Mon, May 22, 2006 - Page 3 News List

Taipei's angel of mercy gets a well-deserved rest

SELFLESS As a disease prevention and control specialist, Tsai Yi-chen has fought in the frontline against threats such as SARS and dengue fever

By Shelley Shan  /  STAFF REPORTER

When Tsai Yi-chen (蔡宜真) served as the head of Taipei's Daan District Health Center in 2003, she was entrusted with a challenging task: to combat a fatal disease that threatened the nation and created panic among the public.

Six employees from engineering and construction company CTCI Corp boarded a flight from Hong Kong to Beijing on March 13. Unknown to them, the flight also carried passengers who had been infected with SARS. When the CTCI employees returned to Taiwan with symptoms of SARS, they were admitted to the Daan District Health Center.

When it was confirmed on March 26 that the group had contracted the deadly disease, Tsai immediately dispatched nurses to CTCI to identify colleagues who had been in close contact with the six infected employees. By nightfall, a list of people who needed to be quarantined had been drawn up.

As the disease spread, the health center's workload increased. Each nurse had to handle hundreds of inquiring phonecalls, compile lists of potential disease carriers to be quarantined, and personally deliver quarantine notices. Tsai eventually split her workforce into day and night shifts and delegated different tasks for each.

"Each [nurse] worked in excess of 10 hours a day, on average," Tsai said. "The last thing I wanted was for them to wear themselves out."

The same procedures were later followed when the city attempted to contain a massive SARS outbreak after several cases were reported at Hoping Hospital, she said.

SARS is just one of the many battles that Tsai has fought during her career as a public health official. She was also in charge of eradicating poliomyelitis and dengue fever in 1996 and in containing the spread of enterovirus in 1998.

Formerly a doctor specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, Tsai gave up a full-time position at a city hospital in Taipei and began working at a community health center in Taipei's Tatung District part-time so that she could take care of her second child. Since then, she has been transferred to other district community centers, specializing in disease prevention and control.

"It takes patience and compassion to be a hands-on public health worker on a long-term basis," Tsai said. "It takes time for people's ideas to change."

Once people were educated about diseases and how to control them, their fear diminished she said. For example, most people now know that the drainage trays under flower pots need to be cleaned regularly so that they do not become breeding grounds for mosquitoes carrying the virus for dengue fever.

Similarly, school children now know they need to wash their hands before they eat to avoid contracting enterovirus.

Tsai's personal life has also not been easy. Her husband, who she met in medical school, died of liver cancer in 1995, leaving her to support two children who were still in high school. She credits her belief in Christianity for seeing her through difficult times.

"I learned to sing hymns that talk about God's love for us," Tsai said. "Through that I find the strength to carry on."

Tsai's faith also helped her to deal with the stress of the SARS outbreak. After every morning review meeting, Tsai would pray for the nurses who were out delivering quarantine notices, asking that they not succumb to the disease themselves.

Tsai became the chief of the Taipei City Government's disease prevention and control division last year, but decided to retire after being in the post for a little over a year.

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