Dr. Wei Cheng is a pediatric surgeon and a Médecins Sans Frontires/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) volunteer. He was born in Beijing and became a refugee during the turmoil of Mao’s Cultural Revolution when his family moved to Hong Kong. He went to medical school in Sydney, Australia, where he met his wife Karin Moorhouse. Prior to joining MSF, he was a pediatric surgeon at the Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong and an Assistant Professor of Pediatric Surgery at the University of Hong Kong. He is currently doing research on the genetic control of gut development in the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
His decision to join MSF was partly inspired by his childhood hero, a Canadian humanitarian surgeon, Henry Norman Bethune who volunteered to work in China in 1938 during the anti-Japanese war. Bethune died in China after an infection of a finger laceration was incurred while operating. Bethune is still greatly respected and admired by millions of Chinese today. Wei and Karin quit their jobs as an academic surgeon and a VP of marketing mid-way through their careers to join MSF, because they also strongly felt that volunteering was important and meaningful. Their first mission took place in the middle of a civil war in Angola in 2000. Having accumulated years of working experience in developed countries, they found the contrast in this part of Africa most astonishing. Indeed, the civil war had pushed back the level of development in the country to a “stone age” level, but at the same time gave some individuals in the country an opportunity to seize power and gain enormous wealth.
The couple recorded their observations in a series of emails to their families and friends:
24 January 2001
Kung Hei Fat Choi! Today is Chinese New Year – the Year of Snake. I started my operation list as usual. Then I was interrupted by our Canadian midwife Emilie’s urgent radio message. She was sending me a patient who was bleeding following a delivery. The patient was in shock so we rushed to prepare. On arrival, the patient was bathed in blood, and looked extremely pale and weak. She was bleeding inside so I immediately operated on her. As a consequence of her previous six pregnancies, her uterus had ruptured during this delivery leading to profuse bleeding and already I sensed her life was slipping away. I controlled the bleeding straight away but when I put my fingers on her aorta there was no pulse – she had passed away.
At two o’clock in the morning, the thirty-year-old mother had given birth to a little girl – “The Snake Baby”. She was probably one of the first babies born on Chinese New Year’s day. This alone is cause for celebration. Yet when Emilie came to work first thing this morning, she found the mother lying in a pool of blood. In the dark of the night, without electricity, the only nurse who was in charge of 30 patients during the night simply hadn’t noticed the bleeding. For more than seven hours, she bled, bled and bled.
Distraught by the loss of life on my operating table, I turned and walked out of the theatre, tearing my gloves from my clammy hands. Emilie stood outside the door cuddling the cutest baby girl in her arms. Tears swelled out of eyes when I told her that we had lost the mother.
I took over the baby and held her gently in my arms. At that moment, I started to drown in her beauty. The morning sunshine streamed across her tiny face and she frowned and looked up at the world with one eye. She lifted her little right hand, spread her tiny fingers and pushed her index finger against her forehead, as if pondering the moment. Did she realize that her mother had died, just eight hours after she came to this world? I felt a damp patch in her pink swaddling cloth and thought she had wet herself. Looking down I realised it was blood, her mother’s blood had soaked a corner of her blanket. I held her, lost in my own reverie and sorrowÉ Had she been born in other parts of the world, her life and the fate of her six brothers and sisters would be very different.
Dr. Cheng’s experience and his subsequent mission to war-torn Liberia have broadened his perspective on life. The “blood and guts” war surgery practiced in Africa contrasts sharply with the microscopes of genetic research in his work at the Hospital for Sick Children. Yet, he is deeply impressed by the resilience of the refugees who carried on living with very little or no physical possessions, surrounded by landmines and military conflicts. The experience was enriching professionally and rewarding spiritually.
Their emails have been compiled into a book entitled “Letters from a Besieged Town” to be published by Insomniac Press early next year.