Lisa McClure's China Diary

December 12, 2000

I got sick in the usual way. My kid brought home a cold from school and generously shared it with me. We've had a number of these garden variety ailments since Lara started hanging around other kids. But for the most part, they've passed without too much trouble.

This time, however, my cold apparently went into bronchitis and triggered my long dormant asthma. I've been sick since before Thanksgiving, and really feeling low, barely able to get through my classes one week.

Here in China, if you get sick, everybody's in your face. "Lisa, have you eaten any medicine? What medicine are you eating? Here, give you some of my medicine. Did you go to the hospital?" etc., etc., ad nauseam. On the plus side, they often bring fruit and other good things to eat. But mostly, they are relentless, and after nagging about taking care of yourself, then they will continue to ask for favors and come over to chat and visit, when all I really want is to be left alone, so I can crawl back into bed and die in peace.

So, I unplugged my telephone several weeks ago. Man, that's a relief! Nobody calls, so nobody can ask for favors, or hassle me about my medicinal intake.

About a week and a half ago, I realized that my normal asthma medicine wasn't going to cut it, so I got my waiban (Chinese liaison responsible for foreign teachers) to take me to the hospital.

Here in China, when you get sick, you go to the doctor at a hospital. They kind of work like HMO's, except without the monthly insurance premiums. You just go where you like, when you like. No appointment necessary.

I picked the big hospital on the hill, because Lara's gotten pretty good care there. (for a minor stomach ailment, and an ear infection) We have a clinic on campus, which offers subsidized medical care, but the doctors there seem to be idiots, and I don't trust them.

So, Leanne and I climbed into one of those little motorized pedicabs and rattled over to the big hospital. It was a Monday morning, so the place was packed, as all doctors are everywhere on Monday mornings. I handed Leanne 20 yuan, and she pressed her way up to the front window to register. When she asked if I wanted to see a specialist, I said 'Yes!'.

A few minutes later, she returned with 7 yuan change, a hospital book with my name on it, and several printed receipts for various things, all in Chinese. Then, we went to find a doctor. We came to one doctor's office, but it was packed full of people. A guard nurse in the hall saw that I was a foreigner (or something) and directed us into another, less crowded doctor's office across the hall. (It seemed that she might be picking only the nicest patients to visit this doctor. I felt honored) Inside, the elderly woman doctor with a white cloth face mask and cap mostly obscuring her face, was seated at her desk, surrounded by people. The patient was sitting on a small round stool next to the doctor. The other people appeared to be relatives and other waiting patients, but it wasn't clear who belonged to who. The doctor was busy writing out reams of instructions, prescriptions, who knows what.

After a while, the patient picked up all the paperwork and she and half the people in the room filed out, and the next group took their place. I was relieved that they all appeared to be together. The doctor examined the next patient while we all watched and waited. It was pretty cold, so we all kept our coats on, and the doctor only exposed the minimum amount of patient flesh, so she could take his blood pressure and listen with the stethoscope. (A heads up to U.S. Doctors: I like the fact that you don't seem to have to take your clothes off when you visit a doctor in China. It seems a lot more civilized to me.)

After the doctor had completed this examination and written up reams of paperwork for this patient, he and his companions left and I sat down on the little stool next to the doctor. By this time, several new groups had joined us in the office to wait their turn and watch me be examined.

I showed the doctor my asthma medicine, and Leanne explained the problem to her. She seemed very experienced and knowledgable, and even spoke a few completely unintelligible words of English. After listening carefully to my breathing, she told me that my right lung was infected, and started writing in my hospital book. She also filled out lots of papers for tests she wanted me to take, before she would prescribe for me.

Then, Leanne and I set off on our scavenger hunt. For every test to be taken, we first had to find the office window to have the cost of the test written on the test request form. Then, we had to find the office window where we could pay for the test. Next, we had to find the office where the test could be performed. And finally, we had to find the place to pick up the test results. None of these windows was marked in English, and I gather from the difficulty that Leanne had in finding these places that they weren't marked in Chinese either.

The doctor wanted me to have three different tests - a chest X-ray, blood work, and a lung capacity test of some sort. So, you can imagine that trekking all over the hospital in our attempt to find and complete all these tests really strained my already overworked physical resources. In short, I felt like total hell. It's no joke that it's possible to be just too damned sick to go to the hospital.

The blood test was the easiest to deal with. For 30 yuan, the doctor had me lean one ear up towards his side of the window, and he poked me in the lobe, and squeezed out the blood. I imagine this must be how the mother cow feels when it's being milked.

