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FEATURE: Doctor lives life of service

2012/06/07 11:36:35

By Christie Chen, CNA Staff Reporter

Serving others is not a virtue that needs to be praised, but an instinct that already exists in each one of us, said Chen Wei-shone, a doctor, professor and humanitarian.

For eight years now, Chen's team of doctors and students have traveled to rural areas around the world to provide free medical screenings, eye, skin and dental care, as well as education and community services to the needy.

But the associate dean of the School of Medicine at National Yang-Ming University told CNA he's only "doing what needs to be done."

In 2004, Chen and William Hsiao, an economics professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, visited southwestern China's Guizhou and Shaanxi provinces to carry out a health insurance pilot project in the rural areas.

Surprised by the lack of medical resources there, Chen returned to a village in Shaanxi the following year with a few of his students to offer free medical help for local residents.

Since then, his team has offered medical services and health education for thousands in the rural areas of Nepal, India, Malawi, China, the Philippines and Taiwan.

They have also helped villagers establish health centers and train local teachers and senior students to serve as "little helpers" to handle common problems such as cuts and burns.

Chen, 54, said after his medical team began its regular services abroad, he thought: "Why can't we incorporate such an important activity like this, an activity that could have a deep impact on a person's life, into the school curriculum?"

Under his efforts, beginning 2007, sixth year medical students in the university can choose to do a one-month internship in a rural area in Taiwan or abroad and earn four credits upon completion.

Last year, around 60 students participated in the internship program, said Chen. 120 more students in other grade levels participated in the summer volunteer services.

One of the students, Wang Ching-yu, who assisted with medical services in a Buddhist institute in northern India's Ladakh, recalled an elderly woman, who suffered from serious eye disease, telling him that she had walked four hours to get to the free clinic and that it was the first time she had ever seen a doctor in her life.

He said the trust from the patients was also exemplified by women of all ages who came to the clinic and unreservedly lifted up their shirts when seeing the doctors, despite their conservative culture.

"I learned that by sharing what we have with those that need it, our lives become more meaningful," said the 20-year-old.

It's hard to "teach" the students to "love without borders," but on missions like these, students learn that naturally, said the professor.

He said for example, his team was one of the only overseas medical teams in Ladakh in 2010 when the region witnessed a flood that killed hundreds of people.

After his team set up a temporary medical station with tents made out of parachutes and Red Cross emblems cut out from the students' red T-shirts, medical staff in Ladakh from France, Britain, Switzerland, Spain and other countries came over to help, carrying with them bags of pills collected from tourists in the region, he said.

"By the time we left, we had more medicine than when we first arrived," said Chen, adding that he believes the experience taught the students more than what they could have learned in the classroom.

Having served in many countries, Chen said he often asks himself: "What can I do for Taiwan?"

The question led him on several visits to rural areas in eastern Taiwan in 2010. There, he said, he learned that education is the way to truly make a difference.

Under his efforts, this year Yang-Ming University signed a 10-year contract with Saint Mary's Medicine, Nursing and Management College in Yilan County to send 40 students each year from disadvantaged families in eastern Taiwan to study nursing in the college.

The program, which Chen said was funded by an entrepreneur who did not want to be named, will cover up to five years of school tuition and living allowance for the students.

The only requirements are that their grades meet the minimum standard and that they contribute 5 percent of their salary when they begin work for the number of years they receive the funding, to help continue the program.

For his next step, Chen said he hopes to cooperate with technical schools in Taiwan to help students who are interested in other professions, such as culinary arts, be able to develop a professional skill.

"This is the way to truly make a difference," he said.