave her a series of Christmas stamps (provided by friends in the US) that have focused on the theme of Bethlehem for the past five years. We included two 1975 Christmas stamps that someone had given us. We said, “We hope that this book and these stamps that we give you will remind you of us, just as the pacemaker you gave us will remind us of you.”

As the Chinese and this remarkable doctor might say: “It’s win-win.”

- Donald and Karen Barnes