Photo taken on November 1, 2023 shows Maynur Niyaz (C) looks at a patient's medical image with her team. (Photo by Qin Meihua）
Maynur Niyaz, although retired, is still full of vigor and seems always ready to take care of a patient. Emitting a healthy glow, she has her curly hair sleeked back over the ears and tied in a tight bun.
The gynecologist has a name meaning glimmering moonlight in the Uygur language. A gentle lady like moonlight, Maynur has been living a dazzling life, exhibiting considerable perseverance in attending medical college, pursuing her PhD degree and protecting women's health across Xinjiang.
"I need to go to college"
Maynur hails from a Uygur family in Urumqi, capital of northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. She had been a straight-A student since early primary school. In fourth grade, she stood out as one of the top five students offered a spot in a college prep program. "I knew some of us in the program would go on to prestigious universities, and I wanted to be one of them," Maynur recalled.
But her college dream was disrupted by the heartbreaking news of her mother's death at the tender age of 39. As the eldest daughter in her family, she returned to Urumqi and attended a training school for nurses so she could help her father look after her younger brothers and sisters.
"I didn't want to resign myself to being a vocational school graduate, so I continued studying and waited for my chance," Maynur said. Different from her classmates, Maynur followed a tight schedule. Other than the practical knowledge required to be a nurse, she studied by herself subjects that would be tested in the college entrance exam.
One day when Maynur and her classmates were gathering medicinal herbs in the suburbs of Urumqi, their teacher brought the news that medical schools were about to organize an entrance exam.
Maynur was thrilled, but a little worried. She was merely a vocational school student, and other applicants studied full time in high schools. "Could I really compete with them?" Maynur found herself filled with doubt.
The ambitious youngster went to her teacher privately and signed up for the exam. Then, she devoted herself to preparing for the test, and was luckily admitted by Shanghai First Medical College, which is now Shanghai Medical College of Fudan University.
"I need to get a PhD"
After graduation, Maynur began her career as a gynecologist at the People's Hospital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in 1977. The hospital boasted the best gynecology and obstetrics services in Xinjiang at the time, yet it could only offer a mere 30 beds and HCG pregnancy testing.
Doctors in the gynecology department witnessed the greatest suffering of their female patients. Half of the 30 beds in Maynur's department were occupied by patients with cervical cancer. "They looked pale, and wore tattered clothes. They had nothing but nang(Uygur bread) to eat," said Maynur.
Later, she learned that most of the patients were from poor rural families in southern Xinjiang. Cervical cancer made their already impoverished lives more miserable. At the time, patients with advanced cervical cancer would have no more than a year to live. "I knew they would not come back after the course of treatment, and I knew what was waiting for them," Maynur said. She was so anxious to find a cure for those poor women, who had an entire family counting on them.
Maynur realized she might be able to find a cure if she knew more about medicine. Back then, the people's hospital supported veteran doctors in attending exchange programs at prestigious medical schools in foreign countries, but a candidate had to pass an English or Japanese language proficiency test. Maynur was depressed, as foreign languages were her weakness despite her being an outstanding gynecologist.
She then signed up for the hospital's after-work training program for Japanese language. The program offered two hours of Japanese classes twice a week. Maynur was the only one who made it to the end of the program, as more than 50 doctors and nurses fell by the wayside.
Her perseverance soon paid off. In the early 1990s, China's then ministry of health offered a special program for medical workers in less developed and border areas, funding them to study at medical schools in foreign countries. Maynur emerged victorious in the exams and got a chance to study at Nippon Medical School in Japan.
"When I saw how developed medicine was in Japan, I knew I had a lot to learn," recalled Maynur. After two years of study, she came back to the people's hospital in Xinjiang and resumed her medical career in 1994 at the age of 41.
But she never gave up on her dream of pursuing a PhD degree in medicine. She continued to use her spare time to study. Upon turning 45, she was admitted to a PhD program at Nippon Medical School.
Friends warned her of the damage four years abroad might do to her marriage and her two daughters. Yet her husband's words put her at ease. "She put so much energy into it. She was studying day and night. What kind of man would I be if I stopped her?"
With the support of her family, Maynur traveled to Japan and acquired a PhD in medicine in 2003.
Defending women's health
Rejecting well-paid offers elsewhere, Maynur returned to Xinjiang People's Hospital after her study in Japan.
