Monday, August 11, 2014

Part I - Teaching in China - Illnesses

Where possible, prevention is better than cure! We had constant reminders to keep up the fluids, and bottles of water were tucked into our bags and backpacks constantly. It's hot and you sweat profusely, and we weren't going to be allowed to become dehydrated! Warm water is also common at meals rather than jasmine or other Chinese teas - it makes sense and is welcome. But adequate water intake can't prevent some problems arising.

Having been quite ill some years ago when in China, I was very cautious this time and had been to my doctor before I left to get antibiotics for a respiratory infection as well as for acute diarrhoea (ie the sort that's still there complete with violent, painful stomach cramps and the inability to absorb fluids even after taking a maximum dose of off-the-shelf medication). 

It's not fun being ill overseas and being unable to explain the symptoms. Non verbal communication is all very well - up to a point. One thing I hadn't thought to do was to ask a Chinese friend to write my allergies down in Chinese - just in case. I have a severe allergic reaction to penicillin and wouldn't want to be prescribed that in any way shape or form.

So last time, there I was, pretty crook and in pain with severe abdominal cramps. I'd experienced 5 days of not eating and obviously needing something more than gastro-stop, and decided medical assistance was necessary. The hotel has a doctor on call! Taa daa, all will be well! 

But no, no one spoke English. Drat.

After a while we managed to communicate my need to the concierge, a taxi was called and instructed to take me to hospital. I was whisked in to see a doctor, clearly Western trained, but with no English. The taxi driver accompanied us in as interpreter (well, he was able to say hello adequately!), a couple of nurses appeared, along with another doctor or two. This is chummy! But wait! We're on the ground floor, and the window is open! Clearly an invitation for passers by to lean in and check out what was going on - (but thankfully not to offer an opinion!) Sometimes you just need to go with the flow, smile, be gracious and make the best of an awkward situation. 

Better prepared this time, complete with
names of good local medications!
Now this is where thinking ahead would have been smart. I mentioned my body doesn't take well to penicillin. How would I know if the fluids prescribed contained it or related compounds? Fluids you ask? Yes. In China it's standard for many medications to be administered by IV drip. It's quick, efficient and there's little room for misunderstandings about dosage. Patients are prescribed medication and sit together in rooms with drips held up with sticks of bamboo and needles in their hands. It works, and takes a couple of hours. But it's not something I was prepared to do. I was confident the doctor was good, it's not that, but I wasn't confident that a mistake couldn't happen with the medication, especially with the uncertainty of translation. 

So back to the drawing board and a local pharmacy where the dispenser had reasonable English - I described my symptoms and was given traditional medicine which worked wonders. 
I mentioned in a previous post that one of our colleagues became ill. I got a concerned phone call early one morning from Candy. Could you come down as soon as possible Sue? Something's up with Lacey. 

What on earth could be the problem?

In hindsight, my reaction of "Oh shit" may not have been the most reassuring or tactful. Sorry Lacey! But the poor kid looked dreadful. Her face and lip were badly swollen and she couldn't close her mouth normally. Not good, not good at all. There was really nothing to do but encourage Candy to phone Bonnie our interpreter, and ask her to take Lacey to get medical assistance. Of course Candy would go as well - it'd be stressful enough without a familiar friend to offer masses of support.

Naturally Ian and I would divvy up both classes and sort out something for the extra 30 teacher-students per room! No problems! 

Expect the unexpected, be flexible, smile, act confident and pretend you're not stressed - that's the way to go! But it's certainly not how I felt inside.  

I acted super confident and reassuring, (I hope) but I was quite concerned for Lacey. I knew going to the hospital was likely to be a confronting experience, though I was sure she'd receive the best available attention. But an IV drip is something we reserve for emergencies, not standard care. Maybe I should have warned her, but it seemed she had enough on her plate without pre-empting that experience. 

As she said to me via email recently, the experience of having the drip still makes her cringe. But the medication worked, and worked well. By the time we saw her later in the day, there was a marked improvement, and by the following morning she looked good! She needed to go into the hospital for the following two days for more IV treatment, with each visit taking 1 1/2 to 2 hours - that's the downside of not having convenient pills to take!

Lacey's comments about the experience are as follows:
"As for how I was treated, everyone was very nice and quick on my diagnosis and treatment. I feel that may have been because of me not being Chinese though. I never felt uncomfortable, but seeing the nurses talking to the other patients made me so glad that I wasn't a local.

And getting an iv was intimidating!! We only get those for surgery in the US. The cart that they rolled around in the room was rusted and full of old needles and bags. That was less than comforting. Also, the bathrooms in the hospital were less sanitary than the ones at our lunch restaurant. No soap and no paper. "

No matter now well prepared we are for overseas travel, there could be something lurking in our bodies waiting for the right time to become evident. Appendicitis, dental problems, all kinds of things can't be foreseen, and sometimes you need to accept the medical support that's available at the time, no matter how confronting or how much you'd prefer not to. 

Our hosts did everything possible to reassure, encourage, and support us all during this unexpected time, they were wonderful. Medical treatment is supported by the state in China, and as such only costs a few Yuan (a dollar or so).  I sincerely hope that people visiting Australia who become ill are treated in an equally caring manner and that our good Medicare system isn't eroded by shortsighted, greedy politicians and their cronies.

My previous posts about Teaching in China were our ArrivalBanquets,  Culture and Comfort foods, DrivingExerciseFabulous Food and History. The next one will be - From Jerilderie to Jiangsu!


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Sue .. I don't think I'd like to be ill in China - and your note about having your allergies written out in Chinese (some dialect thereof presumably - Mandarin, I guess) .. would make sense ..

Well I'm glad all was well all round ... and for that matter you were allowed to take medication into China ...

Cheers Hilary

Sue Travers said...

Hi Hilary
yes it was Mandarin. It's easier to take medications into China than bring anything back here. Our quarantine regulations are so strict that I had to give some gifts of food away before I left. It seemed wrong somehow but better than the items going into the burner on arrival here.