From Our Founder
In 2002, I traveled to Beijing while on sabbatical from my work as a cardiologist at the University of California at Irvine. In Beijing, I began working at the Fu Wai Hospital & Cardiovascular Research Institute. Over a period of two years, I became well-acquainted with Chinese society and learned Mandarin. I also witnessed the growing and unprecedented epidemic of cardiovascular disease that is gripping China. In the winter of 2005, I decided to spend some time bicycling through rural Yunnan province, one of the poorest parts of China. Two days into my journey, I was invited to a pre-nuptial party in an impoverished village. The road was long, and I arrived as the sun was setting. The bride’s family fed me and treated me like one of their family members. They offered a bed in their poor home. Their home had no running water and no electricity. Heat came from a wood fire on the floor; there was no chimney. The village had no doctor and an abandoned clinic. They refused the money I offered as payment. Their hospitality in the face of great hardship was my inspiration to come back and work with the poor Yunnan farmers.
The province of Yunnan is one of the poorest in China. In 2008, Yunnan’s per capita GDP was $1,840, ranking 29 out of the 31 provinces in China. Like most of China, Yunnan Province is experiencing an increasing wealth gap. Large cities have benefited from recent economic development, but little meaningful wealth has trickled into the countryside. As a result, rural Yunnan has inadequate health care. Village doctors receive training for three months after high school. Hospitals are poorly equipped, and sanitary conditions are poor. Chronic diseases are largely untreated. Children die from heart conditions that are easily curable because their families cannot pay for available but costly life-saving procedures. More than 30 percent of adult farmers have high blood pressure. In some areas, this figure approaches 50 percent. Fewer than 5 percent of those with high blood pressure have their blood pressures controlled with diet or medicines.
China is rapidly rising from extreme poverty, and there is a misconception that Chinese people do not help their neighbors because they are too busy getting rich. Though those, who in a lifetime rise from poverty into the middle class, are reluctant to give up what they have worked hard for, Chinese people, when they are touched by the poor conditions of the farmers, are quite ready to donate their time in our traveling clinics and in hospitals. Cardiologists at hospitals in Yunnan and elsewhere donate their time to repair the heart defects of poor children. This is as inspiring as is the kindness of the villagers who gave me a bed in 2005.
The first step to a solution is awareness that the problem exists. If nothing is done, by 2050, twelve million Chinese people (equal to the population of New York City), will die every year from heart disease and stroke. Through research, teaching, and advocacy, we must increase awareness of the problem. When the Chinese people and the Chinese government are sufficiently aware, they will solve this problem. In the meantime, we are in Yunnan to help. Please help us.
Robert Detrano, M.D., Ph.D.
Director, China California Heart Watch