Learning about China’s health-care system the hard way

Students brought good food and good ccheer.

Students brought good food and good cheer.

“I did the best I could,” the surgeon said in his best English. He paused, a bit awkwardly, for a few moments then repeated, “I did the best I could.”

I really didn’t want to look. After about an hour of surgery below the right eye, nearly half of my face was covered by a gauze bandage and surgical tape that made me look something like a character in a SciFi flick, “Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster Meets the Mummy.”

Through my out-of-focus eyes, the clock seemed to say a few minutes after one in the morning. It had been six and a half hours since I fell off my bicycle on September 23 in a driving rainstorm on an invisibly slick surface on a dark campus pathway. I fell face-first onto a brick pavement, trying unsuccessfully to break my fall with both hands.

In the tenth floor surgical suite in Peking University Hospital Number 3, I felt even worse than I looked. My broken left wrist was in a newly created, hard-plastic cast. My jammed right thumb was throbbing. My left leg near the knee had been sewn up from what, at first, looked like a war wound after something (I still don’t know what) pierced my skin. My face was lacerated for about 6 centimeters where my glasses frames were thrust into my flesh. I hurt everywhere. I couldn’t see clearly, and I’m not sure if that’s because my glasses were missing or because my head was swirling.

I don’t remember much in the immediate aftermath of the crash except the blood and the pain. Three students came to my rescue and one let me borrow her mobile phone to call my office manager. Somehow, I managed to hobble about 1 kilometer to Tsinghua University’s hospital emergency room, where my experience with the Chinese health-care system began. Two hospitals. Two surgeries. A half-dozen x-rays, a CT scan and a tetanus shot. And some very dedicated, highly skilled doctors who are under constant pressure from seemingly never-ending waves of patients.

Republicans derided U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2010 health insurance law as socialized medicine. Well, this really was socialized medicine, with all of its benefits (universal care, low cost) and its liabilities (longer waits and greater bureaucracy).

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I knew I had broken my wrist as I shuffled slowly westward to the hospital over the uneven pavement of Tsinghua’s beautiful lake district, which had become an instant obstacle course of puddles and tree roots. My non-professional diagnosis was quickly confirmed by a battery of x-rays. That was the easy part.

We shuttled up and down the corridors of Tsinghua’s hospital from department to department. The emergency room doctor had me take off my pants to examine the knee area. I’ll never forget the look on his face. Translated into English by my colleagues, he said: “We can’t treat injuries that serious at this hospital.”

One weekafter the injury.

One week after the injury.

It is 8 p.m., 90 minutes after the crash. The swelling is getting worse, as is the pain. And I have gotten no treatment, save the tetanus shot.

My colleagues paid the bill for hospital services in cash — under $100 — and called a taxi to go PUH3, one of the biggest — and, I was told, best — hospitals in the capital, with emergency surgeons on duty 24 hours a day.

Arriving at Peking University Hospital Number 3 at about 8:30, I was overwhelmed by the smell of cigarette smoke outside the front door, where nervous relatives of patients — and more than a few doctors — went for treatment of their nicotine addiction.

Inside the hospital, I was overwhelmed by the sea of humanity. There were lines everywhere, as relatives and friends queued up to sign up for emergency appointments or to pay their bills on the spot. In cash.

(Sidebar remark: My three colleagues used up all 2100 yuan they were carrying with them, the equivalent of about $350. I gave them my ATM card and they emptied another 400 yuan from my Bank of Beijing account so we could pay our debts before my discharge.)

The mass of humanity and the slightly aged facility reminded me of Parkland Hospital in Dallas, circa 1978, or an inner-city Washington, D.C., hospital — except that there were no gunshot injuries or knife wounds. I quickly learned that there were many more people hurting a lot more than me. In a strange way, it calmed me down as I awaited treatment.

My injuries were handled one at a time, slowly but surely. First, 20 minutes of knee surgery. I don’t remember anything after my leg was pierced by several needles with anesthetics. Then came the CT scan, followed by a visit to the specialist who crafted a hard plastic cast to protect my broken wrist while leaving me with some limited mobility of the arm and fingers. I remember a brief trip outside in my antique wheelchair — which got stuck in a water-filled rut — as we navigated through the massive hospital complex in a steady drizzle. Finally, the facial surgeon. Under four layers of gauze for an hour, to protect me from infection, I had a nightmarish thought about Joan Rivers as I occasionally struggled for air. I am definitely not getting a face lift in 25 years.

At long last, I was done for the evening. We returned the well-worn wheelchair and got our deposit back. We paid all of the bills, which totaled a bit under $500. I was thinking that the single CT scan would have cost more than that back home in the U.S. of A. I consider my care a true bargain.

The doctors were young. Some seemed harried. All seemed to be quite competent. The specialists were compassionate. Maybe it was because I am a foreigner. Maybe it was because they care about more than paychecks, wrangling with insurance companies, liability lawsuits or golf tee times.

Chinese hospitals underscore the "waiting" in  "waiting room."

Chinese hospitals underscore the “waiting” in
“waiting room.”

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The news over the past two weeks has been uniformly good:

  • I am healing surprisingly quickly. No eye bandage anymore. Hardly any scar. I will not be the next Boris Karloff. I can bend my damaged knee and jammed thumb. The cast could come off my arm in a few more weeks.
  • I have had an outpouring of assistance from my students. Twenty-six students volunteered for two-a-day visits for two weeks. They have helped me with meals, laundry and dish-washing. We have had enlightening and stimulating conservations on topics ranging from linguistics to American and Chinese history. If I haven’t told you before, I love the students at Tsinghua.
  • My fellow professors have supplied everything from flowers to sweets to wine. My co-director, Hang Min, even sprung me from my apartment to go to a delicious Sichuan restaurant in Zhongguancun. Other angels with cars have included Eunice Song and Jiao Jie’s family.
  • I have had time to catch up with family members via Skype. And now that I can type again, I will be able to connect more easily with the rest of my friends. I also can prepare lesson plans and PowerPoint presentations for my classes.
  • Finally, I am planning to return to the classroom tomorrow. Because of the Chinese National Day holiday, I only missed one class in both my Multimedia Journalism grad course and my U.S. Media Culture undergrad course.

This is not the kind of adventure I had in mind when I came to China last year. But we all live and learn, and this has indeed been an interesting learning experience.


2 Comments on “Learning about China’s health-care system the hard way”

  1. Suzanne Fluhr says:

    Rick, as I learned when I did a face plant on the Brigantine seawall after Hurricane Sandy and when I was hospitalized during our Honolulu stint earlier this year, one good thing about having a blog is that unfortunate experiences can be excellent blog fodder. I’m glad yours seems to have had some nice silver linings. But, seriously Dude, ouch!!

  2. Marco van Straken says:

    What a story. But a nice inside story how it can work over there. Interesting.


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