Published 2006-11-13

Minutes out of the shower yesterday our house phone rang. Jenny and Bismarck were out for an early morning jog, and I was a little out of sorts, having showered in the wet room, not the main bathroom. And when the phone rings, unexpectedly at 6:30 you just know it’s something bad. Moreover, the call wasn’t on my cell phone, which is where I usually get work-related phone calls. On the other end was Jenny. She was screaming...I could barely make it out, but something was very, very, sorry-we-moved-China, I-hope-I’m-dreaming wrong.

Then she said, clearly, I can’t move.

My stomach dropped to my feet. Immediately I thought the worst: she was hit by a car, she’s paralyzed, how is it possible she can even speak?

I asked Are you OK? What happened? Should I call 119? [the emergency number] Do you need an ambulance?

No, she said, I was running and stepped wrong and now I can’t stand on my foot.

She told me what intersection she was at and I ran, full tilt, down to the main road where I jumped on top of the first cab I saw. At that early hour traffic is light and we made it in quick time to the intersection where Jenny was. She was sitting on the curb and in excruciating pain. Bismarck was helpfully licking her face. After some difficulty tracking down a second cab (and after waving off a freelance ambulance, and then, once in the cab, going to the English-speaking “24 hour” clinic which was WTF!?! CLOSED!?!? and finally stopping at home to drop off Bismarck and to pick up Jenny’s wallet) we made our way to the emergency room at Zhongshan hospital.

Immediately this was really really intimidating. I felt less than useless. Jenny could clearly understand everyone better than I could, and she was the one in pain. But once I grokked the situation that I needed to pay for all the proceedures before they proceeded (and that, in Chinese fashion, the person checking you in and doing your paperwork is unhelpfully not the person who takes your money), the ER went smoothly. They wanted 10元 (US$1.25) for the admission, and I filled out the minimalistest admission papers imaginable. All they needed was her name and birth date.

My U.S. readers may want to pause and re-read that last sentence and recollect on your own E.R. experiences in our native land.

For my non-U.S. readers: I have a little experience with U.S. emergency rooms, and here’s how they work. Someone you know does something like damage their ankle running. You debate for about half an hour whether it’s so bad you need to go to the E.R., because the experience will be so awful. Eventually you decide to go. You bring a toothbrush and big book, and maybe a change of underwear, because you might be spending the night sleeping in the waiting room with the 40% of Americans who use the E.R. as their only form of medical care. Unless your friend is bleeding out her eyes you’ll be waiting 2 to 4 hours just to see a nurse. She’ll wait at least an hour just to get admitted. All that free time is good, because you’ll need it to fill out the notebooks of paperwork that verify your friend’s name, address, identity, entire medical history, employers, and about half a dozen Important Numbers, not least of which is the insurance number (you do have insurance, don’t you?) Then, when she finally does get admitted they put you in a tiny room (alone, if you’re lucky), where you wait another hour for a doctor to stop in. During that interim a nurse entertains you for about 3 minutes by taking your friend’s temperature, blood pressure, height and weight. Then the doctor comes in, looks at your friend’s foot, asks about two questions, then says, yep, we better x-ray that. So someone has to call radiology, and you need a special piece of paper to take with you, and they have to call an orderly to push you there in a wheelchair...this will all take about 30 minutes. Eventually you get to radiology and...geez this is getting tiring. Suffice to say, an E.R. visit in the United States is a day long adventure and will set you back, at minimum, $300. Minimum. If they do something exotic like x-ray your foot, we’re talking thousands of pretty American dollars. And the whole experience is wrapped up in paperwork so byzantine that you need a special piece of paper signed before you can go home.

This is not how it works in China. In China, a country where you have to provide four forms just to leave the country (true!), and three forms (with a photocopy of your passport) to withdraw money from your own bank account (also true!), you can walk into an emergency room, put your name on a piece of paper, pay $1.25, and a doctor will look at you in, I dunno, 15 minutes. In another 15 minutes (after paying 200元 [$24]) they’re taking x-rays of your foot, in another 20 minutes the doctor decides the foot’s not broken but that you’ve pulled a ligament, wraps the ankle up tight, gives you a prescription for an analgesic cream (68元 [$8.50]), and bang you’re good to go.

But here’s the hell of it:

I can speak Mandarin at maybe a 3-year-old’s level. I can read 400 characters, about 1/10 what a literate adult can read. I’m pretty handy with the English, heck I gots me a college degree or two, and wunnathem minors in, whatchadink, English. Despite all of which I can understand Chinese hospital paperwork better than American hospital paperwork.

We should be seriously ashamed of the American medical system. Seriously. It would shame people in a developing country. Seriously.

Back to the story:

Jenny got out of the E.R. by 8am and we were home again. Our maid was in (she comes Monday and Thursday mornings), and knew of a traditional Chinese cure. She walked to the corner Chinese pharmacy (note: not very much like a Western pharmacy, more like snake-handling witch doctors, if snake-handling witch doctors wore white smocks and kept the snakes in tasteful, scientific-appearing packages under glass, not unlike at a perfume counter, alongside aspirin that costs 32¢ a tablet) and bought a bottle of something that smelled kind of Vick’s Vapo-Rubby, and a package of “pain plasters.” This put me to thinking a lot about the power of placebo and the value of folk medicine but I’m still processing a lot of stuff so I have to save it for later.

Jenny was laid up the rest of the day, and I stayed home and played nurse. But not the fun kind of nurse who wears saucy outfits; rather the kind of nurse who does things like wrap your foot in the weirdly effective sticky ace bandage or rub on the analgesic cream or apply pain plasters or run to the food mart to buy frozen corn because don’t they sell any fricking ice anywhere in this country? not to mention aspirin for anything less than 32¢ a pill? We just got an x-ray for $24 (and they let us take it home!) but the aspirin costs 32¢ a pill?

Jenny stayed home again today but is pretty much able to walk again. I borrowed a pair of crutches from the school nurse, and she’ll try going into work tomorrow. The swelling has gone down but the ankle turned a really cool blue color.

The best stories are the ones that start out really, really horrible, with your wife screaming on the phone that she can’t move and end with wacky pharmacy hijinks, and the wisdom that no matter how crappy you feel about your job or your weird life situation or loneliness or ennui, at least you’re still alive, and so are all the people you love. You can go to bed with a clear heart, wake up tomorrow and not be such an arrogant ass, because now you know all that life-is-here stuff, like what’s really important, and the difference between an adventure and a tragedy.