Three Days in a Chinese People’s Hospital (or… Don’t Try This Yourself)

Continuing from where Panda Ponder left off… (in response to a request)  The shocking true story of my husband and my experience dealing with the Chinese medical system.

Two and a half weeks into our month-long visit to China, on the last day of our cruise up the Yangtze River, my husband, Bobby developed a pain in his right side. He thought he pulled a muscle, but it kept getting worse. We disembarked in Chongqing and spent the night there before getting a flight to Kunming in the morning. The pain in Bobby’s side was now extreme – he could barely walk. He had to see a doctor.

I rang our travel insurance company and they seemed rather noncommittal about whether we were covered. The tour guide was concerned if a hospital bill would be paid. I told him that it didn’t matter what the insurance company did, we would pay and then get reimbursed later.

So off we went to the People’s First Provincial Hospital of Yunnan Province.

OH MY GOD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The dingy, dark emergency department was an enormous hall, lined with various kiosks and booths and rows of plastic chairs, not unlike an airport waiting room. It seem d like thousands of people were coming and going(though it may have been merely hundreds). Most of the men  were smoking. Most of the women were sitting on the available chairs – in labour, or some stage of labour, or looking like they were ready to go into labour. (It was also the area maternity hospital). Nowhere for a sick man to sit.

Bobby stood quietly by while our tour guide translated for me with the staff. And the first thing I learned is that you must pay first. And pay as you go. First you pay to talk to a triage  nurse. If she refers you to the doc, you pay to see him. If he orders any tests, you pay and get them. If there is treatment ordered, you pay for that. If there is a prescription, you pay for that. If you need a needle to USE the prescription (i.e. a drip) you pay for that. All are separate trips to the cashier’s queue. I paid seven times the first day! You can imagine the chaos in the queues as everyone has to pay over and over. I don’t know what sick people who don’t have someone with them are supposed to do.

We finally got Bobby into a doctor’s office, but instead of a break from the bustling crown out in the hall, people kept barging in, interrupting the examination and asking him for various things – other patients, not staff. There was a half eaten apple under the examining table, which had a sheet on it that might have been fresh at the beginning of the day. After the blood tests and sonogram came back, it turned out Bobby had a gall bladder infection. The doctor wanted to admit him for three days, but we were too horrified by the grit and grime to agree to that. So the doctor agreed to try the treatment, primarily fluids and intravenous antibiotics, on an outpatient basis. But if it didn’t work, he would have to have his gall bladder out and there would be no time to get home, it would have to be in Kunming! One of the scariest days of our lives!

It had been several hours, but we were finally instructed to go to the treatment area – the non-acute amergency treatment ward. It was on the third floor. There was one small lift that could hold maybe 15 people and people were queued up to use it. I managed to squeeze on with Bobby, but the buzzer went off that it was overweight, so I got off and ran up three flights of stairs to meet him.

The treatment area was even more shocking to our western sensibilities than the consultation area! Babies peeing on the floor (in their adorable crotchless pants), stupefyingly filthy loos, dried blood on the pillows and mattresses, men hocking wads of mucous into the rubbish bins, the janitor mopping with peed-on floor a filthy mop – with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth… A mother grabbed her toddler as he squatted and positioned him over a rubbish bin for a long and smelly poo. I was way out of my league culturally speaking!

The ward was overcrowded and Bobby was stuck in the hall, so we didn’t miss a moment. None of the staff spoke any English, but I have to say that they were were nice to us, brought me cups of tea and things to eat and were very kind. It was still so very stressful.

Bobby was in the main ward the next day. We brought our own sterilising towelettes. The ward was much calmer than the hall, just patients and their visitors. And no smoking. Oddly, there was a narrow balcony just outside the windows where people were smoking – and staring into the room where the patients were. We were horrified at the state of the mattresses and pillows when people checked out and they changed the bedding. Yes, the new sheets and pillow cases were pristine, but underneath they were soaked in dried blood, mucous and pus… it was best not to think about this…

Most of the other patients in this non-acute emergency room were crash victims, mostly bicycle, but also car accidents (I met a man who spoke some English who explained a bit to me.) They were also quite young. And their young friends came to visit them. It was a real opportunity to see the people just being themselves in their own (albeit not day-to-day environment). When you are on a tour, especially in a place such as China, your access to the ‘real world’ of the ordinary people can be limited (though I was a bit of a renegade and wandered a bit far and wide for the tour company’s comfort…) And this was where I could see first hand the positives of the one-child policy. (That is not to say that I endorse the policy or don’t… it’s their policy, not mine, but I have read and heard so much about the negatives.) Well fed, well educated, very middle class, stylishly dressed (completely western) and laden with cellphones and iPods and other universal teenage accoutrements.  I couldn’t help but wonder how they will transform China when they come into power.

I was not able to go with Bobby to hospital on the 3rd day. I have numerous allergies that I take medication for, but I was finally overcome by the massive (2 metres across!) display of lilies in the lobby of our hotel. With my eyes swollen nearly shut and mucous membranes quivering, I planned on spending most of the day in the shower trying to steam myself well.

A different guide showed up to take Bobby in for his treatment. He brought him to a different hospital – the People’s MUNICIPAL hospital. This was a pristine, marble facility where the well off, Party members, those with private medical insurance and foreigners go. It seems our guide was afraid we wouldn’t be able to pay the bill, so he brought us to the provincial hospital where the common folks go!!!

Our total bill for three days of treatment came to about $200US which was easy enough for us to pay (and which were reimbursed by the insurance company for). However, this would have been a week or more’s wages for the average Chinese citizen. (Leaving me further befuddled as to what elements of communist ideology the country abides by…)

Fortunately Bobby responded to the treatment and after five days in Kunming, we were able to continue with the tour. As difficult as that was, the people were all so very nice and helpful and did everything they could to make our stay as comfortable as possible. Our hotel room was brilliant 4+ stars, and room service averaged $6US/meal for both of us.

If not for the serious hygiene issues, I would say the overall experience was a bit different than western medical administration, but satisfactory. Problem is, those hygiene issues are such a biggy. If you ever find yourself in need of a hospital in China, do not dither at all as to whether your insurance will cover you – if you are ill, assume it will and act as if you know it will. Get thee to the hospital where the bigwigs go…

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