Setting: Electricite de France clinic in Shenzhen, China
Position: Resident physician
Electricite de France is building a nuclear plan in Daya Bay for the Chinese government. At the beginning of the project I am based in Shenzhen right across the border from Hong Kong, where the majority of the electrical output will be directed in exchange for hard currency. Stricter environmental regulation does not allow the plant to exist on Hong Kong soil.
The clinic was established on the ground floor of a social housing building. A military man stands at each entrance 24 hours a day. I reside in a hotel about two miles away and walk to work every morning at daybreak. It is a lonely and reflective endeavor. However, one day I find myself surrounded by literally thousands of people on foot, bicycles, mopeds, vans and a few cars. It takes me a while to find someone who can speak English. I ask about the unusual occurrence and the answer startles me: The crowd is going to the soccer stadium to witness capital punishments.
After my initial surprise, I inquire about the crime that has been committed and the answer floors me: Possession of pornographic materials from Hong Kong. Late in the evening, as I discuss the event with Chinese engineers, I learn that the method used is rifle squad execution and that the lethal bullet is sent to the family as a reminder and for educational purposes.
The next day, my pedestrian commute is quite somber as I reflect upon the fragility and meaning of life. Being confronted with death under these circumstances underscores the irony of my situation: I was hired to save life, particularly in emergency situations, and yet the country where I practice takes away life for what its leaders deem threats to society.
Lesson for the doctor: The value placed on medical activity is society-specific and highly situational. It varies greatly with time, place and human environment.
Yann Meunier, MD, is the health promotion manager for the Stanford Prevention Research Center. He formerly practiced medicine in developed and developing countries throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. Each week, he will share some of his experiences with patients in remote corners of the world.