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Published: 15:14, March 31, 2023
Rekindling the hope for life
By Li Bingcun
Published:15:14, March 31, 2023 By Li Bingcun

SHENZHEN – Like many others, Hong Kong programmer Martin Chan, 40, was excited about the resumption of normal cross-boundary travel. But unlike others, it was not about family reunion, meeting friends, or visiting clients and cities; he was having a meeting with his doctor in Guangzhou, for a kidney transplant.

But his difficult journey is only getting started. Due to institutional barriers of medical systems in Hong Kong and the mainland, the life-saving journey becomes a lonely, arduous one requiring courage, high costs, and endurance. 

As the reestablished connection with the mainland prompts more patients like Chan to cross the border in search of hope of life, there is an urgent need for the Hong Kong society to pay greater attention to their plight and lend a helping hand.

Prompted by the success of the first cross-border organ sharing in last December, which saved a four-month-old Hong Kong baby, the Hong Kong government is striving to set up a long-term mechanism with the mainland, under which the mainland will share unutilized donated organs with the special administrative region. Such breakthroughs also offered an opportunity to channel greater support for struggling patients.

Before the pandemic, many Hong Kong patients waiting in the city’s organ allocation system would also go to mainland hospitals to seek suitable donations, benefited from a special arrangement with the mainland. In the past three years, stringent anti-COVID restrictions almost halted such attempts. As everything went normal, more and more patients embarked on the journey.

Chan, who has been suffering from renal failure for over five years, is one of them. He went to a hospital in Guangzhou on March 5 to seek a kidney transplant, which is the best option for him to live a healthy and secure life.

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He has been receiving hemodialysis twice a week, five or six hours each time, for the last two years ago, even during times when COVID-19 was at its peak. His life requires great restraint, even the amount of water to drink every day needs to be precisely calculated, to avoid placing burdens on the failing kidneys.

In Hong Kong, the average waiting period for kidney transplants is 4.5 years, and the longest reached 30 years. He made up his mind to go to the mainland to give it a try, and every progress about full border reopening would cheer him up in the past two years.

After the two sides resumed quarantine-free travels without quota limit on Feb 6, Chan made a reservation with the Guangzhou hospital, set up mobile payment applications, and took a day off from work for the long-awaited journey. 

He received thorough body checks there and returned to Hong Kong a day later. If the hospital identified any suitable kidney for him, he must go back there in 24 hours for the surgery.

After two years of waiting, he finally saw the sign of hope, though it is just the first step. He still needs to endure the uncertainty of the matching, the anxious wait, as well as the surgery itself, the possibility of complications and the lengthy process of recovery later.

Suffering the most of the disparity of medical systems, patients like Chan face numerous hurdles while seeking organs across the border – the lack of official guidance, ineligibility for public health benefits in both Hong Kong and the mainland, and the absence of mutual recognition of examinations and medical records.

Generally, the cost of receiving transplant on the mainland range from hundreds of thousands to over 1 million yuan. Yet commercial insurance must be purchased before they were diagnosed with organ failure, and some do not cover organ transplants, not to mention those surgeries performed on the mainland.

By the end of 2022, about 3,500 Hong Kong residents were on the mainland’s waiting list. To better facilitate the patients, authorities can set designated hospitals in Shenzhen and Hong Kong to undergo checks and receive transplant surgeries. Financial support for those in need is also worth considering.

In the long run, accelerating the medical integration within the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area is definitely a must to achieve seamless cross-border medical referral. What is equally important may be better leveraging enterprises and social organizations’ influence in organ donation promotion to raise Hong Kong’s donation rate.

In a world-leading move in 2018, Tahoe Life Insurance provides up to MOP$500 million of public welfare insurance to Macao residents who register as organ donation volunteers. Macao residents registering as organ donation volunteers on the mainland or Macao registration platforms can receive compensation of MOP$100,000 if they are diagnosed as needing to receive organ donation or die for any reason.

Internet bellwethers WeChat and Alipay successively launched e-channels in 2019 and 2016, respectively for residents to register their wishes to donate organs. Over a decade ago, Facebook added the organ donation registration option in the Timeline of users’ social media pages.

For patients with organ failures, the process of accepting and fighting the disease is painful. Under the principle of life first, what we can do is minimize impact of institutional barriers on their treatment and mobilize all unutilized resources to help them get a second life.

Li Bingcun began her career in journalism in 2016 as a sub-editor for the online section of China Daily Hong Kong. She now works as a reporter covering political and metro news, and is curious about life and people in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area. She can be reached at bingcun@chinadailyhk.com.

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