"(The experience) transformed me from a clinic gynecologist to a medical academic," Maynur recalled, looking back on what the four years brought her. "Beforehand, I cared about the disease, or how I could cure a symptom. But as an academic, I began to think about how to solve it. It's a change in the way of thinking," she said.
In the early 2000s, medical scientists had learned that cervical cancer is caused mostly by a virus called HPV, and that early screening is an effective way to prevent the disease.
It was the cure Maynur was looking for. She found in her epidemiological investigation that the incidence rate of cervical cancer in remote areas in Xinjiang was far higher than the national average. "Many didn't know they had caught the disease, let alone seek treatment. The consequence was a high mortality rate," Maynur said.
Around 2006, Maynur and her team went to Hotan, Yutian and Luopu counties in southern Xinjiang, where they conducted an epidemiological investigation and gynecological examinations and disease screening for women in rural areas.
Their enthusiasm was greeted with a frosty reception. At the time, southern Xinjiang was less developed and rural families were very conservative. Villagers had mixed feelings about the screening. Curious but afraid, many chose not to go.
The service was on their doorstep, so why they didn't come, medical workers from the United States in Maynur's team wondered. Women in the U.S. had no free screening service like this, they said.
Maynur and her colleagues tried everything to bring women to the screening centers. They went to villagers' homes, farmland and workplaces to persuade them. The team checked more than 60,000 women for cervical cancer in mass screening and 300,000 female patients when they sought to medical help for other reasons.
Based on the epidemiological investigation, they established the first database of cervical cancer disease in Xinjiang, providing precious data for ensuing scientific research.
Her research and screening pushed for the introduction of the national policy offering free cervical cancer screening to women living in rural areas. Starting from 2009, China's Ministry of Finance allocated special funds for a three-year program, offering free screening for cervical cancer to 12 million women in rural areas.
Now, China offers free screening for cervical and breast cancers to women aged 35 to 64. The free screening program now covers more than 2,600 county-level regions across the country, more than 90 percent of the national total, said China's National Health Commission. A total of 180 million women have received free screenings for cervical cancer, said the commission.
A tiny spider weaving a big web
Maynur likened herself to a tiny spider crawling under a beam of light. Only by tirelessly working inch by inch could she achieve what she has today. Throughout 47 years of her medical career, she has completed more than 20,000 complicated gynecologic surgeries, and saved more than 9,000 patients in critical conditions.
She has also been weaving an ever-expanding protective web for women across Xinjiang. Led by Maynur, the gynecology department of the People's Hospital of Xinjiang was recognized as the only state-level key gynecology department in northwestern China, beating out those in better developed capital cities like Xi'an and Lanzhou.
Each strand in the web is a doctor treating patients as friends, following the example of Maynur. "She is a good doctor. She works hard and is always sympathetic to patients," said Zumrat Anwar, one of Maynur's PhD students.
"Dr. Maynur had been encouraging me and comforting me, and I didn't want to leave my daughter behind. So, I did all the treatments and made it through," said Bayima Abdukadir, a 45-year-old villager from Luopu County. Bayima was diagnosed with cervical cancer in screening organized by Maynur in her village in 2015.
In her colleagues' eyes, Maynur is a mentor for both their professional and personal lives. Some doctors have come to her asking for a transfer to a less demanding position, as gynecologists have too many shifts, and limited time to take care of their family. "A husband and a wife make a family, and they share the same amount of responsibilities. Do not let anything stop you from pursuing your dream," Maynur has always replied.
As a mother and wife, Maynur feels she owes a lot to her daughters and her husband. She appreciates their support. "I would not have gotten to where I am today were it not for my husband and daughters who never once complained about the time I spent away from home," she said.
With her as a role model, Maynur's two daughters have grown into similarly independent and successful women. One of them followed in their mother's footsteps and became a dermatologist, and the other now works in a company in Shanghai.
Maynur on the other hand is enjoying busy retirement. Seeing patients, doing surgeries, making her rounds, reviewing papers, and giving lectures are all part of her daily life. She hopes that through her modest contributions, her students and colleagues can in turn build successful careers of their own, and in the process, bring even greater comfort to women in Xinjiang.
Photo taken in 2007 shows Maynur Niyaz on the way to an epidemiological survey in a rural area of southern Xinjiang, China. (Photo courtesy of People's Hospital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region)
Photo taken on November 2, 2023 shows Maynur Niyaz (C) gives guidance about the prevention and treatment of cervical cancer at the Luopu maternal and childcare hospital in Luopu County, Hotan Prefecture, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. (Photo by Qin Meihua）