There’s no ambulance for Chinese doctors, though they desperately need life support

When I was in Beijing several weeks ago, the most shocking things I heard came from a doctor friend of mine. He is a urologist at a Beijing Hospital, who I’ll call Dr. Wang.

I actually met Dr. Wang nine years ago when I came through Beijing and suddenly found myself without any place to stay. Dr. Wang, who was introduced to me through the friend of a husband (who also used to work at the hospital), offered to let me stay in his dormitory room. Not only is it generally against the rules to have women stay in men’s dormitory rooms, but it’s almost certainly bad form to have a foreigner there. But Dr. Wang, as he told me earlier this month when I asked him about it, is “the kind of person who doesn’t really care about rules like that.” He’s a rare bird, indeed — direct and brutally honest, two qualities you don’t normally find in China. Plus, he’s just an all-around nice guy.

I didn’t really get to know him then, but I had thought of him every now and then over the years. Finally, when I had the chance to go to Beijing, I decided to see him, since he was still there. It had been so long and I thought it would be nice to see a familiar face.

Indeed, Dr. Wang was as friendly and hospitable as I expected. He had a car, and offered to drive me and my other Chinese friend Peter to a vegetarian restaurant for dinner. He also later offered to drop me off at the airport (which, although he was unable to do later, instead arranged for a friend to send me there).

Still, I had a sense that something was amiss in his life. I could see it in the first moment I entered his car and looked at his face. While it had only been nine years, he looked as though he’d aged twice that period of time. His eyes were tired with dark rings, his complexion a bit wan, and he’d lost a considerable amount of hair. My intuition turned out to be right, as I discovered later in our conversations — when Dr. Wang painted a dark picture of the reality in his hospital…a world where doctors get no respect and understanding, from either the patients or the leaders.

Doctors in China actually receive relatively low salaries, which is shocking because they are in charge of saving people’s lives. Though Dr. Wang had a car, he explained he did not buy it, but rather it was a wedding gift. He emphasized that it was something he could never afford on his own salary.

He said that once he treated a little boy and, despite his best efforts, the boy still died. What did the family do? They kidnapped him. They held him at knifepoint and said “we know you tried your hardest to save our son. But you see, we paid so much money for the treatment and, now that our son is gone, we need you to negotiate with the hospital to get back our money.” Dr. Wang told them he regretted trying to save their son’s life.

When the head doctors make a mistake, they will blame the assistant doctors (such as Dr. Wang). While I was in Beijing, he got blamed for a treatment that wasn’t supposed to be done (which wasn’t his fault). Still, he said he is less likely to be blamed. Why? “Because I am smart and industrious. I did not make many mistakes and have always been trying to treat the patient well. All I am trying to do is save his or her life. Sometimes I finish my work but I will still handle the patient to the next shift. If I am not there, maybe he or she will die.”

Dr. Wang said that the hospital charges employees more if they drink the hospital’s water, as opposed to bringing their own water to the hospital. “What do you think of that?” he asked me. And when I said “really?” he responded with “horrible — and all of us find this really indignant.”

He keeps his ideas to himself and never shares with the leaders. In his words: “You know, I have translated a huge book. But do you know why I would like to translate such a book? During that time, I only sleep for 2 or 3 or 4 hours everyday. I do not want to cooperate with others because if I tell my plan to the head of the doctors or the head of the hospital, he will say ‘you needn’t do that work, let me do it.’ He will rob me of the opportunity, and he will take all of the authorship.”

Additionally, saddest of all, he said the hospitals are not allowed to register any deaths. Several days before we met, despite all of his best efforts, a woman died. He then had to go talk with the family to convince them to take the body back home with them in the middle of the night, so that it would not be considered a death at the hospital.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Dr. Wang hopes to work in another country as a researcher. He just desperately wants respect, and wants a good life.

I think of him now especially because he is being worked to death, literally. As I write this, he is recovering from some kidney stones. Last time I tried calling him, he was in the hospital himself. 早日康复(get well soon)!

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2 thoughts on “There’s no ambulance for Chinese doctors, though they desperately need life support

  • July 28, 2009 at 10:53 am
    Permalink

    Hi, Jocelyn,

    Nice to see you are back. I was an intermittent reader of your former blog and really enjoyed it. Reading your new blog is like visiting an old friend again.

    About the doctor. I think it is sad that his world seems out of whack. I hope he can move to a better place and have some life.

    Reply
    • August 3, 2009 at 7:16 pm
      Permalink

      Hey sam,

      It’s great to hear from you, and glad to have you back — I feel the same way when I hear from my old readers! 😉

      Yeah, the doctor is really experiencing some serious life troubles. Hopefully he’s going to find a better job outside of China. He’s currently casting the net far and wide. I have hope he’ll find a place for himself — I have to hope so, because the poor guy is suffering so much.

      Hey thanks for stopping in, and hope you can come back more often!

      Best,

      Jocelyn

      Reply

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