I was sitting in the square in front of the monastery yesterday morning, talking with students and trying to get used to the cold weather, when my colleague, friend, and fellow only-Laowai-in-Rebgong Brooke arrived. When the electricity had gone out at our homes that morning, I had called Brooke to suggest we take a little trip into town to find a warm, comfortable teahouse where we could imbibe some delicious milk tea and relax. We agreed on the plan, and after meeting up in the monastery square we wandered slowly (Brooke was recovering from a bout of food poisoning) into town.
We quickly realized that the electrical outage was not simply affecting our apartment building; the entire town was without power. The occasional generator hummed near the more prepared restaurants, but most places simply didn’t have power. Which meant, as we arrived at the first teahouse, that they didn’t have the capacity to make milk tea or really anything else. Which meant they were closed.
We checked out our favorite two teahouses and, after finding them closed, decided to shop for a few things before heading home. That was when Brooke stumbled and, had she not held on to me, would have tumbled to the ground. She straightened up only to start reeling like a drunken sailor on a storm-tossed sea, or like a college freshman discovering his drinking tolerance.
“Brooke, are you ok?” I asked. This had come out of nowhere.
“Yeah, I think we need to go home.”
We jumped in a taxi and went home, but barely made it up to Brooke’s apartment, so difficult had it become for her to walk.
“Brooke, are you sure you’re alright?” I asked. “How much have you had to drink since your food poisoning was over?”
“About a water bottle today.”
“Then water doesn’t seem to be doing it for you,” I said. “I think we need to get you on an IV to rehydrate you.”
Two days before, Brooke had adamantly stated that it was her goal to leave China without ever being stuck by one of the plethora of needles found in Chinese medical practice. I’m not simply talking about acupuncture; if you go to a Chinese hospital, you will be given multiple shots and an IV, no matter what your ailment. That’s just how it works.
Surprisingly, and, I guess, a testament to how terribly she was feeling, she agreed to the plan.
We walked up the hill into our school to find the campus clinic, from which students are regularly issued forth, IV’s attached to wrists, closed. We went down the street to find the neighborhood clinic closed. That left only one option.
“Quickly, driver” I said as we jumped into a taxi, “take us to the hospital.
After five minutes, we found ourselves in front of a squat, tumbledown white-tile building with a small crowd of people gathered in front; the crowd, of course, staring at us as we got out of the taxi and stumbled inside. Entering the dark hallway (not even the hospital had a backup generator to provide electricity), I was immediately overwhelmed by the smell of Chinese Bathroom, which emanated from an ominously gaping black hole of a doorway and wafted down the hall. Garbage covered the floor, and swarms of houseflies buzzed through the air with seeming malice, as if looking for a patient on which to feed. Walking quickly past the somewhat intimidating bathroom and down a foulsmelling hallway, we soon found the emergency room, where I told the nurse about Brooke’s problems.
“Sit down and wait a minute,” she said, gesturing to an empty bed. “We have some more important patients first.”
Which she did; looking around, I saw one teenage guy with a massive bloodstained bandage around his head, covering his right eye; another man, the only other patient in the emergency area, seemed to have crushed his ear.
After we had been waiting for fifteen minutes or so, a woman came over to take Brooke’s blood pressure and a tall male doctor started to ask questions, which I translated for Brooke.
“How long have you had food poisoning?”
“When did you last puke?”
“How weak do you feel?”
And many more. After passing through the gauntlet of questions, the man scribbled on his pad until he spoke up again.
“You probably just have a cold,” he said.
“But she’s extremely dehydrated from her food poisoning,” I said, “and we came because she really needs an IV to rehydrate herself.”
“Don’t worry,” the doctor said, “we’ll get her an IV. If she passes the allergy test.” And with that, a nurse came seemingly out of nowhere and, without any further ado, stuck a massive needle into Brooke’s wrist. Cringing in pain, Brooke asked me what was going on; of course, the patient had not been informed (Note: last year, my students told me that patients at hospitals should be constantly lied to and kept from knowing what is going on – whether it be their diagnosis of brain cancer or the presence of a large needle. Apparently, this is standard practice in China). After we were fully informed, the doctors went away to help another patient who had just come in and was bleeding copiously from the head.
Fifteen minutes later, the doctor came back to check that Brooke had passed the allergy test. Apparently, the results were satisfactory; taking out a small yellow pad, he scribbled down some prescriptions in the illegible scrawl common to doctors around the world and sent me off to the in-hospital pharmacy.
The way this system works in China is that you have to go to the pharmacy to give the pharmacist your prescription, giving them all of two minutes to prepare the drugs, and then go to a neighboring office to pay your hospital and drug fees, before going back to the pharmacy to pick up the drugs. All very efficient, especially when you are being pushed back and forth by elderly Tibetan women.
I survived the office line and went back to the pharmacy, where the woman behind the counter took two vials out of the refrigerator, which was not working due to the power outage (who needs to refrigerate drugs and vaccines?) and handed them to me. Then, back down the hallway (again braving the bathroom smell to the emergency room, where a nurse took the vials and went into another room. Hopefully, I thought, she’s not stealing the drugs from us.
About ten minutes later, the nurse came back out with a metal tray loaded with the IV apparatus and a number of other random items, as if she had swept the contents of her desk drawer onto the tray along with the IV to make it look more professionally cluttered. Coming over to the bedside, she went through the normal process of finding a vein: she tied a rubber band around her lower arm, made Brooke make a fist, and tried to stick her with the needle. But failed. And tried again. And failed, again, to hit a vein.
“TEACHER!” the nurse called across a room in Tibetan. “Come over!”