The chest X-ray turned out to be expensive - 120 yuan, and I had not brought enough cash with me to pay for it, because I had really hoped and expected that the doctor would simply give me a prescription for Prednisone (a standard asthma medicine) and I'd already be at home.

So, Leanne and I had to leave the hospital and walk several blocks to the nearest branch of my bank, so that I could withdraw some more cash. We got back to the hospital just 10 minutes before noon, and when we arrived at the X-ray lab, the doctor at first briskly told Leanne to return in the afternoon. But then he caught a glimpse of my foreign face, and greeting me cheerfully in English, he quickly told Leanne in Chinese to wait just a few moments. So we watched a woman being helped by her husband to have her injured foot X-rayed in one room, while I waited my turn in the other room.

As expected, I didn't have to take my clothes off for this test either, though the doctor did ask me to take off my coat and bulky sweater. Otherwise, it was pretty much the same as chest X-rays are in the States, being pressed up against a plate, and asked not to breathe. The doctor left the room during the X-ray, but nobody else did, and as there was no picture taking noise, I never really knew when I was supposed to start holding my breath and when to stop, so I think the pictures probably came out pretty crappy.

We had a terrible time finding the lung capacity test office, but when we did find it, it turned out to be in an amazingly spacious and lovely clean room. I felt as if I had reached the executive suite, and Leanne and I were almost too shy to walk into the room. Except for two doctors seated at their desks at the far end of the room, the place was deserted. We found out why, when Leanne asked how much this test was going to cost - 260 yuan (about $30). We both drew in our breaths at the high cost of this test, and decided to ask whether we could talk the doctor out of requiring us to take it.

When we returned to the doctor's office, we got to look at an elderly man's chest X-ray and listen to the doctor discuss his case with him. Then our turn came up again, and the doctor agreed to forego the lung test. She examined my X-ray, which looked like a big blurry blob to me, and started writing down lots and lots of prescriptions for me. As they were all in Chinese, I had no idea what any of them were.

After leaving the doctor's office our first stop was to return the X-ray to the X-ray lab and get our 5 yuan deposit back. Leanne says that without the deposit, patients tend to keep their X-rays. (Why not? They had to pay 120 yuan for them, and who knows when they'll come in handy.)

Then, we began the scavenger hunt again, this time getting the prices for each of the four prescribed medicines, (at two different windows) and then paying for them, and then returning to the appropriate windows to pick up the medicines. The doctor had prescribed 3 western drugs for me, and one Chinese drug. However, I was disappointed that none of them were prednisone, which has worked for me in the past. But two of them were antibiotics, and I believed the doctor when she said that likely my asthma would go away if I could kill the infection. In total, I spent about 200 yuan for all this medicine.

So, after spending an enormously long time at the hospital, I finally was able to go home again, totally exhausted, and begin taking my new medicines.

I wish I could report that they took care of the problem, but they really didn't. The antibiotics do seem to have done their job, and the other western drug definitely worked great at drying up the mucous in my tubes. The Chinese medicine tasted worse than anything I've ever put in my mouth, and it took all my determination to finish that prescription. I didn't notice that anything I took helped reduce my asthma, though.

So, a week later (this past Monday) I hauled Leanne out again, on a search for the drug of my own choice, prednisone. It's a pretty standard asthma drug, not expensive, nor new, so I figured that I ought to be able to find it. While on our trek, I bent Leanne's ear about how miserable and sick I was. I complained unmercifully to her, in between hacking coughs and loud wheezing. Poor Leanne!

But one great thing in China, is that you don't appear to need a doctor's prescription for most medicine. If you want antibiotics, you just go to the pharmacy and buy what you like. I'd already visited the pharmacy earlier in the week to supplement the amoxicillin prescription the doctor had given me. (because in China antibiotics are often not given for as long as we take them in the U.S. and I wanted more after the initial 3 day dose ran out.)

When we arrived at the pharmacy, the pharmacist had no idea what prednisone was, even though I wrote it down for her. But Leanne pulled out her mobile phone and called somebody, and discovered how to pronounce prednisone in the Chinese manner, and then the pharmacist recognized it, and quickly pulled out a tiny bottle of 100 pills for me. It didn't come with any instructions and she wasn't clear on the dosage either, but I knew what to do, and quickly bought the bottle (for 6 yuan) plus a refill of my other antibiotic prescription.

And though I'm still coughing, I feel that I'm finally over the hump now and on the mend. For the first time in weeks, I am actually feeling bright and cheerful and as if I might want to plug my phone in again .... well maybe next week!

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