I once used basketball skills taught to me by my dad to navigate a Chinese hospital. My son was the basketball and I was the player.
We were in Fuzhou, China, a small-by-Chinese-standards city of about 7 million people, on the Tawain Strait – the sliver of ocean between Taiwan and southeast China. And, our hands were full. My husband, Nick, and I were there adopting our then almost 3-year old son, Alex. I noticed that he had a low grade fever when we first brought him up to our hotel room the night we received custody, but I attributed it to stress and the fact that he had about four layers of clothes on, even though it was 70 degrees. He was eating fine, and was generally happy save the fact that he was getting used to the two strange faces who were now caring for and loving on him.
We were busy doing adoption paperwork, going to appointments, strolling him around the lovely lake and park that was outside our hotel, and visiting some of the sights of the Fujian province, known for their amazing Banyan trees and temples.
But then, he spiked a fever — this time it was high – and started throwing up. I gave him some Tylenol, and it would bring down his temperature temporarily, but then it would spike back up (and wasn’t keeping anything down). Magically, there was a health clinic at our hotel, so we took him in. The doctor said he had a “cold” (via our Chinese guide/translator Penny) and to give him warm tea. She also admonished me for putting him in a lukewarm bath. After twelve hours, he was no better, so we took him back to the hotel doc. She told us she couldn’t dispense a prescription for him, and we still had no true diagnosis. Dissatisfied with her recommendations and nonchalance, we headed to the nearest hospital.
It just so happened that it was a critical day in our adoption process. We had to get some paperwork finalized and get his passport to make sure we’d stay on schedule to avoid a week-long delay due to Chinese New Year which was quickly approaching. And we had a flight to catch that afternoon to another Chinese city to finalize his U.S. visa and additional forms.
Nick had warned me about Chinese hospitals before. He went to a few of them when he worked in Shanghai and always said that if one of us got really sick, that we needed to get on a plane to Tokyo or Hong Kong as soon as possible. He’d see people smoking in the stairwells; once rode in an elevator with someone who was getting a blood transfusion; and saw that cash handed over via a handshake always meant you’d be seen first and get better service.
We knew it would be challenging, but my fears were realized when, a block before the hospital, traffic was at a standstill – it was because all of the cars were trying (unsuccessfully) to get to the hospital. So, we hopped out of the car, I hoisted Alex on a hip and walked the rest of the way.
I don’t think I ever quite understood the term “sea of humanity” until I saw the droves of people trying to get into the front doors. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people were crowding every inch of space, shoulder-to-shoulder. It was the Black Friday for healthcare — with people jamming into doorways and hallways. And instead of duking it out over Cabbage Patch Dolls or iPads, it was getting in line to see a doctor or nurse. Whomever shoved and jostled his way to the front of the line (and held his ground), was seen. Being passive did you no favors and it might mean waiting for hours.
I felt like I was underwater – moving through the maze of hallways, a fuzzy soundtrack of Chinese yelling, moaning and various bells and alarms and an acrid, sweaty smell permeating the air.
People were laying on gurneys in the hallways with bloody gauze, sallow skin and lifeless eyes. Others were sleeping on the floor or falling out of wheelchairs. I get queasy seeing fake medical procedures on TV shows, so I kept my head down and trudged along, sidestepping a body here and there with Alex still stuck my hip and his face buried in my chest.
I took Alex down a “quieter” hallway to wait while Penny and Nick registered. Poor Alex was very unhappy because of the noise and all of the people, and because he didn’t feel well. I was on the edge of a panic attack, swallowing bile and gritting my teeth, pacing with him and swaying with him to calm both of us down.
Alex and I were standing outside of a “transfusion” room that looked like something out of a 1960’s mental institution (i.e. One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest). There were poles with hooks that dropped down from the ceiling where bags of fluids were hung. People sat below staring into space while their treatments were being done. I’m not sure if these were blood transfusions, chemo or what, but we kept our distance.
About 10 minutes later Nick and Penny grabbed me and said we could go in the pediatric room to push our way through to the doctor.
Imagine the world’s worst game of Musical Chairs – that’s what we were facing. Everyone was crowded in and around an 8 foot by 10 foot room. There were about 20 people and their sick children huddled and focused on one small area – the doctor sitting at a desk with a computer and a single chair. She examined each child as everyone else hovered over her and waited their turns – kids whimpering and coughing, parents growing impatient and hunkering down in position to move forward as soon as the chair was empty.
I played basketball for seven years in elementary and high school so, I elbowed and hip checked my way through several “defenders” to get to the physician (meanwhile holding a 30-pound little boy and trying not to have either of us breathe in God- knows-what-germs. Everyone else had on surgical masks!). I was close to my goal and waited anxiously while the doctor was examining another child, an infant with gauze around her head.
The baby was so tiny and weak. It pained me to think about how sad it would be to think that this was the only way for your child to be seen by a doctor, even with what appeared to be a fairly serious condition.
A combination of mother bear and competitive basketball player came over me. I knew that we had to get in and out quickly (with our flight leaving in five hours including a 90-minute ride to the airport), I strategized that I needed to continue incorporating those former basketball skills once more as soon as the mother got up from the chair. I noticed a father and his child ready to pounce in the seat, so I took my nice, wide American birthing hips, blocked them out, hooked my foot around the leg of the chair, pulled it toward me — legs spread apart and elbows out in defensive position – and sat down. Victory!
The doctor was stunned, but not extraordinarily so, as I’m guessing other Chinese had employed this tactic before and started examining Alex and asking our translator questions. After about three minutes, she handed me some paperwork — a prescription for Ceclor (a wonderful antibiotic that isn’t used in the U.S. anymore), vitamin B6, and Tylenol.
We ran out of there as fast as we could (while we were sitting there a mom and her toddler daughter came in and the poor little girl had an IV bag hooked up to her arm).
Nick and Penny went to get the prescriptions filled while Alex and I maneuvered our way outside and away from most of the people.
We made it back to the hotel in time to pack our bags and meet the police officer who had Alex’s passport. A few minutes before the police officer arrived, Alex threw up all over the two of us. We rushed into the bathroom, and Nick ran downstairs to find an extra change of clothes for me (I already had some with me for Alex).
I was able to clean him up pretty well with baby wipes and clean clothes. My cleanliness, on the other hand, was harder to achieve. Vomit leaked down into my bra and under my boobs. I wiped it off as best as I could and changed clothes, but my chest still smelled like sour milk and bananas through the long drive to the airport and flight. Luckily, my gag reflex is pretty weak.
The best part was that the Ceclor was a miracle worker, and Alex’s fever broke within two hours. And no more puked on boobs. We made our flight with time to spare, and we were all a lot happier.
Thanks to my first and best basketball coach, my dad, for teaching me some great moves on the court. I had no idea that I could use them off the court and in a Chinese hospital.