Visit to a Chinese Hospital – May 2008

Ordinarily I would not even consider Chinese medicine, but after 24 days of non-stop coughing and pain I woke up Sunday morning with 2 knots in the back of my throat like grape tomatoes on the vocal chords. This was too much. Both my mother and her sister died of throat cancer so after lunch my favorite translator and I went to a hospital. In China you don’t go to doctors; you go to a hospital which is where they have doctors.

Lindsay said let’s not go to City Hospital, it is too expensive. At the reception desk I paid a whopping 25 cents to register, and then we went into an examining room. What a blessing to see the doctor is the parent of one of our students and she recognizes me instantly. I tell her my symptoms and she takes my temperature, pulse, examines my breathing and finds nothing wrong.

Interestingly enough she did not take my blood pressure, ask about a medical history or inquire what medicines I am now taking. In fact there is no blood pressure cuff at all in the examining room, no scales, no latex gloves, no tongue depressors, no magazine, no chairs. I sit on a 3-legged stool. She suggested allergies – maybe I am allergic to dust. We’ve had some fearsome sandstorms recently. But now my attention turns to the room itself. It was filthy with dirt built up in the corners as though they had mopped the place for years with the same water which had now baked on. There was dirt on top of the electric fan which was held together with adhesive tape while 2 toothpicks kept the off and on buttons in place.

The other doctor in the room was tracking all patient activity with little receipt-size papers plus a carbon, and then the day’s duties were pasted together with a Qtip dipped in glue. No computer or filing cabinets were anywhere in sight. I guess they don’t track patients at all. The top of the doctor’s desk was rough with ground-in dirt which soiled all the paperwork in process. (I mused at what the pricey hospital might be like.) In contrast, the dental clinic in town where I had my teeth cleaned ($8.00) was pristine.
Every bank in town has an armed guard but here the doors were open and people could wander around the halls. One large room was filled with metal cots and half the beds were occupied by people in street clothes. I noticed some visitors to the hospital covered their noses as they went through the halls.
Then a woman patient arrived and vomited ingloriously in a sink behind me. She lay down on a gurney-type bed covered with old green oilcloth. No attempt was made to keep us separated or prevent possible contamination. The doctor wore a mask but none was given to me or my translator.
Next was a blood test. But first we returned to the purser to pay 25 Yuan ($3.60) for the exam. Since it is Sunday the place is pretty quiet. Like all hospitals there are directional signs but still no one knows where to go! I told Lindsay about Duke Hospital where they have colored paint, balls or icons on the floors – with instructions like – follow the blue paint until you see the yellow balls, and then turn right.

This was a newer building but still dirt prevailed, just less of it. Bloody cotton balls and Qtips were thrown into an open container. Very old cardboard boxes contained papers and used plastic items. Now we must return to the 1st building to see the doctor who said I had an elevated white count – no surprise – and she recommended some Chinese medicine. I had come this far so I will continue with the treatment, but I wondered, will this be “wing of bat and eye of newt”?
Then we walk to the pharmacy area with the usual dull palaver about my being an American, who I am and why I am here! The druggist asked me if I knew any Chinese. I said, yes, a little, like “ni hao,” “zaijian,” and “paymapi.” This means, “hello,” “goodbye” and “pat the horse’s behind,” a phrase in Chinese which has the same meaning as a similar one in English. So they were all laughing! I said to Lindsay under my breath, “It is not easy telling jokes in a language you don’t know.”

After a long discussion (the Chinese love to discuss) we walked back to the purser and paid $6.58 for two prescriptions. One is for the white blood count and the other to soothe my throat. I am to have only cold food and drinks, and no spicy food for 48 hours! Then we went back to the doctor again, who reported that the medicines are wrong. My translator disgustedly said, “They are government employees so you see how responsible they are!” It was a surprisingly candid comment for a closed society.

We march back to the “chemist” – their term for pharmacist and the woman defends her choice of the 2nd prescription. Lindsay agrees. Since I cannot understand a single word I acquiesce because I trust my translator. There is a small, fresh pile of vomit on the floor in front of the pharmacy but no one seems to notice. In fact the hospital appears devoid of support staff of any kind. It will probably stay there overnight and maybe longer as it is now almost 6 p.m. Under a stairwell I spot the apartment of a woman and her son. Apparently they live in this hospital with clothes, homework and food in piles in what was about the size of a big closet.

Lindsay asked – not like an America hospital?! It was a rhetorical question so she didn’t expect an answer. I do not usually voice comparisons between America and China because it sounds condemnatory and the private citizen is powerless to change things in any event – but here I simply said “I have seen morgues that look better.” In fact it reminded me of the morgue at Rex Hospital in Raleigh.

I hadn’t spent much money but then only time will tell if these medicines do any good. I do know that hospitals in Beijing are more modern and standards are meticulously maintained. And as I took a taxi back I realized maybe this was actually just a lesson for me in what the Chinese call Medicine. Next time I will try the “expensive” hospital. Later, back in my room at the Kaida Hotel I took a shower in the pristine tile bathroom and snuggled under the puffy Clorox-white comforters on my bed. Now that was hospital clean.

As it turned out I was well within 4 days.

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