Near death experiences – Getting sick in China

I apologize if this is too much information

In my four years in China I have had three experiences where I thought either my friends or myself were near death.

The first instance came about a month after I arrived in rural China. Not surprisingly I was struck with terrible food poisoning, which I tried to ignore. After running to the bathroom every fifteen minutes for 2 hours, I was still trying to claim that I was just fine. I knew that in rural China the last place I wanted to be was their filthy health clinic.

Before arriving in Longzhou I had met a grad student in Beijing who had informed me of an experience he had in rural Yunnan province. The nurses at the hospital had tried to re-use a needle, and warned that using a new one would be too expensive (he wisely spent the extra $.80).

It was roughly 3 seconds after my bright red bowel movement that I decided it was time to go to the emergency room. While I am not a doctor, I was certain that this was a sign of my impending death. I called my co-teacher (a Chinese colleague assigned to make sure the foreign teacher doesn’t die or do something stupid), she called the foreign affairs office and the other foreign teacher whose American girlfriend happened to be in town. So at 11:30 at night, the 5 of us piled into two motorcycle taxis and raced to the nearby hospital. The few minute ride was spent praying not only to survive whatever was destroying my intestines, but the medical treatment as well.

The examination room was small and dark. The doctor sat in the corner on a small wooden stool, puffing away on his cigarette as he motioned for me to sit down. He asked only a few simple questions about my illness, which I answered with the help of my co-teacher since he did not speak Mandarin, which I hoped was a sign of his age and not of his education.

A typical rural hospital room

We took the scribbled prescription to the pharmacy, or more accurately my co-teacher did this while I hobbled behind her. She came back with a needle still in its packaging and small glass vial of something. We all then returned to the examination room as I prepared for one of the more embarrassing moments of my life. It seemed every staff member of the hospital had gathered to witness the rare event of seeing a foreigner receive a shot in his rear end.

Just as the doctor had finished removing the needle from its package, the nurse from the pharmacy came running into the room (literally) and shouted, “Wait!” She snatched the vial from the old man’s hand and dashed back down the hall. I looked at the other Americans for some kind of sign that this wasn’t a big deal, but it was like staring into a mirror; they looked as terrified as I’m sure I did.

The nurse returned a few minutes later triumphantly. She had suddenly panicked over whether or not she had given me the correct medication. I was a bit relieved when my co-teacher said that it had in fact been right all along, and that there was really no need to worry.

As I lowered my pants (along with my sense of dignity) the crowd of doctors pushed forward to get a better view. Fortunately it blocked the sight of my friends, but left me fairly exposed to the crowd that I was certain had gathered outside of the window.

By the time I returned to campus I urgently needed the bathroom again. Since I was still new at the school I asked the other foreign teacher if there were any sit toilets on the ground floor, there weren’t. It was a struggle to drag myself back up the 8 flights of stairs that separated me from the sit toilet in my apartment.

All the way to the top...

Luckily that was my final bout for the day, and after drinking a few gallons of fluids and avoiding street foods for a week I made a full recovery from the brink of death.

Tomorrow I’ll be posting short versions of the two other nearly life ending episodes, along with tips for surviving Chinese hospitals.

25 responses to “Near death experiences – Getting sick in China”

  1. Rachel S. says:

    Everyone loves reading about illnesses in foreign countries, or at least I do! Makes me miss Longzhou, but minus the illness… 🙂 thanks for a funny post Tom!

    • Tom says:

      You know every missionary has at least a couple. I hope you can picture Millie and Jessica running through the hospital in their high-heels.

  2. Kyle F. says:

    Oh China.
    The worst I got was a facial disfigurement due to the gnat size bugs that come through the screens on the windows. You got it worse for sure.

  3. Megan H.F. says:

    Most definitely an ‘Oh China’ moment.
    I do remember that eventful evening. That was kind of scary, but at the same time so ridiculous (as so many situations seemed to be in China).
    I believe that was not long after my own trip to a much more rural hospital where I had my own shot in the rear along with plenty of blood tests, an ultrasound, and an IV.
    I try not to think about the fact that I honestly have no idea whether or not the needles what were used were fresh because I was too sick to ask or to pay attention.

