A Traveler's Challenge
If you plan to get sick while in China, be prepared to have many of your notions of medical treatment transformed. Finding a doctor you approve of in China can be tricky. Most facilities offer a progressive blend of Western methods with Chinese traditional medicines.
But these methods are usually hardly in keeping with Western expectations. To the expat, the scarceness of spotless hospitals, adequate lighting and a standard of sterility are upsetting if one is unprepared. I was unprepared.
After suffering through “The Traveler’s Complaint” (diarrhea), the
The city itself is highly industrial. Enough careless exposure to this dry, dusty climate can aggravate asthma and trigger other breathing problems. If you forgo a dust mask or party the nights away in smoky clubs, you can find yourself in the interesting position of needing a doctor.Here’s how it happens
One day in March I am stricken with the Northeastern China Super Flu (real name unknown). I wake from a dream of fighting through quicksand (Harrison Ford was also there) to find that I am lying in sheets soaked from the sweat of a fever that broke several times in the night.
The reason the hypodermic is almost full and stuck jauntily into this jar is because this hypodermic is used for everyone and is stuck back into the jar so the dentist can know where to find it next time.According to a 2001 Center for Disease Control report provided by the United States Embassy in Beijing (), it was common practice then in China for health care professionals to wash and reuse needles. It is still common practice. The explanation for this is that there is still inadequate education about methods of disease transmission in many parts of China, and simply that it saves money.
I am taken to get my blood drawn by a nurse wearing no gloves. I kick a McDonald's cup out of the way and submit. In the lab, a tech swabs the pipet of the blood chromatograph with a used alcohol swab which he tosses back onto the table it came from. Then he impales my blood tube on the sanitized pipet.
Over 99% of the Chinese population has RH+ blood. But unless you want to lug supplies of your own blood around China (good luck explaining yourself to customs) you’re pretty much going to have to chance that you won’t need a transfusion. I just knock the positive sign off my type when asked for it and hope for the best. If you’re AB- or a type similarly rare, remember bags of blood are not permitted as carryon aboard reputable airlines, and it’s a felony for most people to mail them.
"You have a bad cold!" she says. I have a fever of 101.4 F and a general ill will towards all humans. I stand in a room with six other people to receive my shot in the rump. In a country where public baths are a fact of life, there is little privacy. I tell my headmaster: "I want her to wear gloves. Gloves." I mime. My headmaster looks at me like I’m growing another head. She explains, and the nurses squint. "No gloves, no injection." I say/mime. When you're getting ready to take your pants down in front of your boss and five Chinese nurses, you can get pretty demanding.
I get my shot and the nurse washes her hands. The same nurse then gives me my IV. Not wanting to go through the same thing again, I cover my own hands and arms with sanitizer. I mentally assemble a kit of things for me and other expatriates in need of a hospital visit:
Over the next three days I recover beautifully.
China has one of the fastest growing AIDS populations in the world. The practice of reusing needles and other disposable medical materials in China is commonplace. Although not the norm everywhere, forgoing gloves and washing IV and blood collection needles in soapy (or not soapy) water and reusing them is widespread enough to warrant extreme care. Since it is rarely possible to provide your own needles, the solution is to demand only brand-new or at least fresh-out-of-the-plastic needles and bring your own supplies. The plastic does not guarantee that the material has never been used; it means that the material has been sterilized in a medical stove. This is just as sterile as a brand new needle.
While it may be embarrassing to presume to tell nurses how to do their jobs, it is your health that is at stake. If you feel that the care you are about to receive does not meet an acceptable standard of cleanliness or professionalism, you should feel no guilt in requesting a level that is acceptable to you. It’s their country, but your body. For more information on health procedures for expatriates, as well as information on the progress of health care in China, visit the World Health Organization’s country profile for China.
For less uptight, academic (yet still intelligent and funny) discourse on being an expat in China, visit the author’s newsletter blog.
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