I took one look at Brooke, whose eyes came up to meet mine. We both had the same thought: oh God, we’ve landed ourselves in a rural Chinese teaching hospital.
The ‘teacher’ nurse eventually found a vein by sticking the needle into the back of Brooke’s hand, which is not exactly normal practice and led to a good quantity of blood leaving Brooke and entering the IV tube when the system was not properly positioned. So, with three bags of medicine and sucrose to go, we sat back to relax for a while.
And, it turned out, we were in perfect position to witness the minor drama occurring across the room. The teenager with the large bandage around his eyes and head (and who I continuously thought of as “head-bandage kid”) had been joined by his extended family or something of the like. But though the crowd of onlookers, who were conversing (but not arguing) vociferously and at high volume, seemed to all be relatives, the precise relations between the onlookers were a bit confusing. While head-bandage kid and his male relatives looked Tibetan, the woman who was sitting on the bed of the injured and who seemed to be his primary caregiver – the woman I assumed to be his mother – was Hui Muslim, and everyone was speaking to each other in an unbelievably rich and impenetrable local dialect that could, if I were generous, be termed a distant relative of ‘Chinese’. Occasionally a familiar word would float out of this rich stew, which allowed me to start to get a bit of a handle on what was going on.
Apparently, the kid and several others were at a restaurant when they found themselves in some kind of fight. The fight apparently got a bit political, not red-state blue-state political, but small-town family-rivalry political, which is potentially the only kind of politics to rival the Tea Party in the randomness and unthinking power of its pure hatred. The restaurant boss apparently chose the opposite side, and things started to get a bit out of hand. At some point, it’s not clear exactly when, the protagonist of our story took a pretty hard knock to his head, which screwed up his right eye as well. The story was told in fits and starts, as the onlookers were constantly interrupting to ask questions:
“Was it the boss who did it?”
“What happened to the eye? Does it still work?”
“Were they aiming at the eye?”
And the questions kept coming, and the crowd got bigger, until two uniformed members of Rebgong’s finest walked into the door. The hubbub of inquiry immediately subsided into a respectful silence; the crowd resolved itself into a line of individuals neatly arrayed around the bed of the afflicted. The police asked the boy to take of his bandage. A nurse arrived to help, and together they peeled away the bloody rags as the two police officers snapped away with their digital SLR’s.
As the bandage was peeled back, the crowd of onlookers gathered closer, a morbid curiosity drawing them nearer, vultures after blood. Finally the rags were unwound and dropped to the floor. Gasps of horror, one woman turned away, towards us; the cameras of the police keep on clicking. Feeling simultaneously incurably interested, self-disgusted, and strangely awed, I take a look; attempting inconspicuousness, I stare at the gaps in the picket-fence row of people, making a complete picture out of the fragments. Then, I see his face; I turn away in horror.
The eye is not gone, but it’s not in good shape, a bloody mess beneath his thin black brows. A deep gash immediately above the brows and another near the temple have made a pulpy mess of the upper right section of his face.
Having something happen to my eyes is one of my greatest fears; when undergoing training to become a Wilderness First Responder six years ago, the only thing that really made me squeamish was the lesson on foreign objects impaled in the eye, which necessitated a premature bathroom break. Now, here it was, a living nightmare in front of me. There was no way to dehumanize this. I turned away.
The police eventually left, as did most of the onlookers. The nurse came and started cleaning up the eye; I kept my own eyes on our side of the room. The man who had walked in earlier with deep head wounds came out of a side room, bandaged in a New-Jersey- housewife-esque headnet which was already stained brown with blood and betadine. As he lay down for an IV drip, another group of onlookers started to gather around him, asking about what happened. He stole the occasional glance over to head-bandage boy in the neighboring bed.
“I think its about time to get out of here,” said Brooke, evidently feeling uncomfortable. “I don’t want to end up in some kind of Rebgong family-clan rumble.”
“But we still have two and a half IV bags to go!” I said. “Let’s wait a bit.”
So we did, and the crowd of onlookers began to swell, and another man came in and went into a neighboring room with a mangled ear, and suddenly I began feeling uncomfortable as well. We were evidently out of our depth, in a place we should not have been.
“Can we leave now?” I asked a newly arrived doctor, a young-ish man, pudgy and pasty, apparently Han Chinese, “and do these IV bags at home?”
“Yes,” he said in English. “Make sure you do it like this,” now pointing to the IV bags in succession, “one, two, three.”
An English speaking doctor in the Huangnan Prefecture Hospital. Who would have guessed.
We leave, tottering with bags and tubes draped over both of us, and find our way outside where we hail a taxi. Inside the taxi, it is impossible to hold the IV bags as high as necessary for the system to work, and Brooke’s blood starts flowing up the tubes. After an extremely long five minutes, we arrive back at the apartment and, after elevating the IV bag to its proper height, Brooke’s blood recedes out of sight as the solution regains its steady drip into the vial and slow downward motion through the tube. I install Brooke in her apartment, fastening the IV bag to a nail on the ceiling, and head back up to my apartment.
Though I’ve scoured the news sources, I haven’t heard anything about any new rumbles or fights in town, and I wonder what has become of the family of the injured boy. Has their desire for revenge been quelled; have they decided to ignore the evident family insult for the sake of peace and quiet? Or are there happenings that us clueless foreigners don’t know about; events that the news and gossip services either have failed to notice or have ignored? Whatever has happened, I will certainly always hold a place in my heart – perhaps a spot which is dark, its floors covered in trash, flies buzzing, nauseating smells emanating, blood-hungry spectators watching, a place of constant, endless theater – the production being humanity itself, laid bare upon the stage as if on a surgical table, its innards and inner workings open for all to see – I will hold this place for the Huangnan Prefecture Hospital.