Lori Green LeRoy employs her impressive high-school sporting skills to get her sick son seen by a doctor amid the general chaos of a Chinese hospital ward.
Some years ago, we were in Fuzhou, a small-by-Chinese-standards city of seven million people on the Taiwan Strait in Fujian province. Our hands were full. My husband Nick and I were there to adopt our son, Alex, who was just shy of three years old. The night we received custody and brought Alex back to our hotel room, I noticed that he was suffering from a low-level fever. I attributed this to stress and to the fact that he was wearing four layers of clothes despite the evening being warm. After all, Alex was eating fine and was generally happy bar getting used to the two strange faces now caring for and loving him. Our subsequent days were busy with adoption paperwork, going to appointments, strolling Alex around a lovely lake and park close to our hotel, and visiting some Fujian sights, notably amazing banyan trees and temples.
Then Alex’s fever spiked and he started throwing up. I gave him some acetaminophen (paracetamol). This temporarily reduced his temperature, only for it to shoot back up once the medicine wore off. Worse still, Alex was not keeping anything down. Most fortunately, there was a health clinic at our hotel, to which we hurried. With the help of our Chinese guide-cum-translator, Penny, we gleaned that the doctor considered that Alex had a ‘cold’ and that we should give him warm tea. Twelve hours later, there was no improvement, so we returned. The doctor couldn’t (or wouldn’t) dispense a prescription and still offered no credible diagnosis. Dissatisfied with the physician’s recommendations and nonchalance, we headed to the nearest hospital.
Panoramic view of Fuzhou © Weiming Xie, Shutterstock
The timing could hardly have been worse. This was a critical day in the adoption process. If we were to avoid the week-long hiatus of Chinese New Year, we needed to finalise paperwork and obtain Alex’s passport. Moreover, that afternoon we had to fly to another Chinese city to secure Alex’s US visa and complete additional forms.
Nick had previous with Chinese hospitals having worked in Shanghai years previously. He had witnessed people smoking in the stairwells; had shared an elevator with someone who was in the process of getting a blood transfusion; and noticed that cash handed over via a handshake procured quicker and better service. His view was that if one of us became really ill, we should fly to Tokyo or Hong Kong as soon as possible.
That said, we had a sick baby and no other viable options. We called a cab and headed for the nearest hospital.
My fears were realised when traffic came to a standstill a few blocks from the hospital. We realised that this was due to a mass of cars trying (unsuccessfully) to reach the hospital. So, we hopped out of the car and, with Alex hoisted on my hip, walked the rest of the way.
I don’t think I ever fully understood the term ‘sea of humanity’ until I saw the droves of people trying to pass through the hospital front door. Shoulder-to-shoulder, hundreds if not thousands of people were crowding every inch of space – even jamming into doorways and hallways. Forget the first day of the sales. The scrum just to see a doctor or nurse was something else. Whoever shoved and jostled his or her way to the front of the line (and held his or her ground) was seen next. Being passive did you no favours; politeness might mean waiting for hours.
Moving through the maze of hallways, there was a fuzzy soundtrack of yelling and moaning merging with bells and alarms, and an acrid, sweaty smell permeating the air. People with sallow skin and lifeless eyes were lying on wheeled stretchers, their bodies swathed in blood-stained gauze. I sidestepped yet more forms sleeping on the floor or falling out of wheelchairs. Keeping my head down, I trudged along, Alex stuck to my hip and his face buried in my chest.
I found a ‘quieter’ hallway in which to wait with Alex while Penny and Nick registered. The combination of hubbub and poor health made for a very unhappy child. Meanwhile, I was on the verge of a panic attack, swallowing bile and gritting my teeth. I paced and swayed with Alex, seeking to calm us both down.
Then I looked up. We were standing outside a room that made me think of the mental-health patients’ ward in the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Bags of fluid cascaded from hooked poles that dropped from the ceiling. Patients stared into space while receiving treatments. Unclear whether these were blood transfusions, chemotherapy or something else, I kept our distance.
About ten minutes later Nick and Penny grabbed us, announcing that we could proceed to the paediatric room then push our way through to see a doctor. Surely this was good news?
Or not. We entered to find the world’s most heinous game of musical chairs underway. About twenty adults plus their sick children were crowded in and around a tiny room that was barely eight feet by ten. Wary of airborne infection, all participants (except us) wore surgical masks. Everyone’s attention was focused on a single point: the doctor sitting at a desk with a computer and lone chair. She examined a child as everyone else hovered over her. Kids were whimpering and coughing, their parents growing impatient and hunkering down, poised to rush forward as soon as the chair was vacated.
At school I played basketball for seven years and now put those sporting skills to good use. Continuing to clasp Alex and avoiding inhaling God-knows-what germs, I elbowed and hip-checked my way through several ‘defenders’ to reach the physician. The medic’s attention was directed towards an infant with gauze around her head. The baby was tiny and weak. It pained me to think that this was the only way for a child to be seen by a doctor, even with an apparently serious condition.
But I didn’t – couldn’t – let this sympathy distract me from my mission. Our flight left in five hours, and it would take ninety minutes even to reach the airport. We had to see the doctor quickly, then leave immediately. Noticing a father and child ready to pounce as the parent ahead of me started to rise from the chair, a combination of mother bear and competitive basketball player came over me. Deploying my nice, wide American child-bearing hips, I blocked them out, hooked my foot around the leg of the chair, pulled it toward me and – legs spread and elbows sharpened – sat down. Victory!
© Blazej Lyjak, Shutterstock
Although surprised, the doctor had clearly witnessed such a tactic previously. She started examining Alex, asking questions through Penny. After three minutes, she handed me a prescription for antibiotics, vitamin B6 and acetaminophen. We clutched this lifesaver-on-paper and scarpered.
Prescription converted into medicine, we made it back to the hotel just in time to pack our bags and meet the police officer who had Alex’s passport. This was still delay enough for Alex to throw up over himself… and me. I cleaned up Alex pretty well with baby wipes and dressed him in clean clothes. I was less fortunate. Vomit leaked down into my bra and under my boobs. I wiped it off as best as I could and changed clothes, but my chest still smelled like sour milk and bananas throughout the long drive to the airport and subsequent flight. Just as well that my gag reflex is pretty weak.
The antibiotics worked miracles. Alex’s fever broke within two hours. My boobs remained puke-free. We returned home safely – thanks to my first and best basketball coach, my dad. Without him sharing some great moves on court, we might still be in that hospital.
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