BAISHAN, China – In northeastern China’s small prefecture city of Baishan, a small team of doctors and nurses has spent the past two months living on a rainbow colored train on which they have been returning the gift of sight to hundreds of patients from the surrounding area.
The train is one of four Lifeline Express hospital trains that have been chugging through the remote countryside of China for the past 20 years, with medical staff on board performing free cataract surgeries on 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.
This moving eye hospital with a crew consisting of a train manager, a driver, a cook and a medical team of two ophthalmologists and six nurses traveled from Kashgar in the western Xinjiang province to Baishan in July 2017 and treated more than 600 patients in two months.
Every morning, an ambulance brings about 20 patients from the local hospital to check into the train, where they stay overnight for health checks before their cataract surgeries the next morning.
Patients stay another night for observation and further checks before being discharged.
Most of the patients are over 60 years old and come from poor rural areas, where they cannot afford treatment.
Many of them have to travel great distances just to get to local hospitals, and most would otherwise 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 thanks to the free surgery provided by the Lifeline Express.
She said the treatment and surgeries would have cost between 6,000-8,000 RMB ($915-$1,220) at the local hospital, but she and her husband are both in poor health and could not work.
The couple’s only income was from the country’s social security support allowance of about 400 RMB a month.
“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,” Li said.
According to the World Health Organization, China accounts for about 18 percent of the world’s blind, with around five million people affected.
Cataracts are thought to be the principal cause of blindness in the country, a condition that refers to a clouding of the crystalline lens of the eye, and normally linked to aging.
Last month, the country announced plans to provide free treatment for all cataract patients living in poverty.
Up until 2016, the Lifeline Express visited 28 provinces, 160 stations and restored the eye sight of more than 180,000 patients.