6 Surprising Experiences My Husband and I Had in a Chinese Hospital

IMG_20160616_143841“It’s appendicitis. You need surgery.”

The words echoed through my mind like a bad nightmare. No, this isn’t happening. No, the emergency room doctor surely couldn’t have told me that. It’s impossible. I don’t even feel that bad. I can walk. He can’t be right. How could I need my appendix out?

But the bigger shock, more than the diagnosis, was the prospect of going under the knife in China.

I’ve lived in China for a total of 8 years (including the five and a half years I lived in China in the 2000s) and I’ve seen a lot of hospitals here.

Some reminded me of the hospitals back in the US – bright, clean and with high standards of care.

But others, like this emergency room where I’d just received the diagnosis, were the kind of crowded, sagging, institutional hospitals that made me anxious about surgery.

But if not there, where? We had to find a hospital fast. I knew enough about appendicitis to realize that if you appendix ruptures, it’s much more serious. With every minute I felt a fever coming on, a troubling reminder that I was indeed ill and desperately needing treatment.

Suddenly, my husband remembered his classmate had just transferred to a new Zhejiang University-affiliated international hospital, where she heading the nursing department. We decided to give it a go.

When my husband and I stumbled into the hospital emergency room at sometime after 4am that morning, the two of us never expected that I was about to have more than just a successful appendectomy. That we would have some surprising experiences — including positive experiences that would forever change the way I think about hospitals.

Here are 6 surprising experiences I had while in a Chinese hospital:

(Photo by Wendy via Flickr.com)
(Photo by Wendy via Flickr.com)

#1: Cutting up the hospital pants so I could wear them

We all know the hospital drill – once you’re admitted, you’re asked to strip off all your clothes and put on the hospital clothes. Thankfully, the hospital used hospital shirts and pants (instead of the mortifying hospital gown common across America with that infamous no-privacy slit in the back).

Now imagine my shock when the nurse hands over a pair of pants with a waistband that’s a little too small to fit for comfort. Especially with that wicked tight elastic, guaranteed to torture my already stressed-out stomach.


In retrospect, I should have totally expected this. While I’m an average and popular size in the US, I’ve struggled to fit into things like underwear and even pants in China. And when I do buy, it’s usually online and usually some crazy XXXL or XXXXL size. I know!

But it’s another thing entirely when you’re presented with a pair of pants you have to wear — with the most sadistically small elastic band you’ve ever seen. All because the hospital doesn’t run larger sizes for women.

So there I am, sitting on the toilet in the bathroom, hanging my head half in discomfort from the appendicitis and half because I can’t see how I’ll ever fit into the pants without feeling like my innards are caught in a vice.

Then the nurse says, “Try cutting them,” and hands Jun a pair of scissors. Sure enough, my husband eventually hacks off half of the waistband – and voila! They fit!

Fortunately, after that first day the hospital let me wear my own soft, roomy drawstring pajama pants from home. I don’t know if it was out of sympathy or because it’s too ridiculous to have to chop up hospital pants just to make them wearable. But I’ll take it. Sure beats a hospital gown!

(Photo by SonnyandSandy via Flickr.com)
(Photo by SonnyandSandy via Flickr.com)

#2: Waking up to my appendix in a plastic bag

Disoriented, post-operative me got quite the awakening after coming out of surgery. First the doctor told me how successful the surgery was, leading me to shed tears of relief. And then, as proof of his work, he dangled my appendix above me in a plastic bag.

Did I mention that I gag at the sight of blood and guts?

Someone explained later on that this is common in hospitals in China. They always show patients what they removed from your body, if they removed something. It’s like a visual confirmation that the surgery was completed.

Fortunately I wasn’t wearing any glasses or contacts, so the blurry appendix appeared more like a slimy brown salamander. Thank goodness I didn’t throw up in the recovery room.

Nope, I saved the throwing up for later that evening, when the smell of my husband’s dinner caused me to vomit all over my clothing. Fun times, huh?

My husband looked even more serious -- and pale -- than this photo!
My husband looked even more serious — and pale — than this photo!

#3: That time when a specialist asked my husband to go outside to talk about me…and I thought I was a goner

“I need to speak with your husband outside.”

These have to be the eight deadliest words a doctor could have said to me in the hospital. Back in America, this would be code for, “You’re dead.”

There I was, just after getting my “nether region” checked by a different specialist (I’d rather not say why – embarrassing personal stuff), and the guy asks MY husband to step outside with him. I was already totally unnerved by having a doctor examine me down there, and now he thinks I’m a goner?

