Professor Zhao

We met Prof. Zhao outside the surgical room of Clinical Science Intervention and Technology Department, NF Hospital. He was walking a man out of the surgical room, his right arm rested on the man’s shoulder, his head tilted toward him, as if he was reassuring him something. A man in his late forties or early fifties, dark skin, fast talking and a little too loud, Prof. Zhao didn’t seem to fit in the stereotypical image of a doctor with a professor’s title. He looked like one of those peasant-raised, hardworking men who successfully climbed a few rungs up the social ladder, but still kept some of the disposition and habits from his parents’ social class, which was quite common for people his age in China. As he talked, my 84-year-old father, my brother and I waited anxiously to introduce ourselves to him as Wu’s relatives.

Wu, a small town mayor in east Guangdong Province, recommended Prof. Zhao to my sister when he heard my father might have the same disease as his father, lung cancer.  This mayor, who was grateful to my sister for helping his son as an educator and consultant, told my sister, “Professor Zhao and I are good friends. He cured my father’s disease. Tell him you are my relatives.”

We didn’t really believe that our father had lung cancer. He was misdiagnosed with lung cancer in 1990, which turned out to be Pneumonia. But we still worried about the shadow in his lung and decided it was better to have another test in a bigger hospital, a bigger city. Just in case. In China, it is common belief that if you don’t want to be screwed by the hospital, you’d better know someone in the hospital. We were grateful we could introduce ourselves to Prof. Zhao as Wu’s relatives.

My brother and I collected all my father’s test results and took our father to NF hospital located in northeast Guangzhou, where Prof Zhao worked in its Clinical Science Intervention and Technology Department, a department I, a layman who rarely goes to the hospital, never heard of before. I was desperate for his attention because I was eager to be told by a doctor, an expert that my father was just fine. But he would not stop talking. Finally I gathered enough courage to take a chance when he seemed to be finished with his talk and greeted him, “How do you do, Professor Zhao? we are Wu’s relatives.”

He turned to me and smiled, “Oh, here you are. Wu told me about you. Can you wait? I’ll be right back.”And off he went with the man. Half an hour later, which felt like ages long, he returned and gestured us to follow him into his office next to the surgical room. He asked my father a few questions:“Do you cough? Do you have phlegm? When did you first feel the pain in the chest? How long did it last? Do you still feel the pain? Do you smoke?”Then he took out my father’s X-ray plates and CT plates taken from the past five years, quickly went through them, took a second look at the CT plate taken in November, 2014, and said, “It is clear. That’s it. Very clear.”

Then he turned to my father, “no worry. Not a big deal. I just cured a man your age, same problem. No need to do regular surgery considering your age. A micro surgery should do it.”

I was at a loss. So was my brother. We looked at each, both confused, neither daring to ask questions, fearing the questions would lead to the word “cancer”, which would scare the hell out of our father. It already scared the hell out of me when Prof said “it is clear. That’s it.”

I couldn’t help it and turned to Prof. Zhao, my eyes fixed upon his, hoping he could grant me at least some hint, if not a reasonable and reassuring explanation. Yet all he said was “Get ready to be admitted in the hospital. I will book a bed for your father. There should one available either Wednesday or Thursday. Just get ready.”

I was frightened. So it was serious and my dad had to be in hospital? Cancer? Really?“How long will he have to be in hospital?” I asked Prof. Zhao, trying to guess how serious the problem was by the necessary length of his stay in hospital.

“A week or two probably,”He said as he picked up the phone and talked into the receiver, “Chen, I have a patient here with lung…I will send him over, give him some …” He talked so fast and so unclearly that I couldn’t catch what he said, particularly when it came to the critical part. But I was afraid he would tell me my father had cancer if I asked him for the name of the disease. So I held back my questions, tortured by my premonition, but pretending to look cheerful so my father wouldn’t worry.  Prof. Zhao put down the phone and instructed us to go to Doctor Chen, whom he just talked to. “Go to the clinic building, second floor, Depart of Intervention. He will give you some pills. And wait for my call about the hospital bed.”

As instructed, we went to Doctor Chen, a small man in his twenties, probably still an intern. He had my father sit down, turned to me and my brother, “what disease did Prof. Zhao say it is?” I was as shocked by his question as I was confused. I murmured, “We didn’t quite catch the name he said, but it is his lung.” Doctor Chen nodded, turned to my father, repeated the same questions Prof. Zhao just asked my father, then wrote his prescription. While he did that, my worry grew and burned my heart like fires. I found an excuse and returned to Prof. Zhao’s office. He was not there any more. I went back to my father, feeling like hell. So I texted Zhao, “Prof. Zhao, sorry to say I am quite confused. Didn’t ask you about your diagnosis just now in case it would worry my dad. Can you tell me exactly what it is?” He texted me back, “Come back to my office.”I found another excuse and ran to his office.

