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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.

Talking about Traditional Chinese Medicine with Chinese Doctors

A few months ago my friend told me that she had a small tumor. The doctor said that it was benign and she could either have it removed with an operation, or try to reduce its size using Chinese medicine. She opted for the Chinese medicine. 3x’s a day for months she drank the thick brown bitter liquid which was distilled from bear bile, birds nests and shark fins.

Now I try to keep an open mind about alternative medicine, and I think there are many things in Chinese medicine that have promise for medical applications, this however doesn’t seem to be one of those times. For four months my co-worker wasted her money on this concoction with no results. The sad thing is I know the hospital is selling this “treatment” partially because of the money they receive in exchange for pushing this product. We just hide behind the name of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) when there is no clinical proof that this is in any way an effective medical treatment.

These aren’t just my opinions either, many Chinese doctors who have been trained in “western” medicine worry about the effects of TCM too. One mentioned that often the patients are unaware of the side-effects of the traditional cures, and arrive in our hospital with liver or renal failure. Even the TCM doctor pointed to the fact that many people are graduating with only 3 months of study and calling themselves traditional healers, when really an apprenticeship and study takes almost as much time as becoming a doctor.

Of the 6 doctors I talked with, 3 of them said they would never take TCM treatments, 2 of them said they would take Chinese herbs for a cold or minor illness, and only one said she would take them for any serious disease (my friend who took the drugs for her tumor).

All of the doctors though agreed that they would like to see more regulations concerning TCM to protect the reputation of the practice. The TCM doctor said that he was very disappointed to see how commercialized it had become in the past decade, and how easily universities were handing out diplomas.

The TCM doctor was saying that he saw TCM’s role as accompanying Western medicine in a pain management role. For example, chemotherapy patients often struggle with side-effects which, according to patient reports, can be better controlled with acupuncture for pain and herbs for stomach problems.

Ultimately more clinical research will be useful in proving that there is value in TCM, protecting the integrity of the practice, and at the same time will help to protect Chinese patients from “cures” that delay them from getting proper treatment.