Decades, American doctor treated over 50,000 people for free in Yunnan

[InKunming--Interviews & Polls]  Douglas Briggs sat and thought in front of the computer for a while, and finally booked a fly ticket from Kunming to Raleigh on May 30th.

Looking out of the window, every home in Shangri-La Yunnan had already put a big red Chinese character “Fu” on the door to greet the upcoming Lunar New Year. The more bustling the city was, the more solitary Douglas felt deep in heart.

Ding! Douglas’ phone screen lit up. A message reminded online booking was successful, which meant time for this 56-year-old American doctor in China started countdown.

“I wanna go to Kunming, and spend the last Spring Festival with my friends!” Douglas decided.

Departing from Shangri-La and driving along Hangrui high speed way, the wind was blowing Douglas’ gray hair and red cheek, while his mind was going back to twenty years ago.

"I dreamt of coming to Kunming"

On August 22nd, 1995, Douglas, who had already been a doctor for 8 years in America, moved to China with his wife and children.

In the first year, he lived in Tianjin province and studied Chinese at Tianjin University of Technology. There is a Hai river going through the city and normally being frozen during chill winter. “It’s too cold in Tianjin. I watched many pictures of Kunming. I know there are a lot of minorities, and each season there seems like spring. It is not exaggerate to say that my dream was to come to Kunming!” Douglas smiled and said.

His dream became true in just half a year -- the Douglas took the flight landing at Kunming Wujiaba International airport on February 3rd, 1996. But the weather in Kunming made a little joke with him. The Spring City had a rare snow at that night.

“Oops!” Douglas said. “I had never thought it would be so cold in Kunming.”

Snow stopped. He took his 2-year-old son, and his wife held the 3-year-old daughter going to Cuihu Park, Yuantong Zoo and Jindian Park. Later, they went to Xishuangbanna where has a warmer subtropical climate.

Douglas met many Yi people and gave them free treatment in Ninglang, Lijiang, in 2006

The first Chinese New Year’s Eve for Douglas in Yunnan just passed plainly with the opusculum from Spring Festival gala playing on the TV.

He made up his mind to move to Kunming after finishing his Chinese class in Tianjin.

That was a clear and cool day. Douglas and his families took a few large suitcases and moved into Baima community on July 16, 1996.

“On my first day in Kunming, my children and I went downstairs to play. An old man with a long beard sat next to me.” Douglas said with his hands. “The old man asked me (in Kunming dialect), ‘where are you from.’ I thought he was asking my sister. I told him that I don’t have a sister, but he asked again.”

“I have no sister!” Douglas said, laughing out of breath.

This old man made Douglas feel the friendliness of people in Kunming. “In other cities, people often look at me. I say Hello to them and they usually look away.” Douglas said frankly. “But in Kunming, people often smile at me and send greeting to me. They are more ‘natural’ and make me feel comfortable.”

"I treated 265 patients once in one day"

In 1998, Douglas sought a classroom in Huaxia Technical Secondary School in Kunming, and began to train village doctors.

Every morning, he would carry a thick stack of body structure diagram, pointing at each joint and explaining them to students. Sometimes, with a prosthetic arm or a walking stick, he showed how to help patient get rehabilitation. Not only taught students knowledge, he also encouraged and helped them in life. They are more like families than friends. There was only one nurse at the school clinic at that time. Douglas offered to go there and treated patients for free. Gradually, a growing number of people were introduced to come there and to see the doctor.

This small clinic became busier than ever. Patients came from different cities in Yunnan, such as Xishuangbanna, Shangri-La, Zhaotong, Ruili, Dali, Nujiang, and so on. Some from other places, like Sichuan and Guizhou, even Vietnam.

Douglas auscultated for a little patient who had heart surgery in Ninglang, Lijiang, in 2006

Once, Douglas and his six students went to Shuangbai county in Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture. Villagers lined up when they heard that there was a foreign doctor coming and helping them. Students were responsible for measuring blood pressure and auscultating the heart, while Douglas was prescribing medicine and treatments. After a busy day, they counted up to 265 patients in one day.

Douglas won the Friendship with Yunnan Award in 2004. During the past 23 years, he has trained more than 400 village doctors, and has also traveled through the villages of Yunnan to provide free medical help for over 50,000 people.

A friend asked, “after seeing so many illness and death, will you become numb?”

Douglas though for a while and answered, “if a man lived in an extreme cold place without wearing gloves, then his skin will become very rough. So as the doctor. I often remind myself to keep a soft heart.”

“When I give a patient treatment, I always consider how will I do if he or she was my relative. I’m supposed to know more about the stories behind patients. For example, are they able to afford their children to go to school? Do their families have genetic disease? If I communicated more with them, I can threat them well.” Douglas added.

On January 13rd, 2001, a woman with a leg amputated slipped and fell on the road next to Huaxia school.

Passers-by took her quickly to Douglas’ clinic. He carefully bandaged the wound and told her to come here and change gauze every day.

The woman wore a same dress for several days. Douglas sympathized with her, and asked his wife to find a large bag of old clothes. He was surprised when he carried the heavy bag of clothes to the place where the woman live. “It looks like a 1930s’ house,” he said.