Even my husband freaked out. Jun is usually the easygoing side of our duo – the one who’s always laughing and optimistic, who never takes things too seriously. But those eight little words from the specialist drained the all color from his face.

The 30 seconds that elapsed – when the specialist was with Jun in the hallway – had to be one of the scariest moments in my hospital stay. I was laying there on my side, thinking the worst as I clutched the hospital bed in total fear.

Turns out, though, it was nothing serious at all.

It was a totally common, benign problem and they just prescribed some medicine for me. (I was so incredibly relieved when my husband reported this that I began sobbing so loudly two nurses ran into my room to ask what was wrong.)

Later, a nurse told me that it’s typical in Chinese hospitals to speak to the family members, rather than patients, about their care. Even when it’s something totally common and easily treatable, like my case. (But the hospital said they’re hoping to change this and instead communicate more directly with their patients.)

Still, after it all passed, my husband and I actually had a good laugh over it. I swear the image of my husband’s ashen face before going out into the hallway will be forever ingrained in my memory!

IMG_20160620_103926#4: Some of the nicest, most caring nurses I’ve ever met

My experiences with nurses in America and even China have been a mixed bag. Some have been friendly – and others so bored you almost wonder if they’re going to miss your vein for that blood sample. Smiles aren’t a given. Sometimes, you feel more like a commodity than a patient.

Not at this hospital. The nurses who cared for me always walked into my room with huge smiles and an extraordinary willingness to help me in any way they could.

One nurse piled my hair into a neat little bun everyday to make me look nice – and even brought me special breakfasts a couple of times. Others helped me brush my teeth (just after the surgery), wash my hair, and bring me more comfortable pillows. They always looked for the biggest, most comfortable shirts for me wear (remembering that I was that extra-large size compared to the average woman who stayed in the hospital).

The nurses there really made me feel like they cared about me as a person. It was a powerful experience. I fully believe that their warmth and positive energy was just as critical to my recovery as the medical care I received.

IMG_20160619_080033#5: Really good food (including dumplings) from a hospital!

We’ve all heard the jokes about hospital food. And we all know dining in a hospital room usually comes with even lower expectations than airplane grub. So the last thing I ever expected was to come out of the hospital raving about the food.

That’s right – I actually liked the hospital food.

When the hospital found out I was a vegetarian, they sent down the head of their nutrition department, who worked up a special menu of stomach-friendly stir-fried veggies (served with rice porridge). That first evening, they sent me a dinner of pumpkin and winter melon. During the whole meal, I couldn’t stop saying “mmmmm” with every bite. Even my husband, who cleaned up my leftovers, had to agree the dishes were exceptionally tasty.

As my stomach became accustomed to more food, they even prepared me vegetarian dumplings from scratch filled with tofu and greens, served in a broth reminiscent of won-ton soup. Delish!

IMG_20160620_115142#6: Changing the way I see hospitals for the good

I’ve always had a certain dislike of hospitals and health care, and I trace it back to a traumatic experience I had in the hospital as a toddler. They had to forcibly strap me down to stitch up a gash in my forehead. It was so upsetting that it’s still a part of my subconscious, forever linking nurses, doctors and hospitals in my mind with really negative experiences.

But this hospital in China completely changed my perceptions.

The doctors in the hospital weren’t just skilled medical professionals (who left me with almost no visible scars from the surgery). They were also friendly, easygoing people who put me at ease and even had me smiling. One of the doctors was always laughing when he came to my room, and his laughter was a welcome sight in the hospital.

Add to that the incredible nursing care as well as the food, and it’s no wonder I feel grateful to have landed in such an excellent hospital. I never imagined that, in my emergency situation, I’d end up with great care.

Thank you, Zhejiang University International Hospital, for showing me what a hospital really should be.

Have you ever been in the hospital in China or abroad? What experiences did you have?

44 Replies to “6 Surprising Experiences My Husband and I Had in a Chinese Hospital”

  1. OMG, you poor thing, having your husband taken outside for a talk. It’s funny now, but I’d’ve thought I was a goner, too.

    Dumplings? Wow, that’s like gourmet compared to American hospital cuisine. I swear they try and make the food bad as incentive for you to get better faster.

    Well, unless they have pants that fit sumo wrestlers, I would be spending my time in a Chinese hospital bottom-less, for sure.

    I can’t decide if the hospital staff are that awesome to all patients or they pampered you as a cyber celebrity. 😉 But I am glad your stay was as painless as possible.

    Are you going to sell your appendix on eBay?

  2. I spent a week in Sir Run Run Shaw in hangzhou and I was incredibly pleased. Not only was everyone really good, it was meticulously cleaned to a dizzying degree. Sadly, Xiamen hospitals just kinda suck. :/

    Glad you are okay now!

