Ageless mind

Updated: 2012-09-18 10:00

By Lin Qi (China Daily)

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A revered orthopedist comes back from retirement as a resource for his medical colleagues, Lin Qi reports.

Ageless mind

Xu Shaoting, 91, attends a case-analysis meeting at the General Hospital of the People's Liberation Army in Beijing. Kuang Linhua / China Daily

At the age of 91, Xu Shaoting still feels uplifted when he looks through medical records of the sick.

At 8 am every Wednesday, he arrives at the General Hospital of the People's Liberation Army in Beijing, where he had served as an orthopedic doctor for five decades before retiring in 1998, but soon returned as a consulting specialist.

He no longer receives outpatients because of his age, but he examines about 15 case records every week. He listens attentively to other doctors when he attends the case-analysis meetings. From time to time he raises questions in a soft, clear voice.

"Discussing cases with young people brings back memories of those days when I worked untiringly," Xu says.

Xu is a well-known symbol of vigor and diligence in the field of orthopedics. He has made breakthroughs in the treatment of spinal cord injuries and repair of the cauda equine, a bundle of nerves in the spinal column. Two textbooks he edited have become required references for orthopedic and rehabilitation doctors.

Zhang Guangbo, a retired orthopedics doctor at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital and Xu's close friend, says: "He displays the demeanor of a master. He is never later for any meeting and never leaves early. He always sits in the front row and fully engages himself in the discussion."

"He is not an authority who enforces his own views on others. Instead, he is quite nice, and sometimes modest, when talking with young doctors," he says.

What has earned the utmost respect from his patients and colleagues, however, is Xu's devotion to helping people who are ill.

When Yang Xiaoxia entered Xu's consulting room in the winter of 1994, the then-12-year-old village girl from Shandong province suffered a rare disease that caused festering on both of her arms.

"My mom recalls that doctor Xu scolded them for sending me to the hospital only after my condition had severely worsened. He looked as worried about me as my parents did," she says.

Xu didn't know that a lot of hospitals had rejected the girl, because they feared that they would fail to cure her. Xu was the family's last hope.

Yang says she was told later that Xu had not known at first what disease was eating away her arms. The doctor, she says, was only focused on one thing: "to save the life of a little girl."

Xu initiated a medical race with death that gathered more than 60 specialists in Beijing. His call for donations for the Yang family in his department was picked up by the news media. Contributions eventually totaled about 870,000 yuan ($138,000).

After Yang's right forearm was amputated, other doctors suggested removing her festered left hand. That solution would end the spread of infection and help the wounds to heal quickly. But Xu persuaded the medical team to pursue alternative treatments so that Yang's four fingers were preserved.

"A surgeon is not a craftsman," Xu says, insisting that treating the sick requires a humanistic spirit, even if it means higher risk that will benefit the patient in the long term.

Now employed at the China Rehabilitation Research Center in Beijing, Yang provides aids to people who need artificial limbs, being proud and thankful that she can work and not be a burden to her parents.

Xu, meanwhile, stays on top of the latest developments in his field.

"He occupies himself in writing articles and editing for medical publications," says Xu Zhong, the eldest son.

"I think he has a better memory than me."

Xu Shaoting has worked hard to master English, ever since he assisted at an abdominal surgery more than 60 years ago as a senior medical student and intern doctor.

During the operation he was asked by the American chief surgeon: "Where is the foramen of Winslow?" Embarrassed that he couldn't understand the term, he began to teach himself English. He joined an English-reading group after he became a surgical resident at the general hospital in 1947.

In the 1980s he often listened to English learning programs to boost his oral skills. (He has also studied Japanese.) Xu encourages young doctors to translate one English medical document a month, and he volunteers to proofread.

"Chinese orthopedics books account for no more than 10 percent of the world's total," Xu says. "If we doctors do not understand a foreign language, how could we be well-informed of the field's latest development?"

Xu had to give up swimming last year, but he has been dedicated to a variety of exercises since he retired.

"He used to mop the floor at home," his son says. "Although he doesn't go to the gym now, he walks several circles at home instead. He also raises his legs on the bed to maintain his energy."

Xu Zhong says his father also credits his health to a stable life, a good mentality and two special passions: Peking Opera and nurturing orchids.

Last year, Xu donated 100,000 yuan to the hospital to set up a fund for talent training.

"He firmly believes that the good of the sick should always come first. He has been living up to the principle for decades. He is a real doctor," his lifetime friend Zhang says.

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