It was Queen E, but could have been St. E

For all its splendors, travel often brings a misadventure or two. Count the many hours Donna and I spent in a pair of Chinese hospitals overnight last night among those. By turns disturbing and enlightening, the experience was almost Dickensian.

Donna did something bad to her lower back on the treadmill during a regular Sunday morning workout. Her pain settled in by midday and, by midnight, was excruciating. She was in such distress, in fact, that after half a sleepless day in bed, she groaned at about 1 a.m. Monday that she had to go to the ER.

The medical saga then began. First, the staffers at the Sheraton Kowloon were marvelous. Three folks showed up at our room door with a wheelchair, helped Donna into a taxi and gave us a sheet bearing the name and address of the first hospital, St. Teresa’s, a private hospital they recommended.

Off we went. Unfortunately, many Hong Kongers had similar ideas in the middle of the night. Donna was  20th in line to see a single general practitioner on duty. After checking in at 1:27 a.m., Donna was wheeled in to see him sometime after 3 a.m. In between, she was left to writhe on a bed in a ward of about a dozen beds, next to a fellow who, like her, moaned a lot.

The nurses, to be sure, were kind. They provided an icepack, albeit an unrefrigerated one, when I asked. But they couldn’t break the queue, not even for someone in obvious intense pain. It turned out, too, that St. Teresa’s did not have an ER, but only an outpatient clinic along with its 1,000-plus beds, and thus the single GP and long line.

The GP never laid his hands on Donna. Nor did he visit her at her bed. Instead, his exam consisted of asking her questions after they wheeled her into a tiny room to talk with him. He ordered up an X-ray, which, happily but mysteriously, showed nothing unusual. The whole time, he (like most of the others med staff) wore a surgical mask, apparently in fear of the flu outbreak now filling wards in the city. Altogether, this was not reassuring. Visions of MRSA clouded my thoughts.

The GP ordered up an injection for Donna and the nurses complied. After the shot did nothing and I complained, he ordered up a second injection, which also did nothing. Then, he prescribed oral meds, including a muscle relaxant, sending me off to the pharmacy area of the hospital to collect them. These meds did only a bit better than nothing, making Donna at least drowsy, even if still in agony. We feared a kidney stone or some other internal problem, but neither we nor the doc had a clue.

By the way, the first task on entering the hospital and before getting the meds was for me to pay up at a glass-walled counter (like the kind at paycheck-loan places). I paid the equivalent of $174 for the hospital services and a like amount for three drugs. That was astoundingly low by American standards, of course. Still, it was unsettling to be required to pay first, making me wonder what would happen if we didn’t have the money (they took American Express). There have been stories in China of people cast out into the street for lack of funds (though not at public hospitals, as I recall).

At about 4 a.m., it was clear Donna wasn’t improving, even as no one still had any idea what was wrong with her. The staff urged that she visit Queen Elizabeth Hospital, a public hospital that had an ER. An ambulance showed up, after a discomfiting wait, and took us on a leisurely ride through the city to QEH. The driver saw no need to use his lights or siren, and stopped dutifully at every red light, despite Donna’s anguish.

Soon, at QEH, we found the Chinese version of St. Elsewhere. It was jammed with people sitting in a waiting area in dire need of remodeling. The inner treatment area was filled with nearly a dozen folks on gurneys, in various states of distress. Donna joined this queue, with her gurney lined up along the others in the center of the floor, and, again, we waited.  Eventually, she was wheeled into a tiny exam area behind a curtain, and she got a proper exam from a doc who seemed altogether overworked.

Indeed, later I chatted with one of the ER admitting guys, who told me it’s tough for the public hospitals to keep docs. The hospitals routinely see dozens of patients each night and the docs work nonstop through their shifts. They also likely don’t make much money, since the charge for hospital services this time – again, in advance, was about $183. The docs soon burn out and go private, he said. There were no old docs there.

After ordering up a second set of X-rays and processing blood and urine tests, the kindly doc we dealt with found nothing obviously wrong. It was all still a painful mystery. But, by 8 a.m. or so – after a few hours of more writhing – the docs decided that Donna should be admitted for observation and a chance to see a specialist. I signed the papers, even though no one could say when the specialist would stop by. The ER docs also couldn’t give her anything more for pain beyond the meds that seemed to be barely better than Tylenol because the ER didn’t dispense such drugs; only the specialist upstairs had access to them.

Problem was, the admitting staff couldn’t find room in a ward for Donna. The ward was jammed, so we waited until after 9 a.m. By then, we both had had enough — over eight hours of misery was plenty. Toughing it out at the hotel until we could find a private doc seemed better than laying unattended in an ER, waiting for a room and never being sure when a promised specialist would appear. We signed the papers, acknowledging our discharge against medical advice, were counseled by a doc on what to do should something go awry, and we found our way to a taxi.

Soon, as Donna lay uncomfortably in the hotel bed, I did a little Internet work and turned up a chiropractor’s office near our hotel. We went, found a wonderful group of guys, educated in Canada and in the U.S., who examined Donna properly, determined the problem and began therapy. She apparently had compressed a couple discs in her back on the 15-hour flight to Hong Kong and then worsened the problem by running. The swelling caused the intense pain.