    1. I’ve heard great things about Sir Run Run Shaw hospital! That’s a shame Xiamen doesn’t have great hospitals — I would have thought they would, with everything else so great about the city.

  3. My ex had a cyst removed from his chest when we were still married. This was in Hubei and the surgeon was smoking during the operation. Then when we went to Wuhan to get his bandages changed, the techs just threw the soiled bandages in a corner. I’m so glad there are good hospitals in China now! I’ve heard that from other people there, too. Wishing you a full and speedy recovery!

    1. Wow, I cannot imagine a surgeon smoking during an operation or someone tossing soiled bandages in the corner. Yikes! Yes, this is definitely the new China, with some outstanding hospitals out there.

  4. I’m glad to see you looking so good in all the photos. It’s great that you found a good hospital with such an attentive staff.

    My sister had an emergency appendectomy when she was in Spain for her Junior year abroad. She didn’t have any family there to watch over her, and in those days, 1968, Spanish hospitals were not very modern. Fortunately everything turned out all right.

    My first time in a hospital was also for an appendectomy. I was four years old. While I was in the hospital, I caught pneumonia. They didn’t have antibiotics yet, but they did have penicillin shots–very painful penicillin shots. By now I can’t remember the pain, but I do remember a toy my parents bought for me: a little metal merry-go-round.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Nicki! Wow, I cannot imagine getting an emergency appendectomy in Spain in 1968 — I’m glad everything went OK for your sister. It had to be worrying for your parents to see you catch pneumonia in the hospital when you were a child after getting that appendectomy…so grateful you made it through just fine. That was really sweet of your parents to buy you a merry-go-round.

  5. It’s great to hear that everything went well! I have never had surgery or been interned in a hospital so not sure what is common and what isn’t, but I know one thing… hospital food is definitely not famous for being good so you were super lucky!! 😀

  6. Haha showing you the appendix in a bag when you wake up from surgery!

    I ate at a hospital in Taiwan (I wasn’t in hospital, I was just walking past and my map told me there was a restaurant there so I decided to try it. It was AMAZING! Total opposite of hospital food in the west).

    Really interesting to read about your experience of hospital in China – thanks for sharing, wishing you a speedy recovery.

    1. Thanks Cat! That’s cool you had a similar positive experience dining in a hospital in Taiwan. Seems like Western hospitals have a lot to learn from hospitals over here when it comes to food service!

  7. I lived and worked in China for two years (and boy, do I miss it!). I never had to go to the hospital for anything serious, but had to go a couple of times for routine tests for my paperwork and twice for the dentist. They were so different from American hospitals that it caught me quite off guard the first time I went. I remember standing in line for each of my entry visa health tests and going to all of the different stations set aside for each specific test. New line at each station! And people were smoking inside the hospital in some instances. What really caught me off guard, though, was when it was time for my ultrasound. Guys and girls all together, same line, same doctor, same bed and only a curtain for privacy, even if you were wearing a dress you had to pull up so they could get to your stomach! They did close the curtains for that one, though still with some of us total strangers inside it, even if we were all women. Eventually I got used to the different perception of privacy and modesty, but it sure was a shock fresh from America.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Melody. Yeah, I have seen people smoking in the hospitals here. It’s getting better but you still have people who just think they can flaunt the regulations (since they’re so used to doing it everywhere else).

      And I totally agree with you on the privacy concepts here, it has shocked me at times.

  8. The hospital sounds great indeed! I think this is the first time I’ve heard of doctors and nurses all being so nice. Considering the circumstances and the fact that usually no-one likes to be in hospital, the staff really seemed to make this experience as pleasant as possible for you.

    I didn’t know that doctors in China will tell your family members first about treatment for non-serious issues as well. Always thought they only do that if it’s something really serious. Good to know it wasn’t as serious as you thought in that instance!

    1. Thanks for the comment Ruth! Yeah, I was taken away by how positive the whole experience was — it’s the last thing I ever expected.

      Yes, we were SO relieved it wasn’t anything serious…especially my husband. Now we know!

  9. I’m always interested to hear about these details! I did sort of skim the section about them giving you your body part, oh my goodness. Eek.

    I’ve always been shocked at how unhealthy hospital food is in the West, especially when all the snacks for patients and staff are just chocolates and crisps.

    I don’t mean to stick my nose into your business, but speaking of ‘surprises,’ if you’ve gone back to China and if your husband has a green card, please be careful about US taxes, reporting both of your Chinese bank accounts (FBAR), investments, etc. and maybe be a bit careful about any donations. Perhaps you already know all that, but since it seems like you have a lot on your plate recently I just thought I’d bring it up so I didn’t kick myself for mentioning it years from now.

