Thankfully, I have not needed to go to a hospital in China due to any illness. I think living in Mongolia as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) strengthened my constitution. When the nearest Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO) is a 14-hour bus ride away, you really start to reconsider the true meaning of ’emergency.’
This does not mean that I have not had the opportunity to visit a hospital, unfortunately. In fact, on Christmas Day I got a crackly phone call from my very good friend asking me to please meet them and go with them to the hospital. That was an experience, but I won’t share it here to protect my friend’s privacy.
More recently, yesterday in fact, I had the opportunity to travel with my friend back to Japan-China Friendship Hospital, though this trip was much less emergent. Patient X’s digestive tract is waging war against their body causing them to rush to the rest room moments after having eaten anything. A full week of this had finally been enough and Patient X and I went to the hospital yesterday afternoon.
The whole process this time went much smoother, but was a bit funnier. Having to explain to everyone that you have the shits is no fun. Patient X had no compunctions, but I felt myself go red in the face each time we had to explain what the issue was. Once the purpose of the visit was made apparent, tests had to be run; blood and stool samples needed to be taken. Blood was not a major issue, if you don’t count a band-aid that had been bled-through. Stool was a little harder to come by. Patient X purposely hadn’t eaten because it means they can’t be far from a toilet. Also, Patient X wasn’t exactly clear on how to give and collect the necessary sample. My personal shyness when talking about sensitive subjects led to some misunderstandings, made funnier by presence of Susy, the interpreter so thoughtfully provided by our insurance company. Lots of vague gesturing, meaningful looks, and awkward pauses in the conversation got us nowhere. Eventually I gave up on trying to be overly polite and said something along the lines of: “Shit into the squatter, reach in with the stick to collect a sample and then place the sample in the little container provided. Wash and sanitize hands thoroughly.”
The public restroom was a squatter: no toilet, just a porcelain hole in the floor. Patient X did their best, but after five minutes returned to Susy and I saying: “I just couldn’t go.” The combination of no food for several hours and the unfamiliar facilities led to digestive system shyness. Luckily, I found some chocolate in my purse for Patient X to eat and we waited for their digestive virus to kick in.
While we waited for my friend’s stomach to revolt I told stories of similar experiences I had in the Peace Corps:
When you leave the country you must have a medical checkup to make sure you haven’t contracted any diseases. One of these tests involves stool samples taken two days apart. Some diseased take a few weeks for symptoms to develop, and by taking the samples in country the Peace Corps can determine whether you contracted the disease or virus in country. This is important, because if you did contract something, anything in country, the Peace Corps and the United States government will pay for any and all medical care required. When a large group of PCVs is scheduled to leave, lots of samples must be taken and given to the PCMO, who then mails them to the United States for testing. Our poop travels in first class mail, and we have to fly home coach. Typical.
The sample collection kits that are provided come in a cardboard tube about 8-10 inches long and a few inches in diameter. The kits inside rattle around in the tube and make noise like a frickin’ maraca. So when you take your kit with you into the bathroom of the teeny-tiny hostel that you share with a dozen other people, everyone knows exactly what you’re up to. Oh joy. The logistics of collecting the sample are an oft-discussed legend among PCVs as they prepare to leave the country. Some don’t bother to get two samples two days apart as instructed; instead opting to just get the whole duty over with in one go. The embarrassment doesn’t end there though. After the samples have been collected and are stowed in your backpack or purse (yes, you get to carry shit around in your bag!), then you must turn them into the PCMO. Paul, the world’s coolest PCMO, thought it was funny to ask you all about your samples when you turned them in. He seemed genuinely interested in the consistency, color, texture, and odor of your stool sample… Paul was an odd dude…
Back to Beijing, once Patient X’s virus made it’s presences known we had to move quickly; Susy found a proper toilet for Patient X to use, and we waited. I can’t imagine how uncomfortable it was for Patient X to try and shit and then collect a sample of it. Particularly knowing that two people were outside chatting, trying not to think too hard about what Patient X was doing on the other side of the door.
While waiting for my friend, Susy and I chatted a bit uncomfortably, eventually finding common ground. Turns out Susy is from Inner Mongolia and lives around the corner from me in Beijing. In a conversation much like dozens I had in Mongolia, Susy asked for my phone number, invited me to her house to cook traditional foods, and implored me to help her with her English. An age later Patient X emerged from the bathroom with their sample and we trooped over to the laboratory area of the hospital. After that things moved quickly, the tests performed on Patient X’s samples took less than five minutes each, the prescriptions were written, doled out, and paid for within ten minutes. Our whole hospital visit took less than two hours! Like most Chinese medicines, Patient X was instructed to take three pills three times a day to relieve symptoms. Wouldn’t it just be easier to make the pills bigger or with a higher concentration?
Susy was also off duty and offered to go home with us. Great. One uncomfortable cab ride later we were back in our neighborhood and ready to tackle the world. Patient X’s digestive system is back on track, thankfully, and I hope that I never need to attend a Chinese hospital for an issue of my own. Also, I’m asking Patient X to go with me (they owe me!).