Monday, November 05, 2007

Birthday and Bronchitis

So it's my birthday tomorrow, and for the second year in a row I am sick for it. I have been nursing a cold for the last two weeks, and now for about the 20th time in my life I have Bronchitis. I probably should have gone to a doctor sooner, only that is not as easy as it sounds for a foreigner in Shanghai. Basically if you are a foreigner in here (without medical insurance, as I currently am), you have only a few options:

  1. Shell-out between US$50-150 just to see a doctor who speaks English (and that is not including any tests or medication);
  2. Self-diagnose on the internet and go to the nearest local pharmacy and pay about US$5-10 for some over-the-counter antibiotics;
  3. Go to the emergency department of the nearest Chinese Hospital and pay very little for a consultation entirely in Chinese.
Option number one is easy and safe, but I hate paying that much money when I know what is wrong with me and I only need a prescription for antibiotics.
Option number two is also easy, however, although I have done it before, it is obviously not the safest course of treatment.
Option number three is safe and cheap, but the language difficulties certainly do not make it easy. Although I have picked up enough Chinese to for day-to-day life here, my vocabulary falls far short of words such as "bronchitis", "phlegm", and "is that needle new?"

Luckily my friend Daniela, Chinese-speaker-extraordinaire, offered to go with me to a Chinese hospital last Saturday night.

We turned up at the hospital at about 7pm, and walked into an empty waiting area. A passing guard directed us through a door, behind which was a young nurse waiting in a corridor. She plucked a glass thermometer out of many lying in a tupperware container, and thrust it under my tongue while Daniela started filling in my registration form. All they wanted was my first name, age and address (which they didn't check), and I sat down while Daniela went to pay the 5RMB (US$0.67) it cost to see the doctor.

Then we were ushered into a room with about seven people sitting around the desk of a man in a wrinkled white coat. I surmised quickly that the man was the doctor (duh), and all the people were waiting to see him. Yes- you wait IN the doctor's room while the people in the queue in front of you tell the doctor their most embarrassing personal details and physical symptoms. I was reminded of the time a friend told me she went for a gynacological exam at a local hospital, and was lying on the bed, naked from the waist down with her legs in the stirrups while men and women- other patients, doctors, nurses and orderlies- walked to-and fro around her. I was thankful at this point that I only had bronchitis.

After telling the doctor my symptoms he listened to my chest and told me that I needed an x-ray (overkill in my opinion, but ok) and a blood test. We couldn't understand why I would need a blood test and he kept telling us that it was to see if there was _____(insert Chinese word) in my blood. Daniela guessed at what he was saying to look it up in her dictionary. She turned to me and said: "According to the dictionary he is looking to see if there is a dishwasher in your blood".

In any case the doctor wouldn't give me the prescription until I had the test, so we traipsed off to the 3rd floor. After stopping to pay on the way (you always pay before treatment or tests in China), when the lift doors opened we came to a dark and completely empty floor. The corridor went in two directions so we took a guess and went left... then left again... then right, with still no clue if we were even going in the right direction. Luckily we chanced on something that looked like a cross between a bank (counters with glass from ceiling to about 20cm off the top of the counter) and a laboratory (blipping machines in the room behind the glass). We buzzed the doorbell and a man, nay a boy (he looked about 14 years old but must have been at least 19), instructed me to sit with my arm pushed through under the glass partition.

Now normally my skin is so transparently white that finding a vein is about as difficult as finding a neon sign in Vegas, however the environment must have scared them all into hiding, as he just couldn't find one, no matter how tightly he pulled the rubber junkies' strap around my upper arm. While he was doing this I distracted myself from thoughts of gangrene by looking around. I wish I hadn't because up until that point I hadn't noticed the old blood splattered up on the glass. Daniela pointed out the overflowing mound of used bloody needle points sitting on a tray on the otherside of the glass. I was suddenly grateful of the glass wall. Finally on the second arm the Boy Lab Dude finally found a little vein and took the blood (with a new needle!). He popped it into his machine and within about two minutes I had a print-out analysis of my blood. We amused ourselves on the trip to x-ray figuring out what all the values referred to.

X-ray was much as usual, aside from the fact that the door was wide open and any patients could walk in. Again within minutes of having the x-ray taken I had the film in my hands, and we were heading back to the doctor's room. He stopped talking to the patient in front of him, glanced quickly at the x-ray and blood results and told us that there was indeed that mysterious something in my blood. Again we gave him blank looks, and he pulled out his mobile to call his friend to ask him to translate for us. Somewhere along the line Daniela cottoned on to the fact that it was not after all a dishwasher in my blood but bacteria. Or at least the bacteria was somewhere in my body, evidenced by an elevated white blood cell count in my blood.

So the doctor decided that I was right and I did have bronchitis after all. He recommended that I have IV antibiotics, as that was the quickest way to cure it. IV antibiotics are administered like candy in China and I was having none of it. Oral antibiotics were good enough for me, and I promised dutifully to take the whole course.

So, the total tally reads like a Mastercard ad:
Time: one hour in total
Cost: about Rmb350 (US$46) including consultation, x-ray, blood work and prescriptions for antibiotics, something to ease my breathing and a cough elixir.
Privacy: 0
Cleanliness and hygiene: umm.. let's not go there...
Confusion: only about 5% on Daniela's side; 95% on mine
Having a Chinese-speaking friend translate and provide playful distracting banter: Priceless.
Thanks Daniela for being the hero of the hour, and while I'm saying thanks, thank you to Phil for putting up with my miserable face, continuous hacking coughs and constant need for hugs and attention over the past few days.

mmmm... yummy!

1 comment:

Gabby Girl said...

Happy belated birthday, and I am so sorry that you had to be sick. Being sick sucks.