Guarding Southern Heartbeats

"Super-Doctor" Hsu Chao-pin

2019 / May

Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Geof Aberhart

“As a member of the medical profession: I solemnly pledge to dedicate my life to the service of humanity; the health and well-being of my patient will be my first consideration.”—The Declaration of Geneva, 2017

In a remote township in Taiwan there is a doctor who has dedicated his life fully to making the health and well-being of his patients his first consideration. Despite having lost the ability to move his left side after a stroke, he remains as committed to his patients as ever. He is the “super-doctor” of southern Tai­tung County, Hsu Chao-pin.



To refer to him as a “super-doctor” is hardly without cause. In an age when people from southern Taiwan were drifting northward and those from Tai­tung were heading all over for work, Hsu was an exception. After graduating from Tai­pei Medical University, he headed south to work in the emergency room of Tai­nan’s Chi Mei Hospital before choosing to return home to Tai­tung to put his formidable medical skills to use benefiting the people there. Seeing the indigenous communities suffering a lack of healthcare resources, he made the heroic decision to dedicate himself to the protection of the people’s health, rushing around southern Tai­tung at a nearly super­human rate to provide care. In an average week, he would drive almost the circumference of Taiwan, some 1,173 kilometers.

Southern Taitung by numbers

In serving these far-flung communities, Hsu found both time and distance to be very different concepts from in the cities. In Taitung’s four southernmost townships—Tai­mali, Jin­feng, Dawu and Da­ren—what people call “next door” can be on the other side of a mountain. With no public transportation to speak of in the Aboriginal villages, buying groceries can be a NT$500 taxi ride, going to the township office can cost NT$700, and heading into Tai­tung City to see a doctor can be as much as NT$1,500.

The South Link Highway, connecting Ma­lan in Tai­tung City with Feng­gang in Ping­tung, runs for just over 100 km, and outside of Taitung City there is not a single hospital along the way. When Hsu returned to Tai­tung to work in 2002, the population of Da­ren, the county’s southern­most township, was 4,141, with a single doctor serving them—him. Despite paying the same National Health Insur­ance premiums as their compatriots in the cities, these rural resid­ents couldn’t even see a doctor on weekends or at night because there simply wasn’t anyone there to see.

Thanks to Hsu’s hard work, in 2006 a 24-hour emergency station was set up along the South Link Highway in Dawu Township, but even so, he continued spending a super­human 400 hours a month working. Then, at 1 a.m. on September 19, 2006, having spent 80 hours on duty and just after finishing with his last patient at the emergency station, Hsu collapsed. When he regained consciousness, he found he had lost the use of the left side of his body, having had a stroke at just 39 years old.

Bringing it back home

Born in the Pai­wan village of Tjua­bal (Chinese name Tu­ban) in Da­ren Township, Hsu Chao-pin was sent to the city for school by his father when he was ten years old. He only made it back at age 35, but even after all that time, the ties with home were still strong. “My parents gave me my educational environment,” he says, “but it was my grandparents that taught me who I am. My grandmother was a Pai­wan shaman. She told me the old Pai­wan myths, and taught me that we are a wise people and to be proud to be Pai­wan. My grandfather, meanwhile, taught me to be brave, to be humble, and to be kind.”

Handsome, athletic and personable as well as being a skilled medical practitioner, Hsu was always the center of attention, whether at school or at work.

During his five years at Chi Mei Hospital, he became their first ER specialist to practice both internal medicine and general surgery. He was at the top of his game, but rather than settle for a high-paying hospital job in western Taiwan, he chose to go back to his home in the east.

“Honestly, I struggled with the decision for a good six months,” he says. But in the end, he remembered that he “had studied medicine with the intention of coming home.” When he was just seven years old, one of his younger sisters passed away because she couldn’t get to the hospital in time. He swore to the night skies that he would become a doctor, and that in the future no one else in the village would die needlessly on the way to the hospital.

Treating patients like family

When he got back home, Hsu took up work at the Da­ren Township Public Health Center. He soon realized that local people were in urgent need of nighttime and weekend medical services, and began working toward setting up a 24-hour emergency station, as well as extending his own clinic hours into the night and weekends. Being the only doctor serving in Tai­tung’s four southernmost townships, he had to fill the entire roster himself, but confident in his youth, he would work over 400 hours a month. In 2006, he was finally able to get the Dawu 24-hour emergency station up and running, meaning that those in need at night would no longer be left without help.