  4. Lady Tam Li says:

    I had an American friend who had a terrible time digesting the food. Weirdly enough, he got his worst bout when bird flu was all the rage. It was a pretty scary time, but he turned out to be fine. (Ironically, he’s the one that married a Chinese girl and is currently living in Beijing. 🙂 )

    Driving into the middle of nowhere for mysterious shots to prevent bird flu = Scary and creepy. But we didn’t catch the disease, which was a good thing!

  5. Lady Tam Li says:

    BTW, glad you survived! 🙂 It sounds like you got it BAAAAD!

  6. My last time in China I felt the effects of food poisoning at 2am the morning I was supposed to leave. The neighborhood gates were locked so I couldn’t walk around the block to the public bathrooms. Ended up having to go #2 in a storm drain while everyone was sleeping. And THEN had to survive a day of flying. It’s so hard to have a messy poop quietly.

  7. anonymous says:

    As a Chinese resident,I suggest you should get rid of the street snack.Only god and the cook knows the compositions . Sometimes you can not even trust a food with a symbol of QS.When I came back to the city where my campus located in ,in the first three weeks I became the mayor of the toilet for uncountable times of check-in.

    • Tom says:

      Street food is dangerous, restaurant food is dangerous, supermarket food is dangerous…what should I eat?

      • anonymous says:

        Cook it yourself,or fill your stomach full in your school canteen straight.And please forget the supermarket stuff,I do not mean by that,just a complain to the scandals of food safety in China recent years(Most goods in supermarket are totally safe,though I doubt that the FDA would hold the opposite opinion )Anyway,wish you feel comfortable in my homeland.(Here is a tip of mischief for you ,assume that you are addicted to Chinese delicious but no safety-guaranteed food,you can try a treatment just like desensitization,so that you can be adapt well to street snack and say farewell to diarrhea eventually )Kidding ,never mind

      • Tom says:

        School canteens aren’t much safer. In one of my schools there was an accident where rat poisoning was some how mixed into the food, and more than 20 students ended up in the hospital.

      • anonymous says:

        sorry to hear that. Have all the children been cured at last? BTW. It’s tough to reside peacefully in China,huh. Trouble troubles you even though you did not trouble trouble.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Tom: I am so glad that I didn’t know of that expierence!! I worry enough!! Grandma

  9. […] 中国见红博客:濒死体验——我在中国的生病经历 […]

  10. Wow. China got you bad. I think all China expats have had a near death illness experience or an uncontollable pooping story. Sorry you got both at the same time. Glad you’re still with us.

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  12. […] Seeing Red in China Your guide to modern China Skip to content HomeAbout MeComplete ArchiveSuggested SitesChina Books to ReadThe Best China MoviesMap of China ← Near death experiences – Getting sick in China […]

