Liuzhou Laowai

Random thoughts on life in Liuzhou, Guangxi, China

Get sick, get well

One of the advantages of being in China when you are sick is that there is no shortage of people to diagnose your malady, offer suggestions as to treatment and calculate your chances of recovery. As you sit in the hospital consultation room being examined, there is an endless stream of health experts wandering in and out offering the doctor their advice. These sages of the healing arts include other doctors, passing nurses, the clerks in the administration section, the cleaners, other patients and their visitors, wandering flower salespersons, the taxi driver who brought you here, vagrants who have taken up residence in the emergency department etc.

Everyone in China is a medical expert and willing to share their knowledge. The fact that they have no idea whether I am there because I have broken my leg, or because I have poisoned myself, or because I am having a miscarriage (as I am male, that would be an emergency, but you get the idea), or like 99% of patients, I am merely suffering from a mild case of the sniffles, deters them not one bit. Advice ranging from the blinding obvious to the terminally insane flows from their lips like vomit.

So, there I was, temperature 41º, thumping headache and close to fainting, listening to all this nonsense. Fortunately, my defence mechanisms, my survival instincts took over. I became immediately unable to understand even the simplest Chinese. The ‘other language’ part of my brain just shut down. Fortunately, I am with a bilingual friend, who filters out the majority of the nonsense. It is decided that lowering my temperature is a priority. Various needles are administered to my bum and, of course, this being China, I’m going nowhere without at least one drip.

All this reminds me of a previous hospital stay in China. In 1997, I was hospitalised for ten days in the wilds of western Hunan. That time I was suffering from pneumonia. The rural hospital was somewhat primitive, but they saw me right. At one stage, as I was well on my way to recovery, I decided to examine the drip bottle. My schoolboy Latin came flooding back and I realised that I was on a saline drip. My understanding was and remains that such drips are essential if one is dehydrated. I wasn’t, so when the drip was over, I refused the next one. The consternation this caused was amazing. Staff were running around in circles as if I had requested decapitation as a cure for a mild headache. Eventually, the senior doctor was summoned from whichever banquet he was attending and OK-ed my decision. Later that evening, I asked the duty doctor why I had been given the saline solution anyway.

“Oh we give that to everyone.”


“Well, some patients get jealous if they don’t get one!”

So, this time I choose one of the better equipped and more modern hospitals in the city. I have a choice of the People’s Hospital or the Workers’ Hospital. Despite having been around here a while (and even having honorary citizenship), I don’t quite consider myself one of the People but I did take ill while at work – so the Workers’ Hospital it is!

For two more days, I lie in the emergency department being given injections and drips as my temperature bounces up and down. I continue to receive the saline drip and am also treated to a glucose drip. Makes sense. I haven’t eaten for days. I find it difficult to eat when I am asleep, and sleeping is pretty much all I am doing.

Finally, they decide to move me to a ward. I am wheeled to an elevator and whisked to the 12th floor. (Well, I would be whisked if the elevator wasn’t jam full of patients, staff, visitors and random elevator enthusiasts who push and shove past me, climb over me etc. to board. This is a high-tech elevator which refuses to move and sounds an alarm to indicate a modicum of overloading. No-one moves. For several minutes. The lift attendant pointedly asks various people to get off, but they all pretend that she is talking to someone else. Eventually, the lift attendant gets off herself, the doors shut and off we go.

The twelfth floor is a large ward split into rooms mainly sporting three beds each. I am delivered to one of these and take up my place in the centre bed, facing the television. I make myself comfortable and check out the neighbours. To my left is a little old man. Little but wiry. He looks pretty healthy to me, but who knows. To my right is an empty bed. There are signs of occupancy, but right now there’s no one at home.

I do what is sensible in these situations and go to sleep – again.

