Let’s start with some back story: my back hurts. A lot.
Sometime in April, while doing absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, I started getting some very uncomfortable pain in my back when I tried to bend over to do anything (no jokes, y’hear?!). This proved rather inconvenient here in China, land of one meter tall brooms and sinks at mid-thigh height. I tried stretching; I tried resting; I tried exercising; I even tried cursing it away – all to no avail – but it was a dull pain, so I dealt with it.
Late in May, things took an unexpected turn early on a Saturday morning as I tried to get out of bed to get ready for work (“tried” being the operative word here). Shooting pains followed and an involuntary yelp of pain escaped my lips, waking my husband on what was probably his only day to sleep in that week (sorry, honey). Shuffling and grimacing commenced for the remainder of the weekend, and again I tried everything I could think of to make the pain go away (heat, cold, massage, fire-cupping, grumbling…).
The intensity of the pain did wane after a few days, and it returned to that dull ache, but it never fully went away. Well, after a couple of months of this, I decided I had had enough and my husband and I embarked this week on what I think I shall call the “Epic Hospital Endeavour of 2012.”
Now kids, this is not my first time at the rodeo which is the medical system in China. I’ve had a couple of other experiences being sick and needing to consult a doctor to get proper medication. The following list of clues have been gathered from observations on my handful of visits to one here in our city (also, if you’re one of those expats who lives in a fancy big city with fancy modern hospitals where people are all civilized and stuff…you’re spoiled and not brave at all and I don’t want to hear about it).
I should also mention that I don’t have an awful lot of experience with hospitals or medical care in any other country, including Canada. I was an invincible monster when I lived there…OK Mom, stop laughing…maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. The truth is more along the lines of I got sick kind of often, but I was usually too stubborn to go to the doctor unless I absolutely couldn’t take it anymore (hey, that’s really not that different from how I behave in China!).
Anyway, my point is that I don’t really know what I’m comparing the Chinese system to, but I like to imagine that all North American hospitals resemble the ones on TV shows like ‘ER’ and ‘House’ – clean, bright, attractive people (both employees and patients), and the chaos always being well-controlled and orderly (let me continue believing it, people, don’t burst my bubble). Oh, and people always get better (yeah, I know that isn’t the reality).
But just in case you should wake up and find yourself in a hospital one day, unaware of exactly where you are, here are a list of clues to help you ascertain whether or not you’re currently in a Chinese hospital.
- You don’t go to a clinic to visit a doctor – they are all located in the hospital. This means that, as a foreigner, you feel rather ridiculous having to go to the hospital for things as innocuous as a sore back or a sinus infection.
- The young girls who staff the information desk on the main floor wear bright red uniforms including jaunty little hats, reminiscent of old school flight attendants.
- People are smoking everywhere, but are especially congregated beneath the “No Smoking” signs (the same goes for the “No Cell Phone Usage” signs and the “No Loud Noise” signs – these are where you can find the majority of the card-playing cell phone shouters).
- Families of patients, not nurses or orderlies, take care of their loved ones’ needs, sleeping in hallways and stairwells so they can be nearby to run downstairs to purchase medicine, change IV bags, bring food to eat, and whatnot (these people make up a large majority of the smoking, card-playing cell phone shouters, by the way).
- You are stared at more than any other place you’ve ever visited in the entire country of China (thanks to the likelihood that the above families are from the nearby county, and thus have never seen a foreigner in their lives).
- Most of the people wearing face masks are not doctors (it’s also worth noting that most of the people wearing face masks are also not the ones with the nasty-sounding coughs).
- There are more babies with IVs than the total number of babies you’ve ever seen in your lifeup to that point (IV drips are the treatment method of choice for approximately 80% of doctors here – you have to quite adamantly push for an alternative if you don’t want to sit with a needle in you for a few hours a day for the next few days).
- Despite being a country with a population of nearly 1.5 billion people, there are only chairs for two of those people in a waiting area (if you’re lucky and if there is, in fact, a waiting area at all).
- There is, as everywhere else in China, no hot water to wash your hands anywhere (oh, and the bathrooms are just as nasty as public toilets on the street, which might explain the man who chose to hold his infant grandson over the garbage can located directly outside of the men’s bathroom to pee rather than take him 5 steps inside to do his business).
- You never visit a general practitioner because they don’t seem to exist. Every doctor you visit is a specialist, and you choose whichever ones you think fit your problem. Also, you don’t have a regular doctor you visit who knows your history – it’s just whoever fits the bill on the day. There is also seemingly no rhyme or reason to the location of the specialist’s offices – the orthopaedic office may very well be next door to the reproductive assistance office and just down the hall from a respiratory specialist.
- You don’t make an appointment to see a doctor; instead, you deal with it in the same way one would deal with rush seating at a concert or boarding a train in this country – that is, PUSH!!! In fact, you start to consider that the banks in China, with all their “take a number and wait your turn while we flip slowly through all the numbers before yours even though there is literally no one else in the entire bank because that is our policy” attitude, could really stand to teach the medical profession a thing or two.
- There are at least 25 other people clustered in the tiny room that is the doctor’s “office”, all listening to everyone else’s consultations. I mean, it is a communist country, right? Everyone shares?
- Dealing with the patient before you, your doctor examines her tongue and feels the pulse in her wrist in order to diagnose her (traditional Chinese medicine, and let’s face it, kind of cool).
- Your doctor is perhaps the oldest man you have ever personally met in real life and yet he speaks English. Your amusement at this is tempered by the fact that at the end of your consultation, he asks for your phone number.
- Your doctor wears a white lab coat over shorts and flip flops (bonus points if the lab coat is buttoned and his shorts don’t stick out so when he walks past you do a double take to check that he is wearing some sort of bottoms).
- The biohazard bin near the doorway of your doctor’s “office” is overflowing with the stinky dredges of Chinese medicine tea.
- You are sent for ridiculously unnecessary tests (think an MRI for a suspected sinus infection and a CT scan for back pain) as a first recommendation. But on the bright side…
- You get in for those ridiculously unnecessary tests on the same day and receive the results the next day (sometimes even same day, depending on the time). They are also relatively cheap.
- While waiting for those tests, you wonder whether anyone with half a brain ever noticed that having the CT/MRI administration window, the double doors leading to CT and MRI scan rooms, a single door leading to a changing room, and the CT/MRI results pick-up desk all squished together within 10 feet of each other and in a corner was perhaps not a good idea in terms of traffic flow.
- Doctors, technicians, and perhaps even many nurses, do not work between noon and 3pm, which wouldn’t be quite so inconvenient except that they also do not work past 4:30pm. [Note to self: If I ever have an emergency, be sure to have it between 9am and noon or 3:00-4:30pm.]
- Your doctor’s second recommendation, before even seeing the results of the tests he sent you for and diagnosing you, and in fact even while stating he doesn’t think there is anything wrong, is that you should be admitted to the hospital.
After spending the better part of two days at the hospital for tests and waiting to speak to doctors, they all conclude that nothing is wrong with your back, despite the fact that you are still in pain. On the third day, just have your husband take you to a traditional Chinese medicine clinic and get some really stinky medicinal patches to adhere to your back and belly for the next several weeks. Hope that they work, because they really are quite smelly!