Photographs of patients and their family members by Yao Shuai Photo: Courtesy of Yao Shuai



Yao Shuai Photo: Courtesy of Yao Shuai

Yao Shuai is a cardiologist at Tongzhou District Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Hospital in East China’s Jiangsu Province. With his Canon 5D Mark III, he has taken more than 10,000 photos of more than 400 patients for his photography project People in the Hospital. Yet what started out as a simple photography project has turned into so much more. 

He has discussed the meaning of death and hope with a terminally ill cancer patient; he has asked what sadness and happiness meant to an innocent child; he has talked with a pious Christian about faith and life.      

“I have been looking for the answers to these questions myself. I want to know their answers… And every patient is a unique individual. Only when doctors listen and have empathy, can we truly come close to medical humanity,” said Yao. 

Capturing people’s lives

Yao started the project in September 2016. Most of the people in his photos were patients, while others were their families or medical staff. 

“Deep down my heart, I just have this urge to capture beauty, authenticity and kindness,” Yao told the Global Times.

“L) Nan is my favorite photographer. He lived with patients with mental illness and captured their lives. He made me realize that I should look for inspiration in daily life,” he said. 

Since he was working as a doctor, he therefore started taking pictures at the hospital. 

The first person he photographed was a teacher. However, before he could give him the photo, the teacher passed away. Yao brought the photo to his funeral and his family was very grateful.

Usually, taking photos only took a few minutes, so Yao would often spend more of his time talking with these people before photographing them. 

Yao grew up in the small county-level city of Haimen in East China. In 2001, when he was in fifth grade, his father was diagnosed with cirrhosis. Since his grandfather had passed away from liver cancer just two years ago, he was overwhelmed by the fear of losing his father. The day he found out about his father’s illness, he freed all the lobsters he had caught a couple of days before back into the river, since he thought his father’s illness was a punishment for catching them.

Though his father is fine today, seeing him suffer from this illness for years left Yao with many painful childhood memories. 

“I still remember that day in high school when I went to the hospital with my father. The doctor seemed to be rather irritated at my father for asking questions, while my father was upset by the doctor’s distant demeanor.”

Yao’s mother is a doctor, so growing up Yao never gave much thought to any alternate careers besides medicine. With his father’s illness and the numerous trips accompanying his father to hospitals, he gained a unique understanding concerning the insufficient resources at hospitals in small counties and rural areas, as well as the feeling of helplessness experiences by patients’ family members as they watched their loved ones suffer since they couldn’t afford better treatment. However, this also led him to promise to make a difference.    

“I’ve seen so many people suffer from illness. The pain I saw was very real. I hope that by doing my part, I can give them hope,” Yao said. 

The power of empathy

Though Yao’s hospital is not big, he has gotten to know quite a lot of people while photographing them and sharing their stories.

“I photographed one man who drove a tricycle taxi. He didn’t make much money, but he insisted on never taking money from customers who were going to the hospital for dialysis,” said Yao. 

Talking with the people he photographed made him realize that the patients were so much more than the information on their charts.    

As Yao became more experienced, he discovered new ways to communicate with his patients. At the same time, the importance of getting to know his patients became increasingly clear to him.

“Gender, age, birthplace, occupation, education, marital status should all be considered when collecting medical history. Some symptoms such as diarrhea, low-grade fever, chest pain and headache, may be related to a patient’s social and mental condition,” he said.

Yao suggested that bonding with patients helps him understand their behaviors and mentality, which helps him better diagnose psychosomatic diseases and provide better treatment. 

“Caring for patients as unique individuals and having empathy for them is the essence of humanitarian medicine,” he noted.   

Yao pointed out that achieve empathy in doctor-patient relationships is not something relies on doctors alone, it calls for joint efforts from medical education institutions, hospitals and the entirety of society.  

“The reality is some doctors are working overtime. It is not easy for all patients to get or afford the treatment they need, which poses a challenge to doctor-patient relationships in China. A doctor-patient relationship is built on mutual trust,” Yao explained.
Newspaper headline: Besides bonding