    1. Thanks Amanda! That’s interesting about Western hospital food being so unhealthy — haven’t been to a Western hospital in a while, but I can imagine.

      Actually my husband isn’t a green card holder anymore. He voluntarily surrendered his green card, so we don’t need to worry about him at least. I also found some excellent expat-focused tax preparers, who have ensured that I don’t fall into any of those tax-related traps.

  10. The appendix in a plastic bag hanging there? That would have been too much for me!

    You are lucky that the staff was so nice and were trying their best for you. A friend of mine had the exact opposite experience few years ago as they tried to get rid of him asap when he had a broken leg, they even forced him to walk on his own to the different room …

  11. Now I know where to go if i have a problem in China hahaha, specially for the vegetarian food! that’s so good to hear.

    加油 Jocelyn, I hope you are getting better and better!!

  12. Thank you so much for sharing!
    I’m so excited to hear from different perspectives on Chinese public hospitals, because I’m a Chinese student and I’m interested in hospital-related stuff.

    Public hospitals in China are all crowded and sometimes we wait for hours to see a doctor.

    I didn’t realize that there were so many differences between Chinese and western hospitals! Some features I just took them for granted.

    For example, I got a ultrasound test on my kidneys 3 months ago. There were male and female doctors, male and female patients, all in one room!! I was so nervous that I might get assigned to male doctors!! (Luckily I didn’t) I didn’t realize things were different in the west!

    1. You’re welcome Jingyi! Yeah, there totally are differences. I know I took things for granted until I came to China too and realized how different hospitals could be. But honestly, this hospital I was in was so fantastic, proving that China can offer outstanding care to their patients too…just as good as hospitals in the West, including the US. 🙂

  13. I’m so glad you had a good experience – there are good and bad hospitals EVERYWHERE 🙂

    I didn’t have to stay in the hospital, but I did have to go to the hospital in Changsha. I was a new mother of a 14 month old bouncing baby girl and I got a UTI. The doctor and staff were super nice/caring and my interpreter helped immensely (interpreter was a guy… he was soooo embarrassed to relay to the dr what was wrong with my girl bits but he braved his way through) BUT… the building was saggy and sad around the edges and I had to pee… while in terrible pain… into a cup… while squatting over a trough of raw flowing sewage. No western potties there and that was my first squatty potty ever! Saw a lot more after that but you never forget the shock of your first 🙂

    Each part of the journey, you paid cash on the spot. See the doctor – pay. Lab – pay. Antibotics at the pharmacy – pay. Not a bad way to go but you have to remember to carry a lot of cash with you.

    1. So true that there are good and bad hospitals everywhere. I’m glad you had an overall positive experience in Changsha (apart from squatting over a trough of raw flowing sewage…I’ve been there and I know exactly what you mean!).

  14. Hi Jocelyn, Get well soon. I am an avid reader of your blogs. I am from Philippines and my boyfriend is from Guangxi Hometown but working in Shanghai. After four years of coming to my country, this year February he suddenly told me ge is tired already and have broken up with me. He said he loves me so much but his friends and parents do not like me for him because of my country. Before he does not see this as a problem as he has his own decision but suddenly he changed. What i did, i fought for what i believe is right for both of us as he always say i am a very good woman with a very good heart but he want to build his life in china. So,what i did,i went instead to China and will stay nine days to fight for our relationship. It is my sixth day here,he said i am still his family but cannot give me commitment as he feels tired to travel back philippines. Back to my country,i built two businesses there which so far growing and i have bought and develop a house for him and me,us and my kids. Before he was proud of me but suddenly he change…Anyhow,even i am hurt i still wish you get well soon and i always admire You and John,hoping to meet you in person. Now i am in suzhou,china…

  15. Wow Jocelyn, this Zhejiang International Hospital sounds amazing!

    Like you I’ve had a mixed bag of hospital experiences in China. Most of mine have been… unpleasant, but from looking at your photos and reading this post, I can tell you got top-notch care at this facility! I’m so happy you made it through without any complications, were comfortable, and even got good food….!!!

    Actually I was kind of shocked coming back to U.S. hospitals. When I first signed up for Obamacare I went to the first clinic that came up on the list and it was in a run-down shopping mall with all of the signs in Spanish. I stepped in the private clinic to find black walls and old equipment and a receptionist that didn’t speak English…!!! American hospitals are definitely not always the best… and even at the good ones they tend to overmedicate people.

    Glad you’re recovering nicely, and I think now you have a go-to hospital!

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