“Clearly it is cancer. There is no doubt.” He said, “But no worry. I told you I just cured a patient your father’s age, and exactly the same disease. Some patients live ten, even twenty years after proper treatments. He is so old, I don’t recommend a regular surgery. A micro one would be good. It takes one or two weeks. But it is cancer, sure it is.”

Cancer!  But the CT plate he saw was dated November, 2014, a year ago and he didn’t really look at the most recent X-ray plate. If it is cancer, how come my father doesn’t feel any pain except for two days?  He is very active. He eats healthy and more than I do. He is always in good spirit. He keeps great habits. If you look at my father, you wouldn’t believe he is sick with cancer…But the word cancer was burning me like fires. I let the flames devour me. I was losing my senses and ability to reason.  All those questions I had slipped out of my brains. So cancer…Really? I dragged my  feet out of his office, stopped at the department gate, buried my face in my hands, but soon lifted my head up so my tears rolled back into my eyes. I took several deep breaths, wiped my tears, told myself to smile – unsuccessfully, pretended nothing was serious, and went back to my father and my brother, who were waiting for me at the information desk.

Two days later, we got a call from the hospital, telling us that one bed would be ready the next day, which was a Thursday, as was promised by Prof. Zhao. I was very grateful we didn’t have to wait longer. We couldn’t afford the time to wait if it was really cancer.

Prof. Zhao seemed very busy. We hardly saw him in the hospital even though he was my father’s doctor. A younger doctor in his thirties was assigned as my father’s secondary doctor. He arranged some tests for my father. But for a whole week, only a few tests were done, plus daily injection of two big bottles of sodium chloride. In my father’s room, all patients, regardless of their diseases, were given at least one bottle of  sodium chloride injection. It is believed by most people that it is just a kind of income source for the hospital.  My father joked every day, “Again, they inject expensive salt water into my body!”Other than that, nothing. We asked the secondary doctor, we asked the nurses, anyone we could grab to ask. What next? When and how can Prof. Zhao’s diagnosis be confirmed? When can we have a treatment plan for the patient? Nobody gave us any answers. We waited anxiously, worriedly, painfully and fearfully.

Finally, Prof. Zhao called my sister who lives in Huizhou, a town more about two hours away, instead of me or my brother who were right at the hospital taking care of our father in Guangzhou. He told my sister the new CT test found a shadow in my father’s left lung. It was a new shock to us. The old CT plates Prof. Zhao saw ten days ago only showed the old shadow in his right lung, which was the cause of the misdiagnosis in 1990. He said a flexible fiber scope test should be arranged. We agreed. It took four days for professor Zhao to tell my sister in Huizhou (again, instead of me or my brother right at the hospital) that the test was not successful and a biopsy test should be arranged. Since  weekend was approaching, the test was to be done the next week.  So we continued to wait anxiously, worriedly, painfully and fearfully.

Prof. Zhao also told my sister on the phone that it was important we had the most skillful doctor to do the biopsy test, particularly for someone my father’s age. He said he could recommend someone we could trust. My sister sensed something not quite right and came to Guangzhou to meet this Prof. Zhao, who she had never met, who was said to be her client-friend’s good friend, who seemed quite friendly when we first approached him, but distant and hard to find once my father got in hospital, who somehow only wanted to talk to my sister on the phone who he had never met instead of me or my brother who were right at his work place.  When my sister found him, Prof. Zhao emphasized again the importance of having a skillful doctor to do the biopsy test. Then he added, “you know what you should do, right?”

Though an unexperienced briber, my sister immediately understood “lucky money” was expected. If Prof. Zhao suggested lucky money for the skillful biopsy test doctor, wouldn’t he expect the same thing for himself? Wasn’t this obvious?

My sister gave 1000 RMB to the doctor who was to do the biopsy test for my dad, without telling me. When I found out, I was furious, “how can you trust a doctor who cared more about money than his patients? How can you trust someone without professionalism!” My sister retorted, “This is China! Everybody gives lucky money to their doctors! If we had done this earlier, a treatment plan could have been ready by now! We wouldn’t have waited desperately like this!”

I was speechless. She was probably right. We are in China! But then, I simply couldn’t trust doctors who cared more about money than their patients. I felt scared that my father was at the hands of such doctors. And what about the anti-tiger, anti-fly campaign? No use at all? Really just a tool to shuffle political cards?  I started calling friends who had experiences with hospitals in Guangzhou. All told me that they didn’t have to bribe their doctors in the past two years, though they did say it was necessary you be connected to someone in the hospital one way or another. I started to consider finding a better doctor for my father, but hesitant. It could be a risk to transfer to another hospital. More time to wait. We couldn’t afford to lose more time.

