In a 5-square-meter clinic of the Charity Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine on Friday, He Xiaowei was consulting a doctor.
He, 57, who has been suffering from polio since her childhood, is a regular patient, and her condition has improved since she first visited the hospital a year and a half ago.
"It is not an ordinary hospital," she said. "All medical treatment is free of charge here."
The hospital -- in Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province -- opened at the end of 2004, becoming the first of its kind in the nation that offers free treatment.
"I did not come here until one day I was told the hospital charges nothing for treatment," He said.
He, who depends on social security benefits for living, can't afford the bills at regular hospitals.
According to Luo Yongwang of the Guangdong Provincial Association of Buddhism, the hospital treats only three groups of people: those with the lowest incomes, those who depend on social security benefits (such as redundant workers), and the disabled.
"Although there are other charitable hospitals that charge relatively low fees, a great number of people who fall into these three groups still cannot afford medical expenses there," Luo said.
On December 24, 2004, Luo's association and the Guangzhou-based Guangxiao Temple jointly set up the hospital, aiming to provide easier access to medical treatment for those groups.
"However, we treat only people with common diseases," Luo said.
Guangxiao Temple pumped 5 million yuan (US$620,000) into the hospital, which covers 259 square meters and has no Western medical facilities.
To date, the hospital has spent nearly 790,000 yuan (US$98,750) of that money, of which two-thirds were used to buy medicine, Luo said.
"We also welcome donations for the daily operation of the hospital," he said. It received 50,000 yuan (US$6,250) from a Hong Kong-based businessperson in April.
In addition, Guangxiao Temple recently opened a restaurant featuring Buddhist food in a bid to raise funds for the hospital, according to Luo.
"We don't have enough staff, but they all show much passion working here," he said of the two nurses and four doctors.
Liang Zhonghai, 45, who has been working as a doctor in traditional Chinese medicine for 28 years, came to the hospital a year ago.
"I was deeply moved when I first came here," he said. "All the patients I have seen are so in need of medical treatment.
"I told myself I will stay here for the rest of my life. It is not only be a charity job but also a move to promote traditional Chinese medicine."
Wen Hongmei, 47, a doctor who has been working at the hospital since it opened, added: "There is a good relationship between patients and doctors, and I like working here."
What's more, she said, patients have every confidence in the treatment.
"I earn less than before, but, compared with the patients, each of whom has a tale of suffering, I feel happy," she said.
Wen, who sees patients every Monday and Friday, earns about 2,000 yuan (US$250) a month.
"There are more than 30 patients coming to me for treatment on the days I work," she said. "Some of the regular patients have become my friends."
Statistics from the hospital indicate it has had more than 19,000 visits since it opened.
Since the opening, the Guangdong Provincial Association of Buddhism also launched two other hospitals, in Shaoguan and Foshan. The one in Shaoguan opened in April, with seed money from Nanhua Temple and the other, funded by Renshou Temple, opened in June.
The Buddhism association is also talking to several other temples in Guangzhou, including Lurong, Hualin and Dafo, about opening more hospitals.
(China Daily September 22, 2006)