“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:
#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!
#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?
#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!
#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.
#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!
#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?