Back in 1997, in Hunan, I shared a two person room with a gentleman who turned out to be the hospital’s Party Secretary. He was allegedly there as he was suffering from a heart condition, but I formed the opinion that he just fancied a lie-down for a few months. He had a day long queue of visitors, all eager to curry favour. But what was most memorable about him was his incredible snoring ability. This guy snored for China. When he built up to speed, walls shook. Certainly my bed literally vibrated with his every breath. The noise could be heard in the next province and it was rumoured that the PLA were considering employing him for his potential as a weapon.

I complained and complained – not to him; it wasn’t really his fault – to the doctors. “How can I get better if I can’t sleep?” I asked most reasonably. They agreed with this and prescribed me sleeping pills. It was the first time I had come across a patient being given medication to solve a problem caused by another patient’s medical condition. Never mind.

Back in the 21st century, I wake up to the sound of shouting. I quickly ascertain that bed-to-right man has returned, complete with friend. Both are dressed in regulation badly fitting suits with the trousers tucked under the armpits. Patient takes his shoes off and lies on the bed, while friend settles himself down on a stool between his friend’s bed and mine. All the while they are yelling at each other as if they were at opposite ends of the great wall. As soon as patient is settled, they both light up cigarettes and blow the smoke over me.

Suddenly my Chinese returns. “Put those cigarettes out now! Assholes!”

They look at me in utter amazement. “Not only are we being berated by a Laowai in our own language, but for some obscure reason he is asking us to refrain from smoking.”

I am convinced that they really cannot understand why I would ask them to do such a strange thing as not blow cigarette smoke over patients in hospital beds, at least some of whom are suffering from respiratory illnesses. It simply doesn’t occur to them that there may be a problem. They are exercising their divine right to do exactly as they please, with no consideration for anyone else. Unfortunately, there is little I can do. In a society which provides me daily examples of utter selfishness, I am virtually powerless.

(But not totally. For the next few days, every time Dipstick lights up I verbally assault him in a mixture of English and Chinese. Eventually, he can no longer relax over his cigarette and takes to wandering off elsewhere. Unless I’m asleep of course. I often wake to find his cigarette ends littering the floor and the stink of stale tobacco hanging in the room.)

What amazes me is that the staff ignore it. Patients and visitors are smoking up and down the corridor and in the wards and no one says a word. I am shocked. Even back in 1997, in a tiny hospital in the Hunan countryside smoking was banned. Here in Liuzhou, we have what claims to be one of the two most advanced hospitals still allowing smoking in wards. Shame on them.

Anyway, I settle down to hospital life and work out the routine. I measure off the day into little things to look forward to. Temperature taking time, medication handing out time, and the arrival of the ‘Functions Girl’.

The ‘Functions Girl’ dresses in a shocking pink overall and I guess that she is a student nurse. Her job is to go round every day and ask each patient two questions, the answers to which she records faithfully in a battered old notebook. I get off to a bad start.

“Have you had a shit?” she asks.

“Since when?” I ask.

This is clearly a serious breach of protocol.

“Since last time!” she asks.

Now, I am completely baffled, but being unable to remember performing such an act since arriving in the hospital three days earlier, and wishing to be strictly logical, say “No.”

She smiles and records my non-performance.

“Piss?” she ventures.

“Yes!” I smile, but the expression of annoyance on her face indicates that I’ve screwed up again.

“How many times?”

I am just about to start calculating the number of urinations I’ve allowed myself since birth when I realise that this is probably not what she wants to hear. I hazard a guess that she means since the last time she would have asked had I not been so inconsiderate as to not be here 24 hours ago.

“5 or 6,” I estimate.

“Which?” she demands impatiently.

It seems pointless to tell her that I have omitted to carve a tally on the headboard so I bravely go for the higher figure.


She smiles, records my answer and moves on to the little old man to my left who is eagerly awaiting his turn.

She asks him and he considers his response carefully as if he has never heard the question before. I am not going to give you his answers. It is one thing for me to offer details of my evacuations in the interests of historic accuracy, but revealing the dump details of total strangers is not a road I’m going to go down. I have standards.

As the days go on, I get to like Ms Function Girl. She smiles every time I say no to the ‘shit’ question (and I say it every day of my stay!) and smiles again as I give her random numbers for the liquid operation.

