China's Covid-19 whistle-blower says hospital left her nearly blind

Dr Ai Fen said a cataract surgery at the Wuhan branch of the Aier Eye Hospital Group Co caused deteriorating vision in her right eye. PHOTO: DR AI FEN/WEIBO

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - The Chinese doctor who was the first to blow the whistle on the coronavirus emerging in Wuhan has become nearly blind in one eye in a high-profile medical dispute that has sent shares of China's biggest private hospital chain plunging.

Dr Ai Fen, who heads the emergency department at the Central Hospital of Wuhan where Covid-19 patients were first detected, said that a nearly 30,000 yuan (S$6,100) cataract surgery in May at the Wuhan branch of the Aier Eye Hospital Group Co caused deteriorating vision in her right eye.

By October, her retina had detached, she said in a video posted on Weibo last week.

Aier's shares dropped as much as 9.5 per cent in Shenzhen on Monday morning (Jan 4) before paring losses.

The hospital chain, which runs more than 500 hospitals in China and dozens across Europe, the United States and South-east Asia, said in a statement on Monday that there is no link between the surgery and Dr Ai's retina detachment.

Dr Ai's extreme myopia was a high-risk factor and the detachment occurred five months after the surgery, which went smoothly, the hospital said.

The dispute reflects the ongoing crisis of confidence in private medical providers in China amid rapid growth of the industry, as middle-class Chinese clamour for access to better healthcare.

Local access to better drugs and treatments has greatly improved in recent years as China invests billions in expanding care, but patient-doctor disputes have led to doctors being attacked and even killed by bitter patients and their family members.

Dr Ai claimed that Aier doctors ignored test results that could have flagged the surgery's riskiness and that results from one pre-surgery test were doctored to make her cataract problem seem worse.

The hospital denied that tests were doctored, though it acknowledged problems like incomplete patient records after surgery and doctors' failure to report the adverse event in time.

The retina detachment could have been prevented if the doctors had detected signs of complications and paid attention to her concerns of dim vision, she said.

"When the retina detachment occurred, they pushed me away to my own hospital for surgery," Dr Ai wrote.

"I have been a very optimistic person but this eye problem has made me collapse," she wrote. "My family needs to accompany me when I walk and I can't hold my own baby. I feel that I am having a mental breakdown and I'm in agony."

Dr Ai became a household name in China after local media profiled how she shared on social media a picture of test results indicating that a patient had been infected in mid-December 2019 by an unknown virus similar to Sars.

It was the first public warning of a pandemic that has now killed more than 1.8 million people globally.

The photo she shared went viral and was re-posted by doctors including Dr Li Wenliang, a young physician who was among those later censured by local police for "rumour-mongering."

Dr Li died after contracting Covid-19 in February, and his death sparked the biggest backlash Beijing had seen in years as people vented their fury at delays and cover-ups.

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