Long way to go

Admiration for Beijing bridge, countered by crisis response

Sanyuan Bridge w

Best-laid plan: Sanyuan Bridge retrofitted in less than two days

How is it that China can put up a new bridge in 43 hours but take 15 hours to get a gravely ill man from Beijing Capital Airport to a downtown hospital?

That’s the question netizens found themselves debating last week as they marvelled at the speedy replacement of Beijing’s Sanyuan Bridge, but queried the chaotic response to a medical emergency on a flight from Shenyang.

The two events, separated by a few days late last month, showed how Chinese organisations excel at planning mega-projects but often struggle to respond to unique, emergency situations where there is no clear chain of command.

The medical emergency took place when Zhang Yang, a television reporter from Liaoning, boarded an early morning plane from Shenyang to Beijing.

Shortly after take off at around 8am he started to experience severe intestinal pain and alerted a crew member to his discomfort.

He was told the pain was probably due to air pressure changes and the flight carried on to the Chinese capital.

Ten minutes before landing, however, Zhang texted a friend to say he was in agony and needed to go to hospital. He also persuaded the crew to arrange for an ambulance to meet the plane on arrival.

The plane landed at 9.40am and that should have been the end of the story. However it took a further 50 minutes to open the aircraft doors and, adding to Zhang’s problems, no air bridge was available – meaning the paramedics were unable to bring a stretcher onto the plane.

A row between the cabin crew and medical staff ensued – each side claiming the other should carry Zhang off the plane because neither side wanted to be responsible for dropping him on the steps.

Writing on weibo after the event, Zhang says he summoned his last bit of strength to crawl off the plane and climb into the ambulance himself.

Yet his ordeal – now about four hours long – was far from over. He was driven to the airport hospital where the doctor correctly diagnosed him with a perforated bowel. The doctor advised he be transferred to one of two major Beijing hospitals for an emergency operation and called another ambulance.

Around 1pm Zhang set off to what he thought was one of those two hospitals. However, when he asked the drivers where they were going, to his surprise they said they were taking him to an out-of-town emergency rescue centre, which is operated by the Beijing Red Cross Society, as there was bad traffic in Beijing and they didn’t think he would be admitted to one of the big hospitals.

Too weak to argue, he agreed. Yet the doctor at the emergency centre spent three hours doing various checks, then disagreed with the first doctor’s diagnosis (wrongly) and accused Zhang of faking his symptoms to get access to strong painkillers.

“I cried, I really shed tears. I did not know what to say. I do not blame the doctor, I knew I was sick but he did not want to save me. This disease was beyond his knowledge,” Zhang wrote on his blog.

“I was in so much pain I hit the floor with my fist. I wanted to call my wife but I couldn’t,” he added.

Finally, one of Zhang’s colleagues tracked him down and with the help of two friends (both medics), Zhang was admitted to Peking University Hospital for a four-hour life -saving operation.

For Zhang Yang the whole ordeal lasted almost 21 hours – roughly half the time it took four mega-cranes to dismantle Sanyuan Bridge and roll a brand new, prebuilt, 1,300-tonne flyover into its place.

The time-lapse video of the lightning-speed reconstruction garnered praise from inside China and out. One netizen gushed at his “pride in his motherland” (indeed, this was a fairly typical response to what was a genuinely impressive engineering feat and a reflection of China’s prowess in infrastructure). The international comments compared how long such an exercise would take in their country (someone in the UK said it would have required a five-year planning period and 3,000% cost overrun).

Meanwhile Zhang’s medical emergency left people shocked, with one Chinese netizen writing that it showed how the “life of ordinary people is thinner than paper”.

Another said Zhang’s tale had made him “feel powerless”, adding “how can those people take human life so lightly?”

In the last few days China Southern has apologised for its handling of the emergency and said the delay in opening the plane door was due to a failure with the aircraft brakes which meant it had to be towed to its dock. The airport and the emergency centre have also apologised and the latter has agreed to compensate Zhang for his poor treatment.“Throughout the event those who are supposed to be legally or morally responsible for the case, passed the buck at the critical moment. This highlights the need to strengthen the sense of responsibility and empower officials to cope with emergency incidents,” the Economic Information Daily said.

It seems safe to conclude the medical and airport authorities in Beijing would not have done a very good job of rescuing Matt Damon from Mars (see this week’s story The Martian conquest)…

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