I started out last night writing about my nacho dinner, then segued rather gracelessly into my experience at Tongren Hospital last week. Instead of writing one post with these utterly unrelated topics, I decided to break it up with two posts. If nachos are more your thing, read the previous post. If you’re at all intrigued by my (somewhat) harrowing experiences in a hospital in the middle country, then please, read on.
It wasn’t bad, really…for a Chinese hospital. I can’t complain. For a truly spine-tingling account, read my friend Mike Kelly’s blog post (http://mikechriskelly.tumblr.com/post/2824165063/scattershot.) Still…
I’ve been to Tongren probably 7 or 8 times now, but I wouldn’t call myself an old pro. I do feel more comfortable striding through the heavy swinging doors now, but only because I’ve grown accustomed to the discomfort that awaits me. Confusion, hot flashes from the stuffy hallways/waiting rooms, stares from tottering old people, staring in turn at people fumbling down hallways with bandages over their eyes or affixed to their heads, fluorescent lights and a sense of barely sterilized decay.
Nearly every time I visit Tongren I’m overwhelmed with a barrage of conflicting experiences and emotions.
Take Jane, for example, a doctor who’s completing her masters degree by working full-time at the hospital. A composed girl with brown skin and glasses and kind, round eyes, she’s become my savior and personal guide to the complicated maze and paperwork shuffle every visit entails. I’m always overwhelmed with relief when I see her, but I worry she feels the opposite when she sees me…”Oh, shit. It’s that helpless American again. There goes my productive work day.”
The night before my surgery, a week ago, I began freaking out because Jane hadn’t responded to my text about what time to arrive the following morning.
“I don’t know where to go. I have no idea! And this poor girl isn’t being paid to be my personalized doctor, and I don’t want to bother her. I probably should just cancel the surgery and pay more money to go to a foreign hospital. If I can’t speak Chinese, I shouldn’t be going to a Chinese hospital.”
All this was delivered in the fatalistic, teary style Brett loves best out of my soliloquies, but he listened patiently and suggested we just go and at least pick up my eye drops at the pharmacy, and see if we could get the surgery done.
As we were waiting in line to pay, and get the paper which we would then take to the pharmacy, Jane finally texted me. This was after I had gone to the bathroom and came back fuming, “Of course there’s no soap or toilet paper! Why would I want to wash my hands in a hospital? Of course! Why didn’t I think to bring my own roll of toilet paper and hand wipes…to a hospital?”
Brett had to leave for work, so I made my way to the other east building of the hospital, dodging grim old men and weary mothers bouncing babies, and appeared in the examination room where Jane was.
Doctor Chen, the specialist I’ve spoken with before about my high intraocular pressure, looked up from where he was working on a patient and said, “Aubrey, you’re too late!”
I smiled weakly. “Okay.”
I started to say more, but he interrupted, motioning to a stool near where he sat, poised in front of a boy who sat in the examination chair, his chin in the stirrup.
“Have a seat!”
His eyes were inscrutable and constant, his mouth hidden behind a mask from which his voice emanated out, slightly muffled.
His accent and his manner lent him a dignified, almost disdainful tone. I can never tell what he thinks of me. Sometimes I think he’s annoyed that I’ve cast myself in with the clamoring crowd of unwell Chinese, insolently requesting treatment at Chinese prices.
He looked stern.
“Do you have any questions about SLT surgery?”
“Have you read about it? Have you spoken with doctors and friends who know about this surgery?”
I was fumbling, frantic to appear well-informed and prepared, definitely not a clueless kid who had read a handful of reports online and felt satisfied with those paltry morsels of information.
“You know,” he continued, “In China we have been doing this surgery for about eight years. In America, they have been doing it for eleven years.”
“So with this treatment, you must come back for follow-up. You must come back weeks after, and months later, and in six months, and in one year.”
He looked at me, his narrow eyes looking narrower over his blue mask.
“How long will you be in China?”
“You don’t know?”
“No. I mean, I am going back home next summer, and then I think I am coming back after that.”
“You are not sure?”
He laughed then, and I laughed a little too, but I wasn’t exactly sure why we were laughing.
“You know, if you do this surgery, and then you don’t come back, we cannot do follow-up. If you are going to America this summer, maybe you can do the surgery there. You are a citizen of the United States.”
I felt tears on the fringes, pressing in, but I wouldn’t give in.
“In America, it would cost a lot more,” I protested.
“Yes, that is one part of it,” he allowed.
I nodded, but I wanted to say, no, you don’t understand…that’s ALL of it. I can’t pay American prices out of pocket. No way.
He looked at Jane, who was demurely watching this exchange.
“Go with her, and she will talk to you about it,” he instructed.
I meekly obeyed. I wanted to apologize to the kid in the chair on my way out, who was still waiting for his turn with the doctor.
“Do you want the surgery?” Jane asked me.
“I mean…yeah!” I burst out. “I know maybe the hospitals here are not so modern as in America, and they’ve been doing it there a little longer than here. But I still think–I mean, is Dr. Chen the one who will do the surgery?”
“Yes. Dr. Chen will do the surgery.”
“Yeah. I mean, I think he would do a good job. I want to do it.”
“OK. Yes, I think it will be OK to do it here,” she replied. “Let me tell him you will do it.”
Another shuffle from counter to counter to pay for the surgery (RMB 720, for laser eye surgery for glaucoma), then to the pharmacy to get my eye drops. Then to some examination rooms, then I was outside the room where the surgery would take place. Jane translated the waiver for me, which said all the usual things: there could be damage to the cornea, retina, and trabecular meshwork, but this was extremely rare, blah blah. I signed.