That same year, though, Hsu suffered his stroke, caused by overwork. While he made it through alive, he was para­lyzed on the left side of his body.

After taking just six months off to recuperate, and despite still being at a psychological low, he returned to work, as dedicated to serving the people of his home as ever. He was nervous and worried about how patients would take to a physically disabled doctor, but he was met with the same trust and confidence as ever, with some people even specifically asking for Hsu to do their surgeries. “I don’t know if it was me being too courageous or them being too fearless,” he remarks with a wry smile. “These patients were the ones who taught me how to be a good doctor; how could I not dedicate myself to repaying that?”

The day Taiwan Panorama met with Hsu was his day off. We accompanied him on a visit to the public elderly daycare center in Tjua­bal, where we watched as he chatted in Pai­wan with an octo­genarian woman, the two laughing and smiling like grandparent and grandchild. From there, we set off to the Culture and Health Station in Ku­va­leng (Xinhua in Chinese). As we arrived, around noon, a crowd of elderly residents were getting ready to head home, but turned their scooters around on hearing that Dr. Hsu was visit­ing. They immediately launched into asking why it had been so long since his last visit, and took photos with him as he struck his trademark cutesy, cocked-head pose, all the while insisting that he promise to come back at least once a month before they left happy.

Watching doctor and patients interacting like family is certainly a touching scene. In the cities, a doctor can see hundreds of patients a day and has to constantly worry about being hit with a malpractice suit, but out here in the countryside, we see a more trusting relationship between people. During consultations, Hsu always chats ami­ably with his patients, asking how they’re going and how things are at home. A number of people will only take drugs if he prescribes them, and there’s at least one person who has moved out to Tai­chung but still makes the trip half way around Taiwan to consult with Hsu. “I value their quality of life. Improving quality of life is more important than average life expectancy.”

Since his stroke, Hsu is even better able to relate to his patients’ situations and see the ­doctor‡patient relationship from their perspect­ive. “Health is about physical, mental, and social stability,” he explains. In the city, health tends to be looked at as a purely medical matter, but in the country, health issues can be complex social problems. South Link Hospital, an institu­tion Hsu dreams of one day establishing, will be “a community hospital tied in closely with the people’s lives. It might not have the most expensive, sophisticated diagnostic equipment, but it will be warm and inviting, somewhere everyone who comes to seek healing can get not only relief from their illness, but also a measure of spiritual comfort as well.”

Beyond Hsu Chao-pin

During his rehabilitation process, Hsu asked God more than once why the stroke couldn’t have come later, why He couldn’t have waited until the South Link Hospital was established before taking him out. Wondering at God’s will, he began to focus less on his now-stiff left side and more on his still-nimble right arm and leg. As well as continuing visiting the villages and providing consultations, Hsu began tapping away at the keyboard with his right hand, eventually publishing his life story under the title Protecting 4,141 Heartbeats. The book was warmly received around Taiwan and opened many people’s eyes to the situation in rural communities. “God knows I can only do so much on my own, so He wanted me to harness the love and power of the public to help get South Link Hospital going.”

Did he ever consider throwing in the towel? “Almost every day,” Hsu says. “Every day is a struggle, but as long as the sun rises and I can look in the mirror and see that I’m still looking good, still have some things I can do for the villages, and still have some value left, I can pull myself back together and forge ahead.”

He launched a project to get the South Link Hospital built, establishing the Association of South-Link Health Care Promotion for Taitung County to raise funds for the South Link Foundation. The association works in various ways to address common issues in rural communities like aging populations and grandparents having to raise grandchildren while the children’s parents head elsewhere for work. They provide home-care services and visit elderly people who live alone. They have also established a long-term care center that offers 24-hour care for people with severe disabilities, and created the “Ark classrooms” to give children after-school tuition and help them develop the knowledge and confidence to thrive amid the onslaught of globalization.

Hsu Chao-pin has gone from working alone to bringing people together to provide care in southern Taitung through the South Link Association. “No matter how good I might have been before, I was still nothing more than a pretty good doctor, and one person can only do so much. Now I’ve been able to attract more power to focus on improving medical care and education in southern Taitung. That’s something I could never have done before.”

“Don’t you think I’ve gone beyond the old me who could just do medicine?” After we finish our interview, this comment by Hsu continues ringing in our ears. The application to set up South Link Hospital is still being reviewed, but Hsu has faith in the people of Taiwan and their ability to provide the support needed to make his dream hospital a reality.        

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