Wed, 23 Sep 2020

President of Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital Zhang Dingyu (Front, L) sees off members of a medical team from Shanghai at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, March 31, 2020. (Xinhua/Fei Maohua)

by Xinhua writers Cheng Lu, Hou Wenkun and Yue Wenwan

WUHAN, Aug. 14 (Xinhua) -- Perhaps no hero is coming to save Zhang Dingyu, a 56-year-old doctor with an incurable disease. But over the past months, he has been a hero to many in Wuhan, the former epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak in China.

Heading Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital, one of the major battlefields amid the epidemic, Zhang knows his clock is ticking. Having amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), he will progressively lose muscle strength, eventually becoming paralyzed and unable to speak, move, swallow, or even breathe.

But the ALS sufferer and his colleagues have treated and saved more than 2,800 COVID-19 patients, many of whom were severely and critically ill.

This week, Zhang was awarded "the People's Hero," a national honorary title, for his extraordinary contributions in the fight against COVID-19.

"I never thought about being a hero. Everyone has made sacrifices and contributions (in this battle). I'm just one of them," he told Xinhua.

A RACE AGAINST DEATH

Zhang took his first vacation of the year with his family this week. The current mood of tranquility and happiness stood in stark contrast to what it was like eight months ago.

Dec. 29, 2019, was a foggy day in Wuhan, a megacity in central China's Hubei Province. The first batch of patients with pneumonia of unknown cause were transferred to Zhang's hospital. He immediately had a separate area set up to handle them.

Zhang remained on high alert. However, the situation was even worse than he imagined. On the second day, he decided to allocate more medical resources, and collected the patients' bronchoalveolar lavage fluid samples for tests, which laid a foundation for future research on the virus.

Jinyintan, a once little-known hospital specializing in infectious diseases, was scented with the odor of disinfectant and an undercurrent of uneasiness. The sound of call bells never stopped.

The sense of urgency made Zhang even more short-tempered than usual. He demanded doctors and nurses answer his questions regarding patients quickly and accurately.

"Otherwise he would scold you without mercy," said Zhang Li, head of a ward in the hospital. "But thanks to his resolute and daring actions, medical staff in our hospital were willing to turn to him whenever they faced challenges because he would always figure out a solution."

On Jan. 23, China locked down Wuhan in an unprecedented effort to curb the spread of the new infectious disease. The city had become the center of a storm sweeping across the nation.

Going to bed at about 1 a.m. and getting up at about 6 a.m. had become Zhang's daily routine. In many cases, he slept no more than two hours before being woken amid a stream of emergency calls.

After working around the clock for 22 days, Zhang received the bad news that his wife Cheng Lin was diagnosed with COVID-19 while working at another hospital in Wuhan.

Only after three days of his wife being hospitalized did Zhang find time to visit her, and he only stayed for half an hour.

"I feel very guilty. Perhaps I'm a good doctor, but not a good husband," Zhang said. "We have been married for 28 years. I was afraid of losing her."

Luckily, his wife recovered.

"For me, ALS is like a sword hanging in the air. I want to make a contribution with what limited time I have left. I try to outrun death, saving time, and indeed more patients," he said.

Recovered coronavirus patient Cheng Lin (2nd R) poses for a group photo with medical staff after donating her plasma at Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital in Wuhan, capital of central China's Hubei Province, Feb. 18, 2020. Cheng, a medical worker and wife of president of Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital Zhang Dingyu, donated her plasma on Tuesday. (Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital/Handout via Xinhua)

A TOUGH MIND AND A TENDER HEART

Born in Wuhan in December 1963, Zhang picked a medical specialty in college due to his mother who suffered from bronchiectasis.

"I saw her coughing up blood. I decided to be a doctor with my father's support," he recalled, adding that his determination was strengthened when he saw how difficult it was for his rural relatives to get a diagnostic test at a Wuhan hospital at that time.

Zhang never talked about his health problem with his colleagues after he was diagnosed with ALS in 2018.

His legs had been gradually rendered powerless. He had to clutch at the handrails as he slowly made his way up and down the stairs. As more and more colleagues noticed his strange way of walking down the stairs, he finally admitted his illness.

"I was very scared when I first knew I had a rare disease," Zhang said. "You love life, but imagine one day being told that you won't live long."

Zhang researched ALS. "I will perhaps live another five to 10 years. Nobody knows. This is why I cherish every minute in particular," he said.

Zhang's illness has touched a nerve with his colleagues. Jia Chunmin, a nurse in the hospital, cannot believe it.

"He actually walks very fast," she said, recalling Zhang once called her to arrive in a new ward in five minutes. Hanging up the phone, Jia ran fast to the ward, only to find Zhang was already there although his office was further away than hers.

"No one can keep up with him in the battle against the new virus," Jia said.

It was not the first time that Zhang has stood on the frontlines over the past 33 years.

In 2008, he led a medical team from Hubei to help victims in southwest China's Sichuan Province after the devastating Wenchuan earthquake. He was also once a member of a Chinese medical team assisting in Algeria. In 2011, he worked in a hospital in Pakistan to help local people.

Zhang admitted the life-and-death battle with COVID-19 was the toughest challenge he has ever faced. "As a doctor, you felt helpless, dejected and tormented when you saw patients die despite every means of treatment," he recalled the early days of the battle.

Now, this hero doctor is struggling with his own disease day and night. Getting up and putting on socks and shoes are all challenges for him.

Cheng Lin said her husband's health has worsened.

"He is too tired. His left leg is no longer able to move normally. Once, it took him 15 minutes to hobble home from the parking lot, which is just over 200 meters away," Cheng said.

Zhang usually places an alpenstock in his car trunk to assist him in walking after an exhausting day at work.

After the vacation, he will go back to work, preparing for the next round of follow-up visits to recovered COVID-19 patients.

While he is still able to move, he would like to move more, working alongside his colleagues or helping his wife wash dishes or throw away trash.

"It's normal that every life has a destination. We should accept it and bravely face the reality," Zhang always tells his family. ■

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