The private practice was well-equipped and comfy, in a sleek downtown  office building above an Esprit shop. Still, the cost was reasonable: the equivalent of $178. Donna will get at least two more such sessions before we leave.

The bottom line: treatment in Hong Kong, unlike the U.S., won’t bankrupt a patient. The docs seem capable, but overworked and, maybe, a bit incurious about their patients’ mystery illnesses. And, at least in the general hospitals, the queuing is heartless at best. That leaves the hard-pressed docs and nurses to take a workaday approach that leaves patients ill-informed, seemingly ignored and feeling beset by griefs beyond their ailments.

It’s not fun to get sick anywhere, but, sadly, there are better places to do so. Happily, Donna is on the mend now. And she’s looking forward to heading home Saturday.

For Chinese students, history is personal

“I have a sister who is eleven years older than I. Actually, I heard from my mother that I should have another sister who is just one year old than I. I asked my parents and grandparents a lot times about where did she go or did she die. From my mother’s mood, I guess she didn’t die but she was abandoned by my parents. Why? Because at that time, my family was so poor to afford three children, and boys mean more than girls to a family which I completely disagree with. Thus, I have never seen her in my life. I wish she would live better than I and we could meet each other again. I am looking for her, I hope I can find her.”

Their stories, like China’s history for the last three generations (and longer), are remarkable. Some are heartbreaking. Others are heartwarming. Still others, like those of many of my students in Nebraska, are surprisingly upbeat. The variety in their life stories – again, as is also true of my students in Nebraska – is stunning.

My students in a summer course at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics shared their brief autobiographies as an initial assignment. I assign the task to get a sense of their writing skills and to get to know them a bit. I ask where they hope their studies will take them and what they want to get out of the course. As in Nebraska, I find a blend of young-adult idealism, hopefulness and candor in their work.

Some of their stories are extraordinary, though, and they open a window onto China’s recent history:

“All of the members in my entire family are born in Shanghai, and my grand grandparents and grandparents, they came through the Cultural Revolution, which is also mentioned in the yesterday’s Ted video. During that ten years, it seems like nobody need to work, according to what my grandfather have told me, and the national economy backed off. National income lost about 500 billion yuan, according to the online statistics, and people’s living standards and personal education has been destroyed. While my grandparents suffered a lot because of the chaos in the upper politics, my parents and I have already got the great benefit from the reform and opening policy. All of us are well-educated and have more working opportunities than ever no matter how fierce the competition is in today’s job market. Those who are about the similar ages as me, which are also called millennials professionally, actually enjoy the fruits that the great development in China has brought us.”

Their tales also shed light on China’s present and future:

“I was born in a little village in Zhejiang province. My mother and my father are all local residents in this village, but they came to Shanghai to set up their own business when I was about two … My mother and my father are retailers selling glasses in Shanghai. Their business is successful now. They have expanded their business to eight chain stores now which was unimaginable at the beginning of the business, because my grandfather and grandmother are all farmers with little income and they had little money for the business when they first came to Shanghai, a city full of opportunities and attractiveness to them at that time.

‘My parents lived a tough life at the beginning of their business. My father was once time cheated by his fellow-villager when his business just started to improve, who suddenly disappeared with all my father’s savings… I really admire them for setting up their own business so successfully…. But things aren’t going well these years. The industry has been going downhill since the rise of E-business in Chinese. One of the chain stores has been shut down because it wasn’t able to earn profit. I was asked to help at the day the store was shut down .The store was decorated beautifully and it cost a lot, but at that day they had to be moved out of that store … My parents told me that it was harder and harder to run a business nowadays…. They plan to shrink their business and end it when they retire. This arises my interest in business and economics, and that is why I chose to enter Shanghai University of Finance and Economics.”

Some come from very modest backgrounds, as the children of farmers:

“I know how many people in China are still in poor today, cause I know how many people are still struggling for a better life. Chinese people, especially the farmers, are trying their best to fight against corruption of the government, discrimination of the citizen, destruction of the bad weather, low price of agricultural products, low pay in the factories, the inequality of education.

“There are too many things we need to do, and I want to contribute to the positive changes of my family, my homeland, and my country. I got much help from the society, and I want to do something helpful to society, that’s where my worth lies… I want to get a wider vision. I want to know more about the world I used to hate business as I think that it is just a chase for money, but now I think that only through business can our people get wealthy, so I want to know more about the business world, what’s it like, how does it work, how can we work in the process and make people get wealth through the process.”

Others, hailing from comfortable backgrounds, expect to do even better than their parents in life:

“I come from a well-off family. My father is a salesperson who lacks high-level education but is pretty experienced in marketing in the environmental protection industry. I am very proud of him and he is my hero who built up from nothing and made every effort to offer the best to my family. My mother is the woman who stands at the back of him. She works more than a housewife would do and takes good care of both my father and me. Since I was little, I have travelled a lot with my parents around the country partly thanks to the requirement of my father’s job. In the rest of my life, I would love to walk farther, enjoy more beautiful sceneries and accompany my parents to travel all over the world with the gratitude they brought to me in my childhood. To be a better one, man needs to experience more.”

Their powerful stories make me want to serve them better as a teacher, even of a short-term course. If I can provide some insights into economics and business, I may give them something that helps them long after their school days end. Such is my hope and ambition anyway.