I cannot remember the last time I went to the hospital in the States. I made it through four years in New Orleans of essentially complete disregard for my body without once needing immediate medical attention. In fact, I can only think of two, maybe three times that I even required the services of the Tulane Health Center. Once for swine flu, once for mono. I don’t like getting sick, but I don’t really mind lying in my bed. I hate going to the hospital. It’s tiring, expensive, and often completely fruitless.
I am currently in a hotel in Xiaguan City, Dali Prefecture, Yunnan Province –here for some final training/team building sessions before we disperse to our respective schools. Accommodations are substantially better than those at Summer Institute.
Around 10 pm last Sunday night I went out to get a bite. I tried a few places I had passed by earlier in the day. Nothing was open, except for a tiny hole in the wall that served some sort of soupy looking thing. I ordered, waited, and took my soupy thing to go. I knew immediately that the meat should not have been eaten. Dubious color, dubious texture, dubious taste. But, alas, it was too late. I ate the whole thing and hoped for the best.
Shortly after lunch the next day, I started to get a hint of things to come. It began rather harmlessly, but quickly escalated to previously uncharted waters. By four o’clock, I had checked out of class. By 7:30 it was hospital time. I struggled into the elevator with my roommate, Brandon. We hailed a cab in front of the hotel. White people alone are a surprise to any cab driver in this part of China, much less delirious white people demanding medical care.
We planned to meet our supervisor at a hospital a few minutes away. I writhed in the backseat, trying painstakingly to keep my vomit from destroying the sign on my seat that said “Welcome ride the car!” First the cab driver arrived at the wrong address. At home, the exact hospital would not have mattered. However, there was no way Brandon and I were about to dive into this situation without a native Chinese speaker. A few seconds of confusion ensued as Brandon repeatedly shoved the address our supervisor had texted him into the driver’s face. We got to the right hospital a few minutes later. Our supervisor, Ma LiJun was waiting outside. I stumbled out of the backseat, mired in what was probably the most intense pain I’ve ever felt in my life. My stomach, from my belly button to my sternum throbbed and panged relentlessly as though the whole thing wanted nothing more than to jump out of my body at once. At that moment, all I wanted was anesthesia. I didn’t care at all about “getting better,” I just wanted to be unable to feel.
First, we went into a small room. Ma LiJun translated my barely intelligible groans to a middle-aged nurse. She took my blood pressure and checked my temperature. She also repeatedly applied force to my stomach with her thumb, asking, “Does this hurt?” The answer was an emphatic “Yes!” every time. She must have thought my answer was insufficient, because the exercise continued for an excruciating minute or more. After getting my stomach pressed on for a minute, I was moved into a room with five beds in a row, two of which were already full. The patients in the room looked pretty stable, which made me feel at ease. I settled into the back corner bed.
After what seemed like an eternity, a nurse wearing a nose/mouth guard and glasses matter-of-factly wheeled in a table full of medical devices. She was followed by an almost identical matter-of-fact nurse carrying a movable IV. They were straight out of a sci-fi movie. I was scared of them. At this point, I was feverish, completely dehydrated, and still writhing from stomach pain. It was all very blurry. My supervisor informed me I was about to get an amino acid shot in the ass and “a bunch” of IV’s. Sidenote: IV’s are the most common form of pain relief in China. Hospitals do not give patients pills like Tylenol or Alleve, but rather do almost everything intravenously. It would all cost around $40. This hospital had a giant “menu” in the hallway that clearly displayed the price of each type of treatment (slightly more transparent than what we are used to in the States). I gladly accepted my shot and IV from the matter-of-fact duo.
Accompanying me during these torturous hours were my supervisor/boss Ma LiJun, a second year fellow Zu Mei, and my roommate, Brandon. The hospital visit proved to be a great time to get to know my direct boss a little better. Ma LiJun is a small woman with short black hair from China’s Anhui province. She is organized to a tee and unfailingly punctual. What I did not know was that behind this façade of rigid structure is a biting sardonic sense of humor that came out in full force during our hours in the hospital. People often try too hard to be upbeat in places full of pain and gloom. Ma LiJun was having none of it. “It’s like an American party, yes! Drugs, people passed out. I am so happy to share this great moment with you.” She was relentless, but it was just what I needed. The teaching profession is pretty devoid of negativity, and it was nice to be reminded that some people in this line of work don’t take themselves too seriously.
I spent the next three hours drifting in and out of sleep. At one point I was woken up by a new guest to our party. A man in a stretcher was wheeled in by three or four family members. Truthfully, I thought he was dead. His feet were wrapped in saran wrap and he was totally unconscious. When I saw his family laughing, I was doubly disturbed and got scared again. They quickly explained to Ma LiJun that he was just wasted. I eased up a little. It’s quite common in China, often expected, to get drunk to the point of sickness, incoherency, and passing out. Apparently our new guest was a fixture at the hospital. Within the hour he was groaning and babbling things that even a fluent speaker of local dialect would not be able to ascribe meaning to.
I was told I would receive three water bags in total. When the second one finally finished, Ma LiJun joked that we would we like to take the third to go. Halfway through the third bag, at around 1 am, I decided I was good to go. I yanked off the IV and tried to stand up. I promptly fell back down onto the bed in a drug-induced daze. With a little help from my support staff, I got back up, walked out, got into a cab, and headed back to the hotel. The drunk groaned one last time as if to say goodnight.
The whole experience was incredibly surreal. The mix of intense pain, numbing drugs, and a totally foreign environment was a sensory rollercoaster. I almost wish I could have written this in the state of experience. It was all very lucid. Experiencing something so new in such an altered state was purely wild. Extremely serious situations seemed like an absurd farce. Extremely normal moments were often terrifying. It was totally bizarre. I kind of want to go back.