The clock ticked. Another week was slipping into weekend, but the biopsy test results were still not known. They were to confirm whether my father really had cancer or not. Prof. Zhao  was nowhere to be found as usual. I went to the secondary doctor. He told me the results should be ready next Monday and would show in their computer system. So we waited anxiously, worriedly, painfully and fearfully.

Meanwhile, my sister was looking for opportunities to give Prof. Zhao some lucky money. But she was so inexperienced that each time she found him, he was either with patients or with his grad students, or simply at a public or semi-public place with no privacy – no opportunity to present to him our lucky money. Desperate, she called Wu, the small town mayor. Wu told her he had bribed Prof Zhao many times. 1000 RMB for each treatment session, plus all kinds of local products from time to time, particularly Hakka rice wine. He often had his driver send the gifts to Prof. Zhao. He told my sister that key was do it at the parking lot, where few people lingered. I was shocked when I heard about it. The mayor’s friendship with Prof. Zhao was conditioned by money and gifts, and money and gifts only!

By the time my sister learned Wu’s secret,  Prof. Zhao seemed to have lost patience with her and stopped expecting anything from her. (Now you should understand why he only contacted my sister instead of me or my brother. My sister was the one who knew Wu, his old briber! )  Another week began. Monday, no results for the biopsy tests. Tuesday, some, not all of the results came out. Wednesday, cancer confirmed.  Thursday, Prof. Zhao called my sister  and proposed a treatment plan that was obviously way too radical for a 84-year-old man, completely different from what he said when we first approached him. His attitude was very stiff, too. He insisted on regular radiation therapy, which would harm normal cells while destroying cancer cells, and whose side effects might do more harm to my father’s health than cure his cancer. I witnessed how my good friend Tao suffered last year while doing chemotherapy and radiation therapy then died in extreme pain in the end. I wouldn’t want my father to suffer like that. No, never.

I started to do researches on lung cancer treatments. I read tons of articles by patients, families of patients, medical professionals and researchers from China, USA, UK, Canada and Australia. I surfed through the websites of cancer research institutes. I reviewed  an interview on cancer I did with David Agus, Steve Job’s doctor. My researches pointed me to Chinese medicine and gamma knife treatment. I read more about gamma knife treatment, then called a friend, Jenny, who happens to have worked for the only gamma knife treatment center in Guangzhou years ago as a senior administrative officer and is still well connected there. She said she could refer me to a Doctor Deng, head of the Gamma Knife Center n Guangzhou, an expert trained in Switzerland and well recognized in China.

I shared the information I got with my siblings and told them how I thought: “We can’t put our father to the hands of a doctor who lack professionalism and conscience; Regular radiation therapy is too much for a 84-year-old man; We could consider gamma knife treatment, which has limited side effects, and causes almost zero pain for most patients; we could ask Jenny to connect us to Doctor Deng. ”

We agreed to transfer my father to the hospital with a Gamma Knife Center, the only one in Guangzhou. Before we made the final decision, my sister went to Prof. Zhao again and asked if there were any alternatives to radiation therapy. Prof. Zhao said no. My sister asked him, “how about gamma knife?” He replied, “too outdated.”He later wrote in his diagnosis that the patient’s family insisted getting the patient out of hospital despite his earnest advice for immediate treatment, suggesting that we didn’t care about our father.

We arranged a PET-CT test for our father to make sure cancer cells hadn’t transferred to the other parts of the body while consulting Doctor Deng, who soon arranged gamma treatments for my father after all test results were ready and diagnosis was further confirmed. As I personally don’t know Doctor Deng, I asked Jenny how I should thank him, meaning “do I need to give him lucky money?” Jenny laughed, “No worry. But if you really want to express gratitude, why don’t you buy some fruits for the whole department? The Gamma Knife Center staff is pretty small. You shouldn’t spend too much money.” I felt relieved. Not because I could save the lucky money, but  because I knew I could trust Doctor Deng with my father’s life.

We didn’t have to wait at all for the gamma treatment. Hardly had we had time to register for the bed Doctor Deng arranged for my father when I got a call from his assistant, telling us that a positioning test was already arranged. They were kind enough to let my father do the test while the registration was being processed. Three hours later, I was called again and informed of a treatment plan based on all the tests results, which was ten gamma treatment sessions, twenty minutes per session per day. We agreed on the plan. And the first treatment was done right after I signed the agreements!

The treatment was painless. My father didn’t suffer physically at all. I requested the daily treatment be finished in the morning and so I could take him out of the hospital to tour the city in the afternoon if weather permitted.

My father finished his last gamma treatment on Dec. 8, 2015 and is now happily home. After I sent him home, I got a message from Doctor Deng, “Ask you father to stay warm, NOT to catch a cold!!! And avoid big crowds.”His message almost moved me to tears. No wonder my father once commented, “Doctor Deng to Prof. Zhao is heaven to hell.”

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