Then she put numbing drops in my eyes. This is maybe where I started to freak out a little on the inside. OMG, my eyes are about to be shot through with lasers in a Chinese hospital. OK. No big deal. Don’t worry about it.
I sat outside the door, labeled “YAG laser room.”
The door opened.
Jane said, “You can come in now.” I entered the small room with a machine at a low table, with rickety stool in front of it. There was another eye examination machine to the right, and behind both was a small sofa. In the left corner Dr. Chen was washing his hands with great thoroughness.
I sat on the rickety stool, after putting my purse and jacket behind me. I eyed the machine. Would this thing really shoot lasers into my eyes?
“Do you have any questions for me before the surgery?” Dr. Chen asked.
“Umm…” I didn’t want to appear nonchalant about the whole thing. “So basically you’re just opening up the meshwork of my eyes to let them drain and reduce the pressure, right?”
“Yes, that’s right,” he answered.
“Now, it’s very important that you are very still during the surgery. Don’t move. Look straight ahead at all times.”
I removed my glasses and put my chin and forehead against the plastic frame. I knew from reading online it would only take a few minutes, and I would only need to wait in the hospital one hour afterwards, so they could check the pressure to make sure it didn’t spike too high.
He inserted some kind of circular ring on my right eye, which clamped it open and pulled my eyelid back. I swallowed hard and tried to look straight ahead.
And it was underway. Small discreet zinging noises from the humming machine, and a blinding light slanting across my exposed eye ball. Was I looking straight ahead? I no longer knew which direction either of my eyes were pointing, but I tried not to change the direction of my gaze.
My discomfort grew as the blinding light shifted more and more directly into my eye, searing my retina. The lasers zinged away, small pricks of red light dotting my vision, and god, is it just me or is it really hot in here?
Oh. Oh I don’t feel good. I’m really hot. Ah.
A low groaning whimper escaped me, and the doctor asked if I was alright.
“Um, I’m just…really hot.”
I began fumbling with my hoodie, removing it, tossing it behind me, all while trying to look straight ahead.
Nausea washed over me.
I’m gonna faint. Ohhh. Or vomit. I’m going to vomit and possibly lose control of my bowels at the same time. Right here on this stool.
My hearing was dim.
“Umm, I think I’m going to faint.”
“Faint? What is faint?”
“I’m going to pass out. I need to lie down.”
I was seeing spots. The spots were merging with the blinding light and everything was bright and dim at once and I needed to lie down like on the floor right now or it would all be all over…
The clamp was removed from my eyes and I stood up from the stool and staggered to the couch, collapsing on it, raking sweaty hair from my forehead.
The assistant doctors rushed forward.
“Are you OK? Do you need chocolate?”
“No. No thanks. Is my eye OK?
My vision was blurred and my eye seemed to be oozing a viscous fluid.
“Yes, your eye is fine. I think you are very nervous. I think maybe we should continue the surgery another day.”
“No, don’t talk. Just rest. Get better.”
Another patient was ushered in and sat down across from the doctor. They chatted pleasantly in Chinese, and while I couldn’t understand very much, I imagine it went something like this:
Dr. Chen: Hi, please take a seat.
Patient: Hi. OK.
Patient: So what’s up with the white girl splayed across the sofa?
Dr. Chen: Oh, don’t mind her. Just this American who passed out in the surgery.
Patient: Oh, Americans! Always passing out during laser surgeries!
(They both chuckle, and Patient calmly endures the duration of his surgery without the assistance of the fainting sofa.)
After he was gone, Dr. Chen turned to me.
“Aubrey, I think you are too nervous, and I am too tired.” His voice was amused and weary. “I think we should do the surgery another time. What do you think?”
“I mean, I want to finish it today!”
“But will you faint again?”
“I don’t know. It’s just a physical reaction. I don’t want to…”
“Yes, yes, of course.”
“What if…could I listen to music?”
“Music. Do we have music?” he turned to the other doctors questioningly.
“No, I have music! In my phone,” I explained.
“Oh! Of course.”
I sat in the rickety stool for the second time. I put in my ear buds, and selected “Perth,” the first song off Bon Iver’s new album.
The music began, haunting and loud, centering me in a calm place, safe from the lasers and the blinding light. They were peripheral, and the music was central. I thought of past family vacations in California. I thought of lying in the sun at Newport beach while gulls cried and spun overhead. The crash of the waves and hiss of the tide.
Where should we go for lunch? Mmm, In-n-Out burger. Definitely. Vanilla milkshake and fries. Yes.
“Just relax,” Dr. Chen said in his best soothing voice. “Everything will be over in one minute.”
But I was relaxed. I was completely fine. He finished the right eye and moved on to the left, and it was finished. Jane ushered me out and I sat out in the dingy hall waiting to have my pressure checked after an hour passed. My eyes were a bit blurred and fragile, but otherwise fine.
A nurse checked the pressure, and I texted Jane the results. She didn’t answer right away so I called her. She said that was good, and she would see me the following morning to check the pressure again.
“See you tomorrow,” she said in her quiet voice.
Maybe because I knew the worst was over, maybe because of Jane, maybe because Dr. Chen gave me another chance, even though he was tired and didn’t want to have to soothe the sweating American girl in a language not his own, maybe because I’ve just been there so many damn times…I wasn’t too daunted at the prospect of another day at Tongren.