No one can avoid the doctor forever and with almost 5 years under my belt, I finally landed myself in a Chinese hospital.
Well, I guess I should say a hospital in China, as the one I went to was a western style hospital in Hangzhou. They had a high level of hygiene, nurse brought your food to you (though you had to bus your own plates), they had top notch equipment and some of the head doctors could speak English. (Though not many nurses could beyond ‘good morning.’)
So what was it like? Well, my first room was a triple, 3 beds, which actually meant a sextuplet room. That’s because in China the family is very, very involved. There is at least one family member who stays with the patient at every moment. All day and night long. In the smaller hospitals the family member is responsible for everything, getting food, changing sheets, giving medicine.
So my little room was much fuller than I expected. And much louder. They have a special fold out chair that becomes a bed at night so the family member can sleep next to the patient. And my female roommates had guys helping them. One woman had her adult son, the other her husband. And while I think it’s really nice the family is so involved and helpful, those two guys drove me nuts. The son snored so loudly all night long I could get no sleep (yes I had earplugs, no they did nothing) and the other guy hocked loogies in 5 minute intervals.
Meanwhile one of the sick women was having some sort of lung problem and coughed and then loudly brought up phlegm for about 5 minutes before she spit it into a bed pan which her son would empty into the toilet (and then not flush). This went on all hours of the night. Of course I had sympathy for these sick women, but less so when they started watching Beijing Opera on the TV at 7:30am. You know, the loud, screeching style singing? That’s Beijing opera. Culturally very cool. At 7:30am on a static TV? Not so cool.
In China privacy isn’t really a big thing, and being the only foreigner in the entire ward opened me up to a lot of stares and scrutiny. People would shuffle slowly by the room staring at me the whole time. Or just stop and watch me sitting in my bed. A few would even come in and ask my roommates about me (and my roommates would talk about me as if I couldn’t understand even though they knew I spoke Chinese.)
I feel like a bit of a snob, but I really couldn’t take it and after 3 days I changed to a VIP room. Now this place was more like it. Total privacy, a big nice bathroom, leather couch, thick wooden door that kept strangers at bay (they stared a bit through the window opening but not so bad). Not surprisingly the cost different was huge. The common room was $8 a night, the private room was a $100. But it was worth it.
As for the actual medical experience it was a lot like the west with a few changes. People don’t exactly have appointments. Instead inpatients and outpatients have to kind of fight to get the test they need. Like when I went to get a CT scan the nurse brought me to a check-in window where I was immediately stuck with a needle to add a line to my vein during the procedure. I was still wearing my normal clothes (jeans and a sweater).
We waited outside this heavy, metal door and as it slowly started to slide open my nurse and about 5 other people rushed in all waving papers trying to be next. The doctor chose my nurse and kicked the others out. We weren’t in a waiting room, but the actual CT room, and they made me lie down, still fully clothed, on the table. They hooked up an IV, left the room, told me to hold my breath and in a few short minutes I was back out in the hallway and the doctor was choosing the next person from the small mob.
Once I had two tests lined up and one had a bit longer of a wait and the nurse was getting really anxious because she was afraid the doctor of the second test would go home. So we practically ran, me in hospital clothes with a needle in my hand, to get to the second test in time. No peaceful, quiet, calm tests. In almost every case the next patient was standing next to me the second I was done, impatiently waiting for me to leave so they could get their turn. A bit chaotic but maybe a good way to deal with the huge numbers of patients.
And you know how hospital food usually sucks? It’s really bad in China. The only time I ate a meal was one breakfast when they served me rice porridge. Now, rice porridge is a little like oatmeal in that if made right, it can be delicious. But, if you just pour some plain unflavored oatmeal in a bowl with a ton of water and no flavor, it’s not so good. Thats what this was. After that I decided food from outside was better. For the first couple of days they let me go out at night and after that my friends hooked me up.
One of the things I thought was better than the west was staff. In America the nurses and doctors always seem in short supply. When you ring the bell, or go out looking for a nurse, they are usually busy or harried, totally overworked. But here in China labor force is not a problem and there were also several nurses and aiyi’s ready to help you at a moments notice. Also, the doctors seemed to have less patients than in the west. Instead of the brief 3-minute consultation my doctor seemed less harried and more willing to spend time with me, talking to me and checking me out which I really appreciated.