A dark red brick house was hidden behind a dilapidated factory, and wooden window was pasted by plastic paper. Such a small building only had seven rooms, but eight families. The space was strewn with garbage and rats running around, and there was no enough room to get a foothold.

Looking into the room, the old men were wearing gray long shirts, dark blue trousers and blue headband. Douglas was told that these people were Buyi nationality from Guizhou province. After a brief communication, he decided to help them as much as he could.

Douglas and his Buyi friends in Kunming in 2003

After that, he went to the small brick house to chat with them every day. Children were playing in the room. Even only five years old, they already knew how to pick rubbish and sell it. Douglas sitting on a small wooden bench inquired after everyone’s health.

During the conversation, he found a lot of kids and adults had measles, chicken pox and tuberculosis because they didn’t have inoculation. Douglas didn’t care if he was infected, and patted their shoulder and told them over and over again. “My clinic is in Huaxia school, you must come. I’ll help you for free.”

“They are not my patients, but my friends and families.” Douglas said with steadiness in eyes. “I visit them as I going back to Kunming. I encourage parents to let their children go to school, and I will help them if they couldn't afford the tuition.”

More than ten years later, Douglas still insists on visiting his Buyi friends every year. With his help, they put on new clothes, and some children are able to go to school. Of course, they can go to Douglas’ clinic for free treatment if they were ill. Their living condition becomes better.

Helping the poor has become a habit of Douglas. When working in a private hospital, he often paid for patients relying on subsidization from his friend all over the world.

Douglas treated patients in his office in 2017

Colleagues admire this selfless foreign doctor. “Douglas is a legend,” said Yang Jiankui, a nurse who worked with Douglas once. “He is so good to patients, and sometimes even forgets to eat a lunch. Patients also trust him very much, and some of them often make a call and ask if he is here.”

Lamu is one of the patients of Douglas. After recovering, she went to college and became the first college student in her village. She always remembers to send a greeting message to Douglas every festival. She got married recently, and took her baby to visit Douglas and asked the baby to call him “grandpa”.

In the words of student Pang zhixian, the enthusiasm and friendliness of Douglas are not just saying, but a real showing from his life. He not only gave free medical care to the poor, but also gave them love and companionship. It’s easy to insist one or two years, but it’s not easy to stick with it for so many years.

"We had chicken, fish and mushroom this Spring Festival"

In spare time, Douglas is a shutterbug. For work reasons, he moved to Shangri-La in 2004.

He often went to Meri Snow Mountain to see Kawakarpo peak encountering the first sunlight in the morning. As autumn coming, he walked by Napa Lake and enjoyed the still reflection of white pagoda. Wearing climbing boots, he visited Yubeng village to take photos of magnificent glacier.

When treated patients in remote places, he sat in front of a fire with villagers like a family. The cooked buttered tea rising white smoke like cloud was poured in a bowl with roasted qingke barely flour. He carried the bowl and kneaded the flour into the tea, while also dedicated his love deep into the plateau.

During a decade, Douglas recorded a number of pictures that could tell stories with his love to this land. It is not pale at all to compare these pictures to any exhibition of photography. Villagers wore coarse clothes, and were decorated with the most beautiful red in the swarthy face. Their pure eyes penetrated into lens, forming a lot of impressive photos.

Douglas visited his Pumi friends in Ninglang, Lijiang, in 2008

On January 1st, 2018, Douglas wrote a sentence with a picture of Meri Snow Mountain in his Wechat’s moment. “I’m glad I can have one more New Year in this wonderful place.”

Because of some visa reasons and family reasons, Douglas will move back to American in this May.

He decided to go to Kunming, and celebrated the last Lunar New Year with friends. Within the 23 years in China, he didn’t celebrate the festival in Yunnan, but often went to Thailand for medical seminar. Now it’s time to leave, he could finally have a good Lunar New Year’s Eve dinner in here, his second hometown.

“We had chicken, fish, mushroom, cured beef, fried bean curd and so on.” Douglas was counting.

The table was crowded with people from different places -- Douglas’ friends, colleagues and their parents. He called them FAMILIES because he already regarded Kunming as the second hometown.

The sound of firecrackers outside overrode the songs of the Spring Festival Gala. Everyone in the room drank to celebrate the friendship.

“We have lived in China for 23 years, almost half of our lives are here,” he said. Speaking of leaving Yunnan, Douglas’ tone was full of reluctance. “My children will miss the bus and rice noodles here. They think Kunming is home, and I think so. I will must be homesick when I back to America.”

“I feel so sad to leave here. I will miss my patients, and I will come back every year to visit them.” Repeating over and over again, Douglas took his phone out and looked at each picture of his patients and him.

Douglas has a Chinese name, Ba Yongheng, which means eternity. Just like this name, he is the person who dedicates his love with persistence all the decades. He regards Yunnan as his hometown, and helps a great number people. Yunnan will also miss his, this selfless American doctor.

Click here to view Chinese report.

(Editors: Christine, Tracy)

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