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China Lifeline Express

Photographer: How Hwee Young


In the small prefecture city of Baishan in Jilin province of northeastern China, a small team of doctors and nurses living on a rainbow colored train is literally returning the gift of sight to hundreds of patients from the surrounding region.


It is one of four hospital trains called the Lifeline Express that have been chugging through the remote countryside of China for the past twenty years to perform free cataract surgeries for thousands of patients from poverty stricken areas. Inspired by a similar project in India, the non-profit organization started in Hong Kong and has since become part of a national health care program with ophthalmologists and medical staff from major hospitals in Beijing and other cities volunteering.


The moving eye hospital with a crew consisting of a train manager, a driver, a cook and medical team of two ophthalmologists and six nurses, traveled from Kashgar, Xinjiang to Baishan in July 2017 and treated more than 600 patients two months.


Every morning, an ambulance brings about 20 patients from the local hospital to check into the train where they will stay overnight for health checks before their cataract surgeries the next morning. The patients will then stay another night for observation and further checks before being discharged the next day.


Most of the patients are elderly people aged 60 and above from poor and rural parts of the region where they could not afford treatments. Many of them have to travel great distances just to get to the local hospitals, and most would avoid treatment until they lose almost all sight.


One such patient is 73-year-old farmer Li Zhenrong who has been suffering from cataracts for the past seven to eight years and regained her sight due to the free surgery provided by Lifeline Express. She says the treatment and surgeries would have cost 6,000 to 8,000 RMB (767 to 1,023 euros) at the local hospital but both her and her husband are in poor health and could not work. Their only income was from the country’s social security support allowance, known as ‘dibao’ of about 400 RMB (51 euros) a month. Li Zhenrong said, ‘The cost of the operation is very high for me and I am very grateful for the free surgery. The doctors and nurses on the train treat us very well.’


According to the World Health Organization (WHO), China accounts for about 18 percent of the world's blind, the largest number of blind people in the world at around five million. Cataracts is thought to be the principal cause of blindness in China, a condition that refers to a clouding of the crystalline lens of the eye and is normally linked to aging. The country has announced in August 2017 plans to provide free treatment for all cataract patients living in poverty.


Up until 2016, the Lifeline Express has visited 28 provinces, 160 stations and restored the eye sight of more than 180,000 patients in total.