Also, the truth is being in a hospital in a foreign country, where you only kinda speak the language, can be a scary thing. I checked into the hospital myself and felt incredibly overwhelmed because I really didn’t know what I was doing. I just kinda walked where people pointed and did what they wanted me to do, not sure of the reason. Even when I had a friend with me to translate I didn’t totally understand what was going on, especially with more technical stuff like names of medicines. After one painful test I had 3 IV bags of different medicine and to combat the pain they gave me a “big drug.” (Morphine? I’ll never know.) So there is an element of huge trust when your in another country.
But my friends were amazing. The first night my friend Jason came to help me and he helped me understand what the doctors were saying (while my head doctor had great English I didn’t see her much and instead relied on younger doctors who’s english was not so perfect. As one examined me he said, “let me check your lips,” while going for my eyes.)
My “boys” (my favorite students) were also a great distraction. I wasn’t allowed to leave my bed so one day the boys from one class came to visit me and keep me company all day. (It took then 3 hours to get to the hospital because they got lost. It should have only taken 2.) Then one of the boys spent the night in a hotel and took care of me the next day bringing me breakfast, lunch and playing cards with me. Then, later in the day another group of boys from a different class came. They hung out chatting for awhile and then left to get me dinner.
One boy comes back with dinner and I ask where the other boys are. “They went back to school,” he said.
“What? Without you?” I asked.
“I’ll stay here and take care of you tonight,” he said.
It was so nice of him to offer, but Jason was coming back the next day so I told him to go home. They kept calling me and texting to make sure I was not only okay, but had someone to take care of me.
But the true hero of the week is my best friend Color. When I told him I was sick he immediately dropped everything and came to the hospital where he stayed for 4 days taking total charge. He took care of my bills, talked to the doctors, made sure that I was as comfortable as possible. During a MRI instead of the doctor saying “hold your breath,” they asked Color to do it. “Hold, Becky!” I’d hear while in the long tube. “Breath, Becky!” Theres no better way to make a test less nerve wracking than having your BFF’s voice in your ear.
After one test I wasn’t allowed to move for 12 hours, not even lift me head or sit on my side. I was flat on my back, and Color helped me the whole time. When I was thirsty he opened a bottle of water and realized that if I tried to drink it horizontally it would splash on my face. So he took a big swig, looked at the bottle, took another swig and then apparently happy handed me the bottle. It didn’t splash on my face at all.
He also spoon fed me dinner while I was on my back. Patiently feeding me rice and corn with chopsticks, one tiny bite at a time. When something fell on my face he picked it up and threw it away. At night before he left he peeled an orange and put it withins arms reach, along with a bottle of water and a washed apple just in case I got hungry before he came back in the morning.
He never acted embarrassed, or annoyed or impatient. Just slowly and patiently he helped me when I needed it. He was even willing to help me use a bed pan, and told me that if I had to go pee, he’d help me. That’s where I, an American who considers going to the bathroom quite private, drew the line. I said if I needed to do it, the nurse could help me, but the simple fact that he was willing to do it means a lot.
And when he finally had to leave, to go to Beijing to work, he arranged for a student to take care of me, and gave the student his hotel room, and even slipped him 200rmb to pay for my food and other things. Color and I don’t get to see each other that often anymore, because of work and distance, but just to know he’d skip out on work, and come immediately when I need him helped me more than amy medicine could.
So overall the hospital was okay. I know my experience was better than most because of the hospital I chose. I have heard horror stories of some of the small, local hospitals who’s floors are caked with dirt, sheets are stained and doctors practice medieval medicine. But this place was clean, spotless and bright with the latest technology and up-to-date doctors. (I used my phone to kind of check the tests and they were doing everything the major medical websites from America recommended.)
As for my actual medical problem I don’t really want to talk about it here, but it’s okay now and my next hospital stay will hopefully be very far in the future, another 5 years at least. But now that I’ve done it, and lived to tell the tale, I’m less worried about it in the future. Even after 5 years there is something new for me to experience in China. Life here is never boring…..