This photo taken on Aug. 13, 2023 shows the mobile eye hospital "Health Express" in motion. (Xinhua)
Since the inception of Health Express 26 years ago, professionals from Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland have brought light and hope to cataract patients in 28 provincial-level regions of China and five BRI countries.
HONG KONG, Aug. 14 (Xinhua) -- In a train adorned with vibrant rainbow colors, a remarkable sight unfolds. This train, consisting of four cars -- a surgical car, a ward car, a power car, and a camp car -- houses advanced ophthalmic medical equipment. It travels through impoverished regions in China's mainland, providing free cataract surgeries to those in need.
On board, a team of exceptional eye care professionals from both Hong Kong and the mainland take turns delivering their services. This extraordinary train is known as the "Health Express," a mobile eye hospital that has been operating for 26 years.
Since its inception, Health Express has grown from a single train to a fleet of four, expanding from the train itself to outreach programs on the ground. Its impact has transcended national borders, extending its services to 28 provincial-level regions in the Chinese mainland and five countries along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), bringing light and hope to over 230,000 cataract patients.
It is conceived as a gift from Hong Kong to the mainland during the historic moment of Hong Kong's return to the motherland in 1997.
"As the eve of Hong Kong's return approached, regions across the country were preparing gifts to commemorate the occasion. At that time, I was serving on the Preparatory Committee of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and I felt that Hong Kong should also give back to our mainland compatriots," said Nellie Fong, the founding chairperson of the Health Express.
Founding chairperson of "Health Express" Nellie Fong during a interview with Xinhua on Aug. 13, 2023. (Xinhua/Tan Jiaming)
Thus, on July 1, 1997, the inaugural Health Express train departed from Hong Kong, embarking on a journey to remote areas of the Chinese mainland, illuminating the path to a brighter future.
Restoring sight to one person goes beyond helping the individual, as it can transform the destiny of an entire family. "If a single surgery can achieve this, why not?" said Fong, who learned of the prevalence of cataract-induced blindness in Chinese rural areas.
Over the past 26 years, the Health Express has traveled through 28 provincial-level regions of China, making stops at 206 stations.
Every year, Health Express visits three remote regions, spending three months at each station to perform approximately 1,000 cataract surgeries. With each new journey, a fresh team of eye care professionals boards the train to continue providing their invaluable services.
"Being a doctor on the Health Express may not involve matters of life and death, but it can create a lasting source of love," said Ho Chun-ho, a Hong Kong ophthalmologist who has participated in the Health Express mission seven times.
Hong Kong ophthalmologist Ho Chun-ho organizes medical devices on Aug. 2. (Xinhua/Tan Jiaming)
In 2017, Ho arrived in East China's Shandong with Health Express and screened five children with pediatric cataracts. These children ranged from seven to eight years old and some were as young as one-year-old. Their visual function was severely affected, and their congenital cataracts made them sensitive, timid, and introverted.
After the surgery, they finally gained normal vision and could learn and grow like other children their age.
Some children with congenital cataracts have lived in darkness since childhood. In the moments after the stitches are removed from their surgery, they often don't react with the same joyous excitement as adults who regain their sight.
Instead, they cry uncontrollably, as they are seeing a world they have never seen before.
"The long journey of these children's lives has just begun, and we cannot let poverty ruin their entire lives," Ho said.
"I first participated in the Health Express project in 2009, and we went to Lanzhou, Gansu at that time. Due to shortages of certain medications and equipment, some complex fundus surgeries could not be performed locally," Ho recalled. "Many patients also lacked awareness of eye care, and by the time they sought treatment, they were on the brink of blindness."
In 2019, when he returned to Lanzhou with the Health Express, he discovered that the region was undergoing significant changes, with various state-of-the-art medical equipment already in use in local hospitals.
"At Lanzhou University Second Hospital, where we went, they use the same cutting-edge instruments as those in Hong Kong, and the supply of medications is comprehensive. They even have domestically developed drugs," he said.
Nowadays, mainland doctors have high qualifications and strong abilities. Most of them are knowledgeable about the latest international trends in ophthalmology, said Ho, deeply impressed by the rapid advancement of medical standards in the Chinese mainland.
From northwest China's Lanzhou to Zhanjiang in China's Guangdong, Ho has traveled to more and more places of the motherland with the Health Express. Like everyone on the train, he hopes to bring light to more distant places in need.
Ophthalmologists conduct surgery on patient on "Health Express." (Xinhua)
In 2016, Health Express embarked on a trip themed "Belt and Road International Brightness Journey," taking medical teams, equipment, and technology beyond the borders, visiting countries along the BRI, and providing charitable medical services to local people.
Up to now, the "Belt and Road International Brightness Journey" medical team of Health Express has visited five countries, including Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam, performing sight-restoring surgeries for nearly 2,500 local people. The patients range from the elderly, youth, and children, to newborn babies.
"Every time I see the radiant smile on the faces of patients after they regain their sight and hear words of gratitude spoken in different languages, it is my happiest moment," said Fong. "The initiative is marked by improving people's livelihoods, and I hope the Health Express can sow the seeds of light in more countries along the Belt and Road." ■