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Chinese Hospital Horrors

Anyone who has spent long enough in China will share the  experience of having to visit a hospital at some point.

Visiting the doctor is not enjoyable  in any case; but when faced with a dangerous pairing of local Chinese customs and enthusiasm for Western medicine, dealing with health issues can become a harrowing experience, especially for those among us who have been spoilt by Western standards of treatment in both senses of the word.

A recent Christmas trip to Disneyland in Hong Kong took us straight from the airport to the hospital, as my husband’s eye had swollen to the size of a golf ball. Yes indeed, the hospital. Unlike in Germany, my COB, there is no tradition of general practitioners, family doctors or small private clinics when it comes to Western medicine in modern China. Which means if you face an acute problem such as an eye that looks as though you have been in a bar fight, the main option is to go to a public hospital (or become a pauper in return for excellent service at an international hospital).

Seeing a doctor in China is still ridiculously inexpensive. For around 20RMB in BenQ international hospital in Nanjing and 60RMB in Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing, you get to see the “Zhuanjia”, the medical expert. A visit to the less experienced “normal doctor” usually only sets you back a few kuai, or less than one Euro. At one of the international institutions, standards are slightly more European. While you can expect stellar service, you can also look forward to a bill of around 1000RMB per visit.

Upon registering you chose the department you want to visit; paediatrics, cardiology or in our case ophthalmology, and then which type of doctor. After handing over the hospitals individual patient card, which you receive the first time you register with said hospital (I always wonder what if you go to a different hospital each time? You better have a big wallet), you are assigned a number to see your doctor. Once you have located your department, you need to once again swipe your hospital card at the department desk, so your presence is registered by the system. All very organised up until now.

However, once it comes to standing in line to see the doctor, the problems begin. The lack of queuing etiquette has become one of the Chinese most infamous shortcomings, and especially in public hospitals the “everyone for themselves” mentality is heavily pronounced. While you consult with the doctor, between 2 and 10 patients might push into the room to form a resemblance of a queue, listening to the entire exchange between you and the health professional. After all, in a communist and collectivist society with an overpopulation problem, ideas of privacy and personal space differ extremely from our spoilt, individualist opinions.

Next is a trip to the blood sample station, which looks almost like the service section of a bank with up to five counters with glass windows under which you push your arm, while your neighbour faints and falls off their seat because the nurse wasn’t able to locate the vein.

Wait for half an hour to pick up the results from the printer and storm back to the ophthalmology department, where the previously half orderly system has already been chucked overboard and you virtually have to push your way into the room, queueing up behind the patient who is having their eyesight examined.

Antibiotic obsession

Finally, it was out turn. While the blood tests indicated it was an allergic reaction the doctor announced that he would prescribe an IV drip anyway, because according to him it “didn’t really look like an allergic reaction”.

Sadly, this aggressive route of treatment in spite of scientific evidence is nothing out of the ordinary. The history of antibiotics in China is much shorter than in the West, and with its introduction to the Middle Kingdom did not come the important awareness of how to handle this dangerous medication.

As Mr. Li puts it, his was the “generation of antibiotics”. While their parents did not have access and today’s parents and health institution are increasingly informed and aware, during the 1990s Chinese people would take antibiotics like it was regular cold medicine. The colloquial translation of Xiaoyanyao (消炎药) didn’t help either, as this just means “medicine that reduces inflammation” as opposed to the scientific translation of 抗生素.

“We would take 5 or 6 pills at a time, three times a day whenever we got sick. For colds and fever alike. We just didn’t know any better,” he tells me each time the subject comes up. China and the world are now facing the consequences as the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria poses an entirely new threat to our health.

On a personal level, I have been waging my own little war against antibiotics. While I have managed to dial down Mr. Li’s antibiotic use (or abuse depending on your POV), being in China does not help my case.

My exasperated challenging of the doctor’s announcement was met with confusion; the professional clearly couldn’t fathom why anyone would mind an antibiotic transfusion while Mr. Li chanted “It’s my wife who doesn’t like me using antibiotics, I don’t mind, I don’t mind.”

What are you to do? In the end the doctor agreed to also prescribe antihistamines but still insisted on the IV.

