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Nuns on a mission treating the ill in China

Female religious orders run about 120 medical clinics on the mainland

Nuns on a mission treating the ill in China

In this file photo Bishop Li Liangui of Xianxian visits two nuns who provided medical assistance after a massive earthquake struck Sichuan province on May 12, 2008. (Photo supplied)

ucanews.com reporter, Hong Kong
China

August 17, 2017

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People knock at the doors of Catholic nuns in China for medical help as well as spiritual advice.

This service has increased markedly since the 1980s amid the ushering in of relatively greater tolerance towards organized religion, albeit with official restrictions and controls.

The revival saw nuns, in their own way, taking on some of the more practical aspects of the communist revolutionary ethos regarding grass-roots access to medical treatment. From the late 1960s, China sent into rural areas medicos with basic training who came to be widely known as 'barefoot doctors.'

The original barefoot doctors carried with them a good deal of propagandistic baggage as well as personal fervor. But they did win plaudits within China and outside it for treating poor people who were previously largely neglected.

Many Catholic and Protestant missionaries were expelled from China after the 1949 communist takeover. Later excesses of the so-called Cultural Revolution were easing by the beginning of the 1980s.

Catholic Church sources, according to a report in The Catholic Sun, estimated that by 2015 female religious orders were running about 120 medical clinics in China. As Catholic nuns looked to the health needs of parishioners, they won hearts and minds as well as souls. The pattern centered on immediate assistance where possible followed by referral to larger institutions, such as hospitals, if deemed necessary.

In Xianxian Diocese, northern Hebei province, at least 2,000 people of Fanjia Gede and neighboring Lourdes Zhuang villages came to rely on the Catholic clinic opposite the church.

Sister Ma Enchong, a senior nun there with 20 years of experience, knows the medical backgrounds of all the families in the area.

"People come to knock on our door for medical consultations or injections as early as 7 a.m., even before we finish our breakfast," she said. "We can treat minor illness, but they have to go to hospitals for serious conditions."

Also in Hebei, the eye clinic run by the St. Teresa congregation in Bincun village is well known for the treatment of cataracts. Some medical services, such as the garden-like clinic of the Sacred Heart of Jesus congregation in Langfang, has expertise in the medical needs of rural communities.

 

A group of Chinese nuns from Liaoning Diocese went to Bangkok in 2004 to receive health care training related to the treatment of HIV/AIDS patients. (Photo supplied)

 

Health care reform impacts on nuns

Several decades ago, there were relatively few regulations impacting on nuns compassionately providing health care. But attitudes and practicises, expectations and legal requirements have changed with time.

Rules have become complex and more strictly enforced. In 2002, three years after the implementation of a law covering registration of physicians, all medical service providers in rural clinics and hospitals were required to pass a national exam.

This impacted greatly on nuns who graduated from nursing schools or with a bachelor degree. Some of them had to stop work for a year to prepare for the exam.

Margarita Chen, a charities worker, told ucanews.com that other nuns, who continued to serve during the daytime and study at night, did not get enough sleep. Some of the nun graduates of nursing schools who failed the exam were reassigned to homes for the aged or orphanages.

Sister Teresa, a nun in central Shaanxi province, with a long involvement in health care, said many Catholic Church clinics had been forced to close because nuns lacked formal credentials. Older nuns tended to have greater difficulty with the exam requirements.

"They have to turn to other services to contribute to the church, such as working at an aged home or sewing vestments and other products," said Sister Teresa.

The biggest impact from the loss of services has been on rural villages.

But requirements for the practicing of Chinese traditional medicine have remained more flexible. Sister Anna, also from Shaanxi province, said this allowed traditional treatments, including use of herbal medicines, to continue.

 

Protection in medical disputes

Despite the personal impacts on many nuns, some of their number feel a more structured approach to standards is justified as it integrates modern medical knowledge.

Sister Mary, a medical worker in central Shanxi province, said it also gives practitioners legal protection if there are medical disputes. Several publicized cases have involved services at government hospitals, with claims of overcrowding and incompetence.

The church clinics have a mandate to cater to mental, emotional and spiritual needs as well as physical ailments. Nuns say this is particularly needed as life stresses and depression are on the rise in China.

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