Doctors in demand on the 'roof of the world'

In a valley flanked by snow-capped peaks on China's border with the Kingdom of Bhutan, a small hospital consisting of three brick bungalows stands among stretches of adobe houses.

Pumaqangtang Hospital, at an altitude of 5,373 meters, is China's highest hospital.

It is the only hospital accessible to the 1,021 residents, mainly herdsmen, of the town of Pumaqangtang, one of 10 towns under the governance of Nagarze County in southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region.

Cering Gyaco, a 30-year-old Tibetan father and graduate of the medical school of Tibet University, is the hospital head and one of only four doctors here. He was transferred to the hospital four and a half years ago from another town in Nagarze, just three days after his daughter's birth, and has lived away from his wife and daughter since then.

Doctors in Pumaqangtang usually serve for five years in the town, so Cering can expect to go home in about six months.

There are only two seasons in Pumaqangtang -- three months of summer and nine months of winter.

Typical plateau diseases, including arthritis, overproduction of red blood cells, high blood pressure, gallbladder inflammation, stomach ulcers and heart disease, are frequently seen at the Pumaqangtang hospital. Cering himself suffers from high blood pressure and high red blood cell count.

Photokeratitis, a painful eye condition caused by unprotected exposure to UV rays, is also common among herdsmen.

For people coming from elsewhere in China, the extremely high altitude can cause sleeping problems and even insomnia.

Normally, the hospital receives five to six patients a day. Acute diseases are usually treated with Western medicine, but for chronic diseases, local herdsmen prefer traditional Tibetan medicine.

Common diseases can be treated in the town hospital, said Cering, but when surgery is needed, they have to move patients to the county or city hospital, due to limited doctors and medical resources in Pumaqangtang.

"Getting to Lhasa is already very difficult, not to mention traveling to metropolises such as Beijing and Shanghai for treatment," said Cering. Even if locals go to the nearest city, Shannan City, it takes over four hours by car to travel the mountain roads.

Places with an altitude above 5,000 meters are usually regarded as unsuitable for living, with severe effects on human health. Pumaqangtang is one such place. The amount of oxygen in the air is less than 40 percent than that at sea level.

The average life expectancy in Pumaqangtang is only 49.5 years, much less than China's average of 76.3 years. Most people die before growing old. Among the 1,021 residents, only 44 are 60 years or older.

Cering said that residents in the town always look much older than their real age, with wrinkles and white hair appearing early.

Every month, the four doctors travel in pairs to treat local herdsmen scattered over the vast grassland.

From time to time, medical teams from across China are sent by the government to help treat patients, bring medicine and medical equipment, and sometimes deal with emergencies. Due to the extreme climate and inconvenient transportation, the medical teams are not dispatched on a regular schedule, "but will be continued," said a local government official.

Xie Hanfang, a doctor from a hospital in east China's Anhui Province, came with a team to Pumaqangtang for the second time last week. This time, she treated a new mother whose placenta remained in the uterus after delivering her baby.

Medical ultrasound equipment has already been introduced in the town, but the doctors still need to learn how to use it.

Pumaqangtang means "prairie of lovers" in the Tibetan language. After years of modernization, the 5,375-meter-high grassland now has a six-grade primary school with 108 students and nine teachers. Mobile communication became available in 2007 and a border police station was set up four years ago.

The local economy heavily relies on raising livestock. According to the local government, the average annual income stood at 9,700 yuan (about 1,421 U.S. dollars) in 2015 and is expected to reach 10,000 yuan by the end of 2016.