The Chinese Hospital Experience

The Chinese Hospital Experience

Waiting in line at the hospital is really fun. Really.

I woke up and it punched me hard in the gut: stomach pain.  I curled into the fetal position from the pain, but I knew that the show must go on.  I got out of bed, showered, clothed myself and hobbled back to bed where I cradled myself and my sore intestines.  Fifteen minutes later and with the excuse of ‘still being able to walk,’ I crawled out from my bed, grabbed my pre-made bento from the fridge and slipped on my high heels ready to strut to work.  I was ready to make my Japanese company proud and go to work completely ill.

Then five steps out American Mary kicked in and said: “No way I’m spending 9 hours at my company like this.  It’s hospital time.”

Chinese Hospitals–Hell on Earth?

Being in China, you’re going to go to the hospital at least once every three months.  No matter what you do, there is something in this murky, polluted and contaminated environment that will ruin your health in no time.  So if you’re moving to China, just prepare yourself for multiple hospital visits–and if you’re American, then hell, you better get some nice insurance or pray to god–because the only option you’ll have is the local clinic.

Life wasn’t always so wonderful with my Japanese company insurance and my personal interpreter.  No.  I have horror stories about Chinese hospitals that will keep you away from the mainland forever.

Hot Water Cures Everything

When I was a student in Beijing, I was unfortunate enough not to have insurance, but luckily (?) Chinese healthcare is so cheap that going to the hospital will only set you back 30-40 USD.  I went to the doctor for everything–cold, stomach pain, knee injury, eye pain–but no matter what ailment I had, no matter what disease, no matter what limb I may have been missing, the diagnosis was all the same:

“Drink hot water.”

In my final weeks as a Beijing student, I became the sickest I’ve ever been in my entire life.  I had a fever in the 100s (F), sore muscles, a cough that rocked my body and no voice.  Literally, voice was completely gone.  I was so weak and frail that I, honestly, thought I was going to die–and it’s in those situations when us Americans drag our soon-to-be dead body from the bed and go to the hospital.  Luckily, my good friend assisted me in walking to the hospital.  After waiting for a good few hours, we finally got to see the doctor.

I couldn’t talk, so my friend had to talk for me (and she was a foreigner, so she did her best in Chinese).  I was literally about to pass out from the pain and the fever.  I whisper with a hoarse cry that I think I have bronchitis (I looked up the word beforehand) and I need antibiotics.

But the doctor and I didn’t see eye-to-eye.

“Nah.  Just drink some hot water and you’ll be all better.”

Basically, he refused to give me antibiotics.  My friend told me to go to a foreign clinic, but my stubborn self said that I would rather die than pay 500 USD to just get some antibiotics (yes, the foreign clinic is that expensive in China and yes, I was probably going to die fo real).  Luckily, however, one of my good Chinese friends was a nurse and she got me some antibiotics on the down-low.

But still, to this day, when a doctor tells me to 喝热水 (drink hot water), I have to try really hard not to karate chop them.

Drawing Blood 抽血 採血

I hate drawing blood.  Really.  I know no one likes it, but I particularly hate it.  I never even had my blood drawn until I was 22 (imagine that).  Japan made all of its employees take health examinations, so while there I was forced to draw blood.  When it happened I was so weak and freaked out about the whole thing that, after they drew my blood, I stood up and literally fainted.  I woke up 10 minutes on a tatami mat somewhere, dazed and confused.

China loves to draw your blood.  They usually do it to rack up the medical bills and take your money, so even if your leg is broken or you have pink eye, they will say: “We should test your blood.”

When I was without insurance again, I went to a crazy local hospital that was jam packed with sick people and so utterly crowded and disorganized, it made times square on new years eve look empty.  It was a horrible place, and trying to find the doctor and actually have him look at you was like trudging through a zombie battlefield (of sick old people trying to cut in front of you).

So I finally make it to the doctor and he tells me to get a blood test.  After asking twenty nurses where I should get a blood test and receiving nothing but 20 ambiguous finger points in return, I arrive at a window that has the word “blood” written on a sign above it. I think I’m in the right place.

“Show me your paper”  the nurse at the window barks at me.

I hand over the paper the doctor gave me moments before.

“So is this where I get my blood draw—-”

Before I even finish my sentence, she stabs me in the finger with a needle.  It all happened so fast–one minute I was handing over a paper–the next, there’s blood coming out of my finger.  I literally screamed on the spot.

The nurse wasn’t phased by my blood curdling cry in the slightest.

“Come back in 15 minutes” she grunts.

…..and that is how you get a blood test in China.

Makin Moolahs

You might think that going to an international ward in a Chinese hospital might be a better option.

But you’re wrong.

One day I woke up with the worst stomach flu to ever grace mankind.  Puke, toilet, puke, toilet, puke, toilet–it was a vicious cycle, and it wasn’t stopping, and when the fever came on I knew it was time to go to the hospital.  Luckily this time I had nice-company-provided-insurance so I went to a crazy overpriced international clinic.

Originally I thought I had food poisoning, so I tell doctor to give me medicine and let me go home.

“We think you might have appendicitis, and we want to give you a blood and urine test.”

“Are you kidding me?  I’m pretty sure I don’t have appendicitis.  Just give me meds for this horrific stomach pain, please!”


She freaked me out a bit so I consented to taking the test.  After puking all morning and having zero food inside of me, the blood test left me quite weak.  I tried to stand up after blood was drawn, but I almost fainted (once again) and decided to rest for ten minutes before attempting to once again stand on my own two feet–however, the nurse didn’t feel the same.

“What are you doing sitting down!?” she screams at me. “Hurry up and take this urine test, I haven’t got all day!  HURRY UP, HURRY UP, HURRY UP!!”

This is another moment Mary is not proud of.  When Mary has been puking all morning and had the living blood drawn out of her system, her tolerance for China also wears thin.  Suffice to say, I said more Chinese obscenities to this woman than you ever thought possible.  The string of swear words I cursed at her would shatter your sweet and loving image of me forever. ….But hey, she deserved it.

Finally after both tests turn up negative for appendicitis (shock), the doctor gives me one last suggestion:

“You should get an IV and stay here for the night.”

Again, more Chinese obscenities fly from Mary’s mouth that also include “you greedy establishment” and “WTF 500 USD IV?” I forced a prescription out of the woman, took my meds, and continued to puke in the comfort of my home.

A Sick, but Happy Singles Day

After three years in this country, I can now navigate the maze called a Chinese hospital with ease.

Although I was sick and I couldn’t go out partying with my girl friends as promised on Single’s Day in China, I still enjoyed having them come over to pamper me with soup and love.

Healthcare may suck in China, but the care I get from the friends who truly care for me make living in Shanghai worthwhile.


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