A day in the life of a calcium tablet – an out-patients hospital adventure

Going to a Chinese hospital without documentation or a translator is quite the most foolish thing to do. All I had, was the name of a doctor written on a yellow post-it. I arrived by taxi, which seems to take about an hour, crisscrossing the Yangtze river in Chongqing, and going up one hill and down the next, all very fast and a “hold on tight” kind of journey. Suddenly, the hospital was there looming up high into the sky, an edifice of white concrete, glass and steel. Inside was a huge light-filled atrium with a glass roof and a mass of people, moving around and up and down the many flights of escalators, like shoals of fish.

I was told that this was an “integrated hospital.” I had a naive and misinformed idea of what “integrated” could mean, imagining a harmony between traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine, a sort of a yin/yang of medical harmony, the mystical dance of cranes, the sun and the moon……But this was not so. My hopes for integration rapidly disintegrated over the hours that I was there. First, I waited in one queue for over an hour, with my post-it note, and my translation app, all prepared. Then it was my turn at the window with the woman wearing the silicone gloves. She was irritated by my translation apps and waved me on to another queue, across the cathedral-like central hall. I had never seen so many people all at once, and they were moving altogether in all directions.

I negotiated the throng and it became quite exhausting, and I often just wanted to stop and cry. I thought I would never come out to the other side and would stay permanently in the middle, being squashed from all sides. Finally, I came to my queue, but I noticed that everyone in my queue was desperately trying to explain something, to the person behind the glass at the counter. I also noticed that this queue did not run as smoothly as the one I had just left. As I waited, I became hungry, but the idea of negotiating food for myself was just too much of a nightmare. Soon it was my turn and I too was explaining with my translation app; my name, where I came from, why I was there and then finally paying, in cash, more than I had budgeted for. I was sent to a floor with a door number written out for me.

At first, I could find the floor, and then I could find the door. A young man in a white medical coat, suddenly came towards me, like a swam coming up to the riverbank. He looked at my new piece of paper and said I should follow him, which I was so happy to do. He was like an angel, almost running in front of me, his white coat flapping behind him like wings. I was all smiles and thanks when he delivered me to the door with the right number. But my smiles soon fell off my face as I took a number, from a machine. Number 76 was with the doctor, and my ticket was number 168. Making a quick calculation, I figured out there were 96 people in front of me to be seen by the doctors. I thought that this would not go quickly like a queue in the SihlPost in Zurich. I also estimated I would be there till midnight or be turned away to start the whole process all over again the next day.

As I was the only foreigner there and decided to use my “foreignness” with some of its negative attributes, like being “individualist,” “pushy” and “demanding”. (I am not normally like this, I must add). In no time at all, I had jumped the queues and saw the doctor. I described to her via my Google translator that I had a chronic illness, which had gotten worse since being in China, due to the MSG in the food, some dubious painful lymph massage, stress, headaches, stress & pollution, stress & cockroaches in my apartment, joint pains….my litany of ills went on. I thought we would discuss a treatment program for my illness. But this was not to be. She was softly spoken, warm and friendly, and wore what looked like a military uniform in brown, with some colourful badges. She smiled at me and gave me a prescription for X-rays. There was very little conversation, only the translation app and who was I to question her treatment, especially as she was in military uniform.

The x-ray involved another queue, but less waiting than before, and the x-raying of my knees, were done very quickly, the fastest x-rays I have ever had. From there I went to another floor where I had to collect the x-rays and take them back to the doctor. The waiting for the collection of the x-ray had a different system, with no queuing at all, just a mass of people standing all together, and looking for their names and a number which would be flashed above one of the counters. I was really tired by now and getting agitated, and after half an hour of standing on one leg, and then the other, suddenly I felt people turn around and look at me, which didn’t bother me much, because I was a foreigner after all. But then one man pointed at a sign over the counter and there was name M-A-R-G-A-R-E-T, taking up the entire panel in orange flashing lights like Times Square. I moved toward the counter and people moved out of the way for me, which I felt not only gratitude for, but I was humbled by their act of kindness towards me.

As soon as I got back to the doctor, my feelings of gratitude and humbleness vanished, immediately, as I could not face the long snake of people also waiting with x-rays to see the doctor and I lapsed into my “foreigner-on-demand” mode and handed the doctor my x-rays. We had a replay with the translation app, and once again, I was trying to explain that I really wasn’t well. She was again, very kind to me and smiled a lot. However, my medical diagnosis only became clear to me afterwards, when I took my prescription from her and went to the pharmacy.

The pharmacy queue was a much shorter wait, mainly because the day was coming to an end and I could see many of the counters were closing. When the pharmacist handed me my “medicines” I realised that there had been a deep medical misunderstanding because what I was given were Calcium tablets and a heat pack for my knees. I was crestfallen, and suddenly all my body pains worsened, and I felt that I could not walk. I asked the pharmacist for pain pills, and she told me I could not have them because the doctor did not order them!

I thought that it served me right for being so pushy.

I had wasted a whole day and a fair amount of money, but I had at least deepened my understanding of the Chinese culture. This episode in “a day in the life of a calcium tablet”, has a happy end, because soon after I found, by luck and good fortune, what I had been looking for many years, and that was a real Traditional Chinese Doctor, in a real Traditional Chinese medical clinic. This is where I received the healing herbs, learnt how to eat, cook, do Chi Gong, relax and ignore the cockroaches in my apartment.

Read the happy ending of the story “Finding TCM”