Having worked in both African war zones and some of the West’s most prestigious children’s hospitals, Dr. Wei Cheng has had one of the most varied medical careers imaginable. As he returns to his native Beijing after 40 years to take on a new position at Beijing United Family Hospital (BJU), beijingkids spoke with Dr. Cheng about China’s health challenges, advances in pediatric medicine, and the experiences in Angola that inspired his 2005 book No One Can Stop the Rain.
BJK: What is that has brought you to practice here in Beijing?
WC: China is undergoing rapid change. The trajectory of its growth means vast opportunities. China started somewhere a bit better than the war zones I’ve been in, but there is quite some distance before closing in on some of the institutions I’ve worked in the West. I can make more difference here in China, capitalizing on some of my previous experience, rather than in the West where there are many well-educated talents.
Another personal or emotional reason is that I was born and brought up here, in Beijing. After leaving at the age of 15 years, I feel time is right to return to the place of my birth, 40 years later. Some things remain permanent, such the historical buildings, whereas most of the city has changed beyond recognition. I feel most comfortable getting lost in the street chaos, surrounded by the nostalgic Beijing twangs.
What do you think are the greatest long-term public health challenges facing children in China?
Children in big cities in are facing similar pressure to succeed academically as in other big Asian cities such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul and so on. I do worry that children do not have enough time to exercise. This inactive lifestyle may lead to many unwanted illness of development, obesity, coronary heart disease and diabetes. On top of that, the children seem to have little room to develop their own interests or passions. A country like China, [which is so]desperate to inculcate innovation, needs to guarantee some space for creativity. A childhood without any spare time to let the imagination roam is in danger of forever copying others’ advances.
Are there any particular ailments or conditions that you see more frequently amongst children in China than in elsewhere and if so, why?
I work, half a day a week, pro bono, at Capital Institute of Pediatrics where we see many children with choledocal cysts [a congenital condition involving cystic dilatation of bile ducts]. This condition is more common amongst Asians, probably due to our genetic makeup. The center is leading [the world]in laparoscopic operations [or "keyhole surgery"]for this condition. The team is lead by Prof. Li with whom I have had long-term collaboration. We have published 20 papers together in international journals. I also benefit from taking part in large number of laparoscopic surgeries at the center.
Your book No One Can Stop the Rain documents your foreign aid work in the midst of the Angolan civil war – what were the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of working in such a difficult environment?
The most challenging part of the volunteering work is not the actual mission per se, but the decision to come off the career treadmill, being fully aware of the fact that one’s career may have changed forever. Many of my Chinese friends, including my parents, considered giving up a good position and income in a teaching hospital was career suicide. However, the same group of people changed their attitude completely after we returned.
The most rewarding experience is the feeling that one has done something to help those most unfortunate internal refugees, the land mines victims and malnourished children during their darkest hours.
You have been involved in academia as well as medical practice; do you intend to continue researching whilst here?
I still maintain some research activities in Australia. I have kept the role of adjunctive professor of pediatric surgery of Monash University, where I still supervise two PhD students, together with my collaborators in Melbourne. One student is studying the genetics of bladder exstrophy whereas the other is studying necrotising enterocolitis, a condition which affects premature babies. I am a visiting professor at Capital Institute of Pediatrics where I co-supervise a PhD student doing research of genetics of a congenital abnormality, ano-rectal malformation. I am also a visiting professor at Chong Ching Medical University where I co-supervised a PhD student. The Chinese government is injecting increasing amount of resources into research. I do hope to capitalize on that, together with collaborators in Melbourne.
You currently edit the Chinese Journal of Pediatric Surgery and Frontiers of Pediatric Surgery. What do you feel are the most exciting and promising advances in this field?
I have been on the Chinese Journal of Pediatric Surgery for more than a decade. This span of recent history is one of rapid “catching up”. I am very glad to see that, in the area of laparoscopic surgical techniques, China has become a world leader. This is understandable as one needs vast case volume to develop the skill. To be a world leader in basic research, there needs to be a mechanism of equitable remuneration for clinician-scientists or scientists. The former group is of particular importance in my opinion, as they bring the clinical questions into the lab and take the possible solutions from the lab back to the wards. Many of the breakthroughs come from this group. However, it is extremely demanding job. One has to juggle both the patients and the research students, and the labor is not fully appreciated. This applies to both China and the Western world.
Dr. Cheng is a pediatric surgeon and department chair of surgery at BJU. His book No One Can Stop the Rain is available on Tabao.
Images Courtesy of BJU and Dr. Wei Cheng