Profile: Zhang Dingyu, hero doctor fighting ALS and coronavirus

Source: Xinhua| 2020-09-08 15:34:52|Editor: huaxia


Zhang Dingyu, recipient of the "People's Hero" national honorary title, arrives at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, Sept. 8, 2020. China started a meeting Tuesday morning in Beijing to commend role models in the country's fight against the COVID-19 epidemic. (Xinhua/Yin Bogu)

WUHAN, Sept. 8 (Xinhua) -- Perhaps no hero is coming to save Zhang Dingyu, a 56-year-old doctor with an incurable disease. But over the past months, he has been a hero to many in Wuhan, the former epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak in China.

Heading Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital, one of the major battlefields amid the epidemic, Zhang knows his clock is ticking. Having amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), he will progressively lose muscle strength, and eventually become paralyzed and unable to speak, move, swallow, or even breathe.

But the ALS sufferer and his colleagues have treated and saved more than 2,800 COVID-19 patients, many of whom were severely and critically ill.

On Tuesday, Zhang became one of the recipients of the national honorary title, "the People's Hero," for his outstanding contributions to the country's fight against the COVID-19 epidemic. At a meeting held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping presented medals to him and other awardees.

"I never thought about being a hero. Everyone has made sacrifices and contributions (in this battle). I'm just one of them," he said.


Dec. 29, 2019, was a foggy day in Wuhan, a megacity in central China's Hubei Province. The first batch of patients with pneumonia of unknown cause were transferred to Zhang's hospital. He immediately had a separate area set up to handle them.

Zhang remained on high alert. However, the situation was even worse than he imagined. On the second day, he decided to allocate more medical resources and collected the patients' bronchoalveolar lavage fluid samples for tests, which laid a foundation for future research on the virus.

Jinyintan, a once little-known hospital specializing in infectious diseases, was scented with the odor of disinfectant and an undercurrent of uneasiness. The sound of call bells never stopped.

The sense of urgency made Zhang even more short-tempered than usual. He demanded doctors and nurses answer his questions regarding patients quickly and accurately.

"Otherwise he would scold you without mercy," said Zhang Li, head of a ward in the hospital. "But thanks to his resolute and daring actions, medical staff in our hospital were willing to turn to him whenever they faced challenges because he would always figure out a solution."

On Jan. 23, China locked down Wuhan in an unprecedented effort to curb the spread of the new infectious disease. The city become the center of a storm sweeping across the nation.

Going to bed at about 1 a.m. and getting up at about 6 a.m. had become Zhang's daily routine. In many cases, he slept no more than two hours before being woken up by a stream of emergency calls.

After working around the clock for 22 days, Zhang received the bad news that his wife Cheng Lin was diagnosed with COVID-19 while working at another hospital in Wuhan.

Zhang did not find time to visit her until three days after she was hospitalized, and he only stayed for half an hour.

"I feel very guilty. Perhaps I'm a good doctor, but not a good husband," Zhang said. "We have been married for 28 years. I was afraid of losing her."

Luckily, his wife recovered.

"For me, ALS is like a sword hanging in the air. I want to make a contribution with the limited time I have been left. I try to outrun death, save time, and save more patients," he said.


Born in Wuhan in December 1963, Zhang picked a medical specialty in college because his mother had suffered from bronchiectasis.

"I saw her cough up blood. I decided to be a doctor with my father's support," he recalled, adding that his determination was strengthened when he saw how difficult it was for his rural relatives to get a diagnostic test at a Wuhan hospital at that time.

Zhang never talked about his health problem with his colleagues after he was diagnosed with ALS in 2018.

His legs had been gradually rendered powerless. He had to clutch at the handrails as he slowly made his way up and down the stairs. As more and more colleagues noticed his strange way of walking down the stairs, he finally admitted his illness.

"I was very scared when I first knew I had a rare disease," Zhang said. "You love life, but imagine one day being told that you won't live long."

Zhang researched ALS. "I will perhaps live another five to 10 years. Nobody knows. This is why I cherish every minute in particular," he said.

Zhang's illness has touched a nerve with his colleagues. Jia Chunmin, a nurse in the hospital, cannot believe it.

"He actually walks very fast," she said, recalling Zhang once called her to arrive in a new ward in five minutes. Hanging up the phone, Jia ran fast to the ward, only to find Zhang was already there although his office was further away than hers.

"No one can keep up with him in the battle against the new virus," Jia said.

It was not the first time that Zhang has stood on the frontlines over the past 33 years.

In 2008, he led a medical team from Hubei to help victims in southwest China's Sichuan Province after the devastating Wenchuan earthquake. He was also once a member of a Chinese medical team assisting in Algeria. In 2011, he worked in a hospital in Pakistan to help local people.

Zhang admitted the life-and-death battle with COVID-19 was the toughest challenge he has ever faced. "As a doctor, you felt helpless, dejected and tormented when you saw patients die despite every means of treatment," he recalled the early days of the battle.

Now, this hero doctor is struggling with his own disease day and night. Getting up and putting on socks and shoes are all challenges for him.

Cheng Lin said her husband's health has worsened.

"He is too tired. His left leg is no longer able to move normally. Once, it took him 15 minutes to hobble home from the parking lot, which is just over 200 meters away," Cheng said.

Zhang usually places an alpenstock in his car trunk to assist him in walking after an exhausting day at work.

While he is still able to move, he would like to move more, working alongside his colleagues or helping his wife wash dishes or throw away trash.

"It's normal that every life has a destination. We should accept it and bravely face the reality," Zhang always tells his family. Enditem