What worries me is simply the fact that in the face of scientific evidence, i.e. the blood test, the doctor chose to ignore it to just return to the bog standard Chinese solution of pumping massive amounts of a drug into your body that will kill you with overuse. This overuse has now led the the emergence of antibiotic-resistant super bacteria, posing a very real health threat to our global world.

It makes me feel unsafe about visiting any type of health care practitioner in China. It makes me wonder how I can live in a country where I don’t even dare go to the doctor?

Have you had similar experiences with visiting doctors in China? How do you handle it?

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A Fake Heart Attack,Whatsapp and a Beautiful Morning

ekg heart monitor results China

“Whoops it’s already 2am”, I thought guiltily as I hung up on my Skype call with my friends in Austria, just get ready for bed and sleep as soon as possible.

That was when it happened. The minute I adjusted my body to go to sleep, I suddenly felt a piercing pain in the vicinity of my heart, it lasted for a couple of seconds and was more intense than anything I had ever experienced. Next thing I know my left arm starts going numb. Fuck, I am having a heart attack was my instantaneous reaction. A quick googling of symptoms, nausea, yes, dizziness, yes, cold sweat, yes and I was convinced my heart was about to stop any second now.

Then came the realization of how utterly in the shits I was if I was indeed having a heart attack. I was in China, it was almost three am and I was completely on my own in my little flat. If I dropped dead now, I mused, how long would it take them to find my body? Well, if I hadn’t been entirely nauseous and about to pass out before, I surely was now.

According to the all-knowing interweb I had about an hour before it was good night world, so I had to act fast. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Li did not answer his phone in the middle of the night. Luckily, a stroke of brilliance, it was still early evening in Austria and one of my best friends’ partner is a highly qualified doctor. A quick Whatsapp message and to my utter relief they were right there, sending me replies and calming me down while still urging me to see a doctor.

Thank goodness I knew by now where to go in this situation; BenQ hospital in the South of the city, the international clinic from Taiwan with competent doctors and state-of-the-art medical equipment.

While the taxi was slowly creeping along towards my life boat, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had experienced this a year ago. I had been in China for half a year already but, like many foreigners I knew, had never been to a hospital out of fear of the horror stories I had heard with regards to hygiene standards and professional competency of medical staff (I.e. Zero). I had witnessed on the few visits I had made to a Chinese hospital the nonchalance with which total strangers will stand in the door way listening to your consultation with the doctor, overhearing every single one of your symptoms and encroaching on that precious private space many Westerners are accustomed to. Rooted in collectivism and communism, when there was no private life as the state was omni-present, examples such as these still illustrate the different concepts in relation to personal space.

A traumatising experience of getting my blood drawn for the exit and entry medical exam at a literal counter, with the person next to me spurting blood from their arms like this was some king of horror movie was enough to convince me a hospital visit in China would do more harm than help.

It was only when I acted as moral and linguistic support to a friend that I discovered how good BenQ actually was; though I had heard much positive feedback, the skepticism was hard to shut down.

Mentally thanking the powers that be that I did know where to go, I walked into the emergency room. After a thorough check up including measuring pulse and heart rate plus a blood test, all of which set me back a mere ¥130 (about €10), the highly competent and sensitive doctor explained that it was probably just a nerve that had become entrapped as I was lying the wrong way on my not very comfortable mattress after a week of incredibly tense neck and shoulders.

She also inquired whether the group of “little gangsters” 小混混 had scared me off as I was waiting for the results next to her desk, because they were discrespecting me. This I found incredibly sweet of her. In actual fact I had just gone outside to ask to lie down on the ER beds for an hour’s nap from 4am to 5am, mainly because their beds were more comfortable than my own, which partly caused this mess in the first place.

Walking out of the hospital at 5.30 am I don’t think I need to describe how happy and relieved I felt. I was welcomed by the most beautiful sight I have ever seen, with Nanjing’s modern Jianye district lying in front of me, blue skies above a fresh grassy smell from the greens and the streets recently cleaned adding to the freshness, birds chirping in the trees and hardly any cars in sight. Who would have thought I would ever end up witnessing this breathtaking view of sleepy Nanjing at dawn because of a fake heart attack?

nanjing benq hospital dawn jianye district fairmont

Thank you so much to Laura and Gabsi for being there for me during what was probably the most scary moment of my life so far – in a foreign country completely on your own a medical emergency is seriously frightening. Make sure you know where to go and if possible have a safety contact at hand to let them know where you are and what is happening.