The rest of the day I amuse myself by trying to work out my neighbours. Little Old Man starts the day with a healthy breakfast, enjoys a sustaining lunch, then somewhat later a hearty dinner. These are all bought from the hospital canteen delivery service. As soon as he has finished dinner, he rushes to clean his bowl and chopsticks, then sits back to wait. About half an hour later, a young girl arrives with a full meal for him. He spreads it around him and gets stuck in as if he hasn’t seen food for a month. The young girl waits. They seldom exchange words. When he finishes he cleans the dishes in which his meal has been delivered, gives them to (I guess) his grand-daughter and she disappears till next day. Whatever this guy is in here for, it certainly isn’t anorexia.

Dipstick to the right is a strange one. He lies around on bed most of the day moaning, then around six in the evening, gets dressed and disappears until next morning. He arrives just in time for the doctors’ rounds. His few visitors are all dressed like himself – he is the epitome of the lower level civil servant. I form the definite opinion that he is in fact hiding from someone. His ‘illness’ is merely an excuse not to turn up at work and answer awkward questions about missing funds. But an excuse which is running out of steam. At times he looks incredibly worried. I almost feel sorry for him.

Of course, I am not here to indulge in sociological surveys for your entertainment. I am feeling very weak, and although my temperature eventually settles somewhere sensible, the doctors (and I) are keen to find out what caused the fever in the first place and why it was so difficult to stabilise it. So they do what doctors always do when they are stumped. They test for everything. Blood tests, X-rays, urine tests – the usual. Eventually they decide that my liver is screwed up. But why?

One morning, I am honoured by a visit from the Dean of The Haematology Department, along with his entire team. He proceeds to give a long lecture, while simultaneously examining me. My medical Chinese ain’t that great – in fact it doesn’t go much beyond ‘aspirin’ – but I catch on when he starts explaining that my liver malfunction is caused by my impoverished western diet. My look of incredulity is caught by one of the more senior doctors who asks me what I eat. I honestly reply that for the previous eight years, I have eaten almost exclusively Chinese. Dean looks at me as if I am a particularly annoying species of fly hovering around his head, gives me what is no doubt intended to be a withering stare laden with the implication that a mere laowai couldn’t possibly be trusted to know what he eats, and moves on to perfect his speech making skills while diagnosing little old man in the next bed.

Later, I’m informed that the liver problem has been caused by

a) the fever.

This theory intrigues me. My illness has been caused by my illness!

b) the medication given to me to stop the fever.

They quickly drop this one when they realise that they are blaming themselves for poisoning a laowai – not a great career move. Unless laowai in question is Japanese, which I’m not.

c) drinking too much baijiu

This is their favourite theory until I baffle them by pointing out that the one and only time I drank baijiu was back in 1996 and it never got anywhere near my liver, instead rapidly leaving my body through the same orifice through which it entered.

They continued in this vein for a few days until I got so bored that I was in serious danger of exploding from sheer frustration. I was being given medication to ‘protect the liver’. By drip, naturally. This took about an hour every morning. The remaining 23 hours I spent waiting for tomorrow and attempting to eat my way through the fruit mountain which had grown beside my bed. I informed the doctors politely that I would much rather spend those 23 hours at home, where at least I could watch a movie, answer my e-mail, live like a human being etc.

After a morning of arguing, they finally agreed and I said my sad goodbyes.

When I got home, after deleting 1,256 spam messages, I looked up various symptoms, test results etc. and discovered that one possible reason for the liver function test results could be severe constipation! Had Function Girl’s notes been looked at? Possibly not.

Anyway, they have requested that I return in one month, when they will repeat the tests. I just need to make sure I have a good unload before I go. In the meantime, I sit at home, slowly regaining my strength and planning not to get sick again any time soon.

Tags: , , , . This entry was posted on Thursday, May 19th, 2005 at 7:21 pm and is filed under Humour, Liuzhou Life, Strawberry Fields. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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