The lost bag turned out to be a nonevent. Once the restaurant opened my bag was sitting behind the bar. It had been there all night and everything was still in it when we picked it up. One of the few things that really should have been a big deal but wasn’t, as opposed to all the little things here that should be easy but are enormously difficult. Figuring out where to get things that we have become accustomed to as “necessities”, organizing deliverymen, and finding simple things that would normally take a trip to Target all become day-long ordeals for me in China. And we aren’t even out in some remote area; we are living in a giant, thriving city. A city where you would think pretty much anything would be available. Not so, of course, and one of those things is emergency care.
Health care in general here operates on a different system. Mark’s business has need for strong healthcare services, and, living in Baltimore, we have always had numerous choices not only for primary physicians, but also for hospitals and specialists. I loved our pediatrician. Loved, loved, loved him. We plan on visiting Dr. Bodnar every summer when we head to Grandmom and GrandDad’s house. The dentist, too, particularly after I got a good dose of Shanghai healthcare last week.
Now, I am no expert and we haven’t yet had to use much in the way of facilities here, but when the younger kids’ school offered a “Hospital Tour”, I was told it was vital to attend. Normally, I wouldn’t be very interested in a tour like that. I mean, I can figure out how to get to the doctor, right? I have three kids- two of them frequent flyers in the emergency room. When I jokingly mentioned this to the parent liaison at school, she signed me up right away and even handed me the printed information so that I could read it in advance. Ha, ha, um… ha? Actually, not funny. Not funny at all.
When I attended the orientation at Lucas’ school I had gotten a bit of a feel for how serious things might be if there was an emergency for us here. Lucas has asthma. It doesn’t bother him much and he doesn’t need an inhaler, but it can give him a nasty cough and sometimes (like for several years in a row, always right before Christmas) give him pneumonia. Not serious, in the hospital pneumonia, but the kind that lingers and makes you look like hell and sound even worse. Every single time I tell someone in Shanghai that Lucas has asthma their face changes. “Did you bring plenty of his medicine?” they nervously ask, “From home?” They want to know if I have found a doctor yet. Maybe they have heard that there might be a new one- a good one—at a particular place. The Western doctors don’t stay long, apparently, and they are often on rotations that move them in and out of the country. You might find one you like, people warn, and then never see them again. They might not be there when you need them like some sort of horror movie script.
Lucas needed a test for tuberculosis. I hadn’t realized before we left the States and only found out once we were here with no trip back planned for several months. The school needed it and wouldn’t wait very long. All new students—no exceptions. I asked the school nurse where I should go to get the test done and she gave me the card of a local hospital. I say local, but it is 45 minutes from my house and on the other side of the river. I showed the card to some of the mothers from the PTSA and everyone agreed that this was the only place they would “trust”, the only place that would have a “safe” test.
If you have ever had the chance to be tested for tb, then you know that the test requires two visits to the doctor. The first is to get the needle prick to inject you with the test and the second is to actually look at the pinprick site to note any changes in the skin. There was no way to head over to that hospital, especially not twice over the course of a few days, without missing school and spending the entire day in a taxi. Surely there must be some closer place to do this, right? Wrong. I called a few of the places that were in my handy dandy sneak peek for the hospital tour only to learn that no one does the test. They would do a chest X-ray, but nothing else. It seemed extreme to have an X-ray when we already knew Lucas didn’t have any possibility of having tb. Maybe I was misunderstanding. Maybe this was a language mix up. I called Mark who had his assistant call the clinics back. Even in Mandarin the answer was the same. There is only one place to get the test and it was going to eat up two full days making the test happen. So I made an appointment for the X-ray. The more complicated thing was once again somehow going to be easier.
Going on the hospital tour cleared up some of these issues. Well, not cleared up, actually. The hospital tour made it crystal clear that I had no idea what we were getting into when we came to Shanghai. Yes, it is a modern city in many ways, but it is still a Chinese city with a very different system when it comes to healthcare, a system that is going to take me a while to figure out.
It turns out that the moms I met at Lucas’ school were right. There really is only one hospital where you can get 24 hour Western medicine with English speaking doctors all in one self-contained place. The hospital that is 45 minutes away, of course! The focus of the tour was to acquaint us with the places that were closer to us in the event of an emergency. Because in a real emergency 45 minutes might be too far away. The other moms had cautioned not to go anywhere else other than the Western hospital “unless you are bleeding to death”. There is apparently some truth to this so we were investigating the places where we would go when we needed immediate care. We had a sit down session first before getting on the bus.
The quick takeaways:
- Never call an ambulance unless you cannot get the person into a cab. The ambulances here are not equipped with anything medical and are not staffed by paramedics. When one had to come to the school, they used a bed sheet to get the patient to the elevator, laid her on the floor once they got there, and then picked her up in the sheet again to get her to a van. They will take you to the nearest hospital by whatever route they choose and then you will need to pay them when you get out. They might check your blood pressure but they will charge you extra for it.
- You need to preregister at your hospital of choice because they will make you register before they will treat you.
- You might need to pay upfront so keep a giant wad of cash (like 20,000 rmb!!) and your passports handy.
- We need multiple emergency cards with the hospital address printed in Chinese for the taxi driver and we need to keep all the emergency information handy so that we can grab it and run out the door, hopefully with some friend or neighbor who speaks Chinese.
- In the event of a real emergency in the middle of the night we will most likely end up in a Chinese hospital.
It was confusing, particularly since after hours many of the English speaking places did not inspire confidence. At one, the one that seemed the most promising, the person showing us around made a point to emphasize the “imported medicine”, catered food, and the great beds from Italy. We never met a doctor. The guide told us that there weren’t many people there at night because there weren’t “many emergencies” and that if no one was at the desk it meant they were in the back and we should yell to get their attention. Most telling, perhaps, was the fact that she told us at night they could handle “fevers, stomach aches, things like that”, but that if you were in a car accident then you should go to the Chinese hospital. Most of the places are special expat parts of a regular Chinese hospital and we had to walk through them to get to the Western sections. It was always crowded with both the very sick and the healthy all mixed together. They were loud and people moved through the building like they do on the street, filling all the available space. People were smoking. Bandaged eyes and heads were on full display. One patient lay on a gurney close to the front door. When we got back on the bus we slathered ourselves in hand sanitizer.
I hadn’t realized that you couldn’t get any medicine over the counter. I didn’t know you needed to pay for individual items, like a cast for a broken arm, for example, before you could have the arm set. Even if I spoke Mandarin, the hospital would still be impossible. Vaccines were recommended that had never occurred to me in the United States. We talked about the need for everyone to have first aid training. I mentioned that I had been recertified in CPR last year. That was good, the parent liaison agreed, but then she reminded me, there isn’t any 911 here. In China, I’m the paramedic. That is a job I never intended to have. Crap.
Thanks for sharing — we really do take a simple thing like going to the doctor for granted in the US/Maryland. I cabbed to the minute clinic last night (didn’t want to give up my parking spot), got antibiotics for an infected finger, stopped in a store for a quick birthday present, and was home in just over an hour. Not so much of a pain now after reading your tale of medical preparation! I wish you all very good health 🙂
Hospital tour in China. Not on my top ten list. I think you make an excellent paramedic, Gwen.