Catching the bug

Updated: 2011-09-09 08:33

By Todd Balazovic (China Daily)

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 Catching the bug

Dr. Richard Saint Cyr considers himself as a "trailing spouse" because he followed his Beijing wife to the capital. Geng Feifei / China Daily

Moving to busy Beijing was what the doctor ordered for this blog-happy medico

Leaving the rolling green hills of California's serene wine country to head to the Far East was a bitter pill for Dr. Richard Saint Cyr to swallow.

The 42-year-old physician of family medicine at United Family Health in Beijing had his ideal job working with impoverished Americans at a clinic nestled among the lush vineyards in the golden state's well-known Sonoma County.

He was fulfilled with his work, loved where he lived and was active in the community. It was his paradise.

So when his Beijing-born spouse asked him to take a leap of faith and move with her back to China's capital half a decade ago, Saint Cyr was hesitant because China was "so far away, not just physically, but mentally as well".

"I was actually quite nervous about coming to China. I was never an expat before. My mindset, I suppose, was definitely not to be an expat," he says.

But matters of the heart prevailed. In 2005 Saint Cyr moved to Beijing, securing a job with the International Medical Center and acquiring the title "trailing spouse", a moniker he light-heartedly embraces.

"It was a hard decision, but I am definitely glad I made it," he says.

While Saint Cyr says he was ready for a challenge, he didn't foresee the difficulty he would face connecting with the community in a bustling city of nearly 20 million people.

It was a disturbing change of pace compared with his close-knit Sonoma community.

"As an expat it's pretty easy to feel disconnected from our communities. We're all here in a city that doesn't speak English as a native language, in a culture most of us are unfamiliar with," he says.

His solution was to create a direct channel to his audience, bringing his medical expertise to Beijing expats through China's rapidly expanding online community.

Combining the skills learned while earning his undergraduate degree in English at Columbia University and his American Board of Family Medicine certification from University of California in Santa Rosa, Saint Cyr took to the web, founding the My Health Beijing blog in 2009. It was China's first and now one of the most popular English language health blogs geared toward expatriates living in Beijing, according to Saint Cyr.

"I wanted to create this connection, this personal connection and have a place for scared expats to go and find reassurance and credible information. But I also wanted to offer the advice to the Chinese audience as well," he says.

He also ventured to tap into the Chinese community by creating an account on the Chinese Twitter-like micro-blogging website Weibo.

Saint Cyr now posts daily, tackling a mix of major health concerns held by expats - air pollution and food safety are amongst his most read posts - as well as the smaller concerns such as whether or not TCM massages prove beneficial for back pain (he says they do) or why bike helmets are such a rare sight in one of the world's cycling hotspots.

The blog, which he writes non-profit in his spare time, now receives more than 8,000 hits a month.

In March the blog attracted thousands during the height of the panicked buying following the Japanese earthquake that saw thousands of Chinese rushing to supermarkets to purchase salt based on the false rumor that consuming large quantities of the iodine containing condiment could help ward off the effects of radiation.

"By far the most popular moment of the website was during the radiation scare. I went into high-gear in Chinese and English to explain to people the actual truth about what was going on," he says.

Saint Cyr immediately wrote a bold headlined blog post titled "Don't eat table salt for radiation protection, It can kill you" warning not only does salt have no effect on blocking radiation, but consuming too much salt can be fatal.

Many Chinese were panic stricken by prevailing winds bringing fallout from the disaster zone, and rushed to buy extra supplies of salt believing it would keep them safe against radiation.

"Hundreds of Chinese people were emailing me back saying 'thank you for doing that', because there were people dying from consuming salt and there was an air of uncertainty of whether or not it could help," he says.

The blog's popularity attracted his employer's attention, who reacted to the doctor's boosted presence in the Beijing social-sphere by offering him a position as a director of marketing for United Family Hospitals.

His goal now, in addition to earning a distance learning master's degree in Public Health from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, is to help teach doctors throughout China how to cross the barrier into the social media. "We hope to get doctors across China involved in this kind of work," he says.

While many medical professionals are skeptical about engaging in social media fearing it may detract from the number of patients they would see in person, Saint Cyr dismisses any criticisms as unfounded.

"If anything, I've proven that free advice is good business. Clearly there's been a lot of new patients showing up to the hospital because of the website. Indirectly it's been very good business," he says.

"That's why I was given the new position. The hospital realized that good health care information could be really good for the community. It's a win-win for everybody."

Saint Cyr says it's a career-twist he never would have experienced were he still living in the US.

"In terms of personal growth it's been amazing. My career options are far greater now than before. There's still kind of a 'Wild West' mentality in China where new things are discovered daily. I've been able to things here that I would never be able to back home," he says.

And, while the concrete confines of China's capital may be far flung from the green pastures of California's wine county, Saint Cyr said he'd find it hard going back to his old life.

"If I was in America still I would probably be at the same clinic, I would probably be working at the same hospital just slowly climbing the salary scale," he said.

"I guess I could say I'm convinced now - I've got the expat bug."

(China Daily 09/09/2011 page21)