Sun, Mar 06, 2016 - Page 12 News List

Taiwan in Time: Fighting the ‘black dry snake’

As blackfoot disease ravaged southeastern Taiwan in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many people could only depend on the Beimen Free Clinic, set up by Lillian Dickson and run by Wang King-ho

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

The late Wang King-ho works at his desk.

Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Culture

Taiwan in Time: March. 7 to March. 13

As Tainan County councilor Wang King-ho (王金河) walked out of jail after 23 days for being accused of corruption by a political enemy, he decided to leave the factionalized world of politics.

“Although I was acquitted, I saw how treacherous politics could be and I was disillusioned,” Wang writes in A Memoir: Father of the Blackfoot Disease, Wang King-ho (烏腳病之父王金河回憶錄). “It was a wake up call.”

As a politician-doctor, Wang wrote that patients from other political factions wouldn’t come to see him, and he was straying from his goal of treating all residents of his hometown of Beimen (北門).

Returning home to practice in 1944 after the area’s only licensed physician died, Wang was first elected mayor of Beimen in 1945, and after serving two terms, he became a county councilor.

It’s a good thing Wang made his decision, because in 1956, about a year after he finished his final term as councilor, people started coming down with a strange disease on the coast of southern Chiayi and northern Tainan counties — and Beimen was right in the center of it.

‘BLACK DRY SNAKE’

Locals called it “black dry snake” (烏乾蛇), though it’s known today as blackfoot disease. Symptoms typically began with numbness or coldness in the feet, progressing to painful gangrene as lack of circulation resulted in black, dead tissue. “Snake” referred to the way it would slowly spread up the limbs. The afflicted were usually in such severe pain that they couldn’t eat properly, and the rotting flesh often became infested with maggots. Even after amputating the limb, the gangrene could still return.

If the physical suffering — which often drove patients to bang their heads against the wall — wasn’t bad enough, Wang writes that because even relatives would keep a distance from or even shun the afflicted since they didn’t know whether it was contagious or not, even believing that it was a sort of curse for past bad deeds. Isolated and unable to work, many committed suicide.

“Their lives were a living hell with no way out,” Wang said. Since he was also the forensic pathologist, he said it especially saddened him when he examined the suicide victims.

“I swore to do all I could for my people and for blackfoot disease patients,” he said.

POISONING

The cause was later determined to be arsenic poisoning from drinking deep well water. Curiously, this type of gangrene has only been reported in Taiwan. Aside from a scare in Yilan in the 1990s, it was essentially eradicated as households started switching to tap water in the 1960s and 1970s.

At first, Wang didn’t have adequate supplies to treat the patients, and was only able to ease the pain and refer them to larger hospitals — but many were too poor to go. Soon, he was joined by researchers from National Taiwan University, who set up six free beds and provided affordable artificial limbs.

In April 1960, Lillian Dickson, a missionary who previously worked with lepers and Aborigines suffering from lung disease, arrived in Beimen. With her Mustard Seed organization, Dickson set up the Pak-mng (Beimen’s Hoklo — commonly known as Taiwanese — pronunciation) Mercy’s Door Free Clinic (北門免費診所) for blackfoot patients and asked Wang, also a Christian, if he could provide a small space in his clinic and be the main physician.

Dickson started out renting a house next to the clinic that could house six patients, but by 1966, her organization owned a two-story structure that could house 50 to 60 patients. She also provided milk and vitamins to patients and children, and helped transport children whose families could no longer provide for them to orphanages in Taipei.

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