  13. Robert Spires says:

    Here’s my story from 2010:
    Beijing-June 23, 2010
    For the fourth day, I have been having stomach/bowel problems. It became serious at 2 a.m. this morning. First came the now-expected wake-up call from “Mr. Happy” (as I call my stomach cramps). As I dutifully answered the call and flushed, THERE.WAS.BLOOD!!! Rush to the Internet and look up “Traveler’s Diarrhea” again. The symptoms are: cramps (got ‘em); headache (don’t have it); malaise (don’t have it); loss of appetite (got it); lasts 3-5 days (yes). Then I read—-“if there is blood in the stool, see a doctor immediately!” Could be: amoebic dysentery! cholera! dengue! yellow fever! Suddenly “Mr Happy’s” 2 a.m. wake-up call turned serious and a long, sleepless night ensued.
    “S” called at 8 and I told her I needed to go to the doctor. “X” was already on the way to pick me up so they met a shaky and nervous me in the hotel lobby and we drove through rush hour to Fu xing hospital. By now it’s 9:15 a.m. and the line of cars to get into the hospital parking lot is dozens long and spilling back into the street for half-a block. “S” jumps out to see what can be done to speed up the process. In about 15 minutes she returns carrying a thimble-size container with a snap-on cover. She and “X” speak in Chinese for a minute, and then “X” looks at me and says, with all seriousness, “Doctor needs your poop” while “S” hands me the “thimble.” As I sat stunned and dumbfounded for a moment, holding my thimble and wondering how to accomplish this out here in the street, “X” hands me a handful of tissues and “S” opens my door and leads me toward the hospital. I am starting to laugh and panic and feel sick and she is trying to get me to relax, like a mom talking to a sick child. As we near the hospital entrance, I can see a long dark tunnel to the left leading to the “Infectious Disease Unit”. A minivan adorned with gold and black ribbons is parked at the tunnel’s entrance. “S” leads me to a door marked “toilet”. I know my mission, so I enter this tiny unisex toilet and attempt to give the doctor “what he needs” (not a simple chore). In the middle of my “work”, the tunnel right outside the door is suddenly filled with the most pitiful and mournful wailing and crying. As I emerge, slightly soiled but mission accomplished, a sheet-enshrouded body is being loaded into the minivan and the family is totally hysterical. Lemme tell you, until you have provided a thimble-sized stool sample in a tiny toilet in China, while a fresh body is rolled by just two feet away, you can’t say you have really lived. Turns out the tunnel is also the exit from the hospital morgue. An ominous sign, I thought.
    I then pass my fetid “thimble” through a window and we walk down the tunnel (toward the morgue) about 20 feet, turning right at the last minute into a spotlessly clean examining room. A young female doctor with face mask soon comes in. I am sweating bullets by this time, expecting the worst and wondering if my turn to be “rolled down the tunnel” is near. With “S” as interpreter, we go back through the activities of last four days of my life. At the end of this the doctor takes my blood pressure and begins a long speech to “S” and “X”, who by now has found a parking place and joined us. Her diagnosis: I have no parasites, have had no bad food or water, but rather just too much of everything at once–beer, rich food, rice wine, travel, sleeplessness, excitement, etc. for my poor old G.I. system to handle. She prescribes me what seems to be half the contents of a pharmacy: Immodium-like powder; A “Gatorade” equivalent (icky); Bacillus killer (just in case); and as some traditional medicines (this is China, after all). No minivan “ride” for me today! Total cost for all this–100 yuan ($14)! Oh yeah, the blood was likely from a broken vessel from too much “Mr.Happy” activity in the past four days. I don’t think I will ever forget the feeling I had when “X” handed me the “thimble” and said “doctor needs your poop.”

  14. […] 原文:Near death experiences – Getting sick in China 作者:Tom( @Seeingredchina)发表:2011年8月11日本文由”译者”志愿者王伟翻译 […]

  15. Bingqin Li says:

    haha .funny experience. great to see in the end that you recovered. another thought: are you suggesting that they can actually cure patients in such conditions and the American healthcare is overdoing it? -:)

    • Tom says:

      I think American hospitals are more expensive largely because of operating costs, and malpractice insurance. American hospitals are also far more careful with hygiene, especially compared to Chinese hospitals where doctors rarely wear gloves, even when handling blood.

  16. […] 原文:Near death experiences – Getting sick in China 作者:Tom( @Seeingredchina) 发表:2011年8月11日 本文由”译者”志愿者王伟翻译 […]

  17. I had a Gallbladder attack and was lucky enough to have a friend take me to find a specialist in
    Nanning where I had it removed, fortunately four years later, I am still alive.
    If I had the time, (maybe later) I will relate some stories online that will scare the hell out of everyone.
    My advise, do everything possible to keep your immune system functioning properly and stay healthy eating
    the cleanest food you can bye and exercise as much as possible also.
    Your immune system is a very important key to longevity in China.

  18. China has a 5,000 year old culture and they are still shitting in a hole in the floor and eating with sticks!
    Do you really expect things to be any better from a culture that’s had this much time, five centuries to advance themselves?
    These people have no common sense or logic, but if you try to teach these two simple lessons, we foreigners are laughed at,
    the Chinese think they know everything and that they are the most intelligent people in the world.
    So look around you, after five thousand years, can you really expect more from them?
    Don’t get me wrong, I’ve lived here for ten years and I love most everything in China,
    especially my wife and kids but,,,You should understand where you are at this time in space.
    I have some Real Horror Stories: Most everything I’ve read here is “light weight”.

  19. Kyle F. says:


    I believe your observations of China and Chinese are selective at best and racist at worst. While I was reading your comment I was sitting in the USA eating lunch, a sandwich, with my hand which according to your definition would make Americans the most barbaric country in the world since we don’t even use tools such as sticks. Please don’t forget that while Europe was in the Dark Ages, certainly not the high point of “common sense” and “logic”, China was leading the world in technology and culture. Perhaps your recent comment misrepresents your actual opinion of Chinese but it appears that you have been in China too long and have shifted to one in which you look down from your Western-centric perch at Chinese who don’t “measure up” to your standards.

    PS: Five centuries is five hundred years, not five thousand.

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