Going to the hospital. Before I came to China, the phrase seemed so serious, a harbinger of bad news — in the US, only those with a sickness or problem beyond the family doctor would visit the hospital.
But in China, hospitals handled everything, from minor colds to major surgery. You could not divine the severity of a problem just because someone went to the hospital.
That someone going to a hospital, one evening in mid-March, 2003, was me — a young foreigner gripped with a relentless, raw cough. I felt so sickly before John, my Chinese boyfriend, who never took ill because, unlike me, he had met much of the bacteria and viruses in China once before in his lifetime. My health had been a source of consternation before, and still was. So this evening, as we walked into the hospital, John wrapped his arm around me, gently stroking my shoulder to comfort me, like a parent soothing a doctor-phobic young child.
He chose the VIP clinic — a spotless, uncrowded space splashed in bright white everywhere you looked, from the walls and desks to the screens and examining tables — which required a 100 RMB registration fee. It was more than 10 times what we usually paid to see average doctors. But to John, the cost was nothing if it meant better care for his foreign girlfriend.
After waiting a few minutes before the reception desk, we walked into a large exam room with a desk, some chairs, privacy screens, and cabinets filled with instruments. The doctor, a matronly middle-aged woman with a mop of short, permed hair dyed black, looked at me and considered my symptoms. “We should do an X-ray,” she suggested. X-rays, an unusual diagnostic tool in the US, were more common in a China with more cases of tuberculosis. I didn’t want too much radiation exposure, but I also wanted to be cured. So, with the doctor’s order in hand, we marched down to the radiology department, where I stood before the machine, like a convict in a prison lineup, and had a shot taken of what could have been the offending party in my own body. We waited until the X-ray was ready, and then toted it back upstairs for the verdict.
The doctor studied my lungs like a map — a map leading the way to diagnosis — and then turned to John and I. “It’s nothing serious, just a respiratory infection. I’ll write you out a prescription for some medicine to treat this.” John and I paid the remaining bills, left the clinic and went to the pharmacy to pick up my medicine.
But as we left the hospital, I wondered about the visit — if the doctor’s concern, and X-ray, were more than just due diligence in medicine. “Do you think it has anything to do with that strange pneumonia I read about in Guangdong Province?” In one of the expat magazines, there happened to be an article about a mysterious illness in Southern China, one that had a variety of symptoms like a respiratory infection — including a cough.
John shrugged. “Maybe,” he said, but there was no fear or concern in his voice.
But, weeks later, a visit to the hospital in China would no longer be routine, especially when you had a cough like me — one of the primary symptoms of a new disease they would call SARS.
Were you ever surprised that, in China, you always had to go to the hospital just to see a doctor?
Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.