Sickness is…. – Letters from a Jamaican in China

Sickness is….

Anyone who has spent at least 4 months in China has or will eventually have to deal with an illness. There are 2 that are common to foreigners: the respiratory flu and the stomach virus. But make no mistake these are not the simple-go-to-the-pharmacy and buy some medication illnesses, they are the kind that usually make you more than repentant and mek you wan-dead and cyan-dead.

My first experience was the afore mentioned respiratory flu. I had been in China about 4 weeks when the temperature dropped to, what was for me freezing. At the end of 2 weeks I was wearing 7 layers of clothing, all the socks in my draw, 2 pairs of gloves and 2 hats and was coughing up green ooze. There is no heating in schools here so it was colder inside than outside. I was teaching Junior High at the time and was known for being loud and active in my classes. This particular day I was freezing more than normal, I mean uncontrollable shivering. I opened the floor to any and all questions when Mr. Ice Cream (an English name he’d chosen for himself and incidentally the same kid who the students beat up) said, “Ms. Shelly why do you have lips that are gray, a nose that has blood and you don’t st-”. That’s all I remembered. The next thing I know was in a hospital with Chinese doctors and nurses and even the cleaning staff in a panic. I’d collapsed in class. I opened my eyes and one of the Chinese English teachers assured me that I would be ok and the doctors would take care of me. I realized that I had an IV in each of my feet and the nurses had to stick me several times to find a vein. I was wearing too much clothes for them to put it in my arm. They were nervous because they’d only seen a foreigner on TV and now they had to work on one. My hair and clothes were soaking wet. After about an hour of IV and watching them run around the hospital like they were on fire, they told me I got to go ahead of everyone else because China is always good to its foreigners. When I was able to stand up, I was taken to the X-ray room, which was scorching hot and cloudy because the technician was drying his socks on the table and smoking cigarettes. Before he took my X-ray he asked me out to dinner. A bit twilight zone for me, but when you are sick anyone is a white coat is your new best friend. I had to go to several different rooms and they all kept talking frantically and then saying, “You just have a bad cold”. I was only here a month, the only thing I could understand was “thank you”. I’d have to say one of the worst feelings in the world is when you know something is going on, but you don’t know what exactly is going on. You know that everyone around you knows, and either can’t or won’t tell you. Its not frightening, its just really, really annoying.

As I made it back to the infusion room, I took notice that everyone else was wearing light jackets or heavy sweaters. On my fourth bag of IV I started to feel hot and ended up taking off 6 layers of clothing. Out where I was TV signals weren’t clear. I could only guess the temperature by sticking my hand out of my window and gauging what to wear. My interpreter told me I would be fine, unless the secondhand needle they used gave me an infection. I went absolutely numb; I began crying and was hysterical. There was a valid reason for my concern; you are not guaranteed a new needle here. Most hospitals do use clean needles, but it is not illegal if they choose to recycle them. Meanwhile, he laughed and stopped the doctors from giving me tranquilizing shots. He explained about the joke he’d told and they all had a nice laugh at my expense. He did it to take my mind off my current “bad cold”.

When I was well enough to leave, I was told that I had to come back for 3 days to get more IV. I looked at my medical book and read the only thing I could understand, my body temperature. It said 40 degrees Celsius, that didn’t mean anything to me since I wasn’t familiar with Celsius at the time. When I got home and converted it only to discover that my temperature was somewhere between 104-106 degrees Fahrenheit! My brain was melting out of my skull! The temperature outside was 59 degrees Fahrenheit! Bad cold?! I am going to assume they didn’t want to scare me.

There are lots of lessons I can take away from that episode: What I don’t know can’t hurt me. What I don’t know can hurt me. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. And most importantly, in case of freezing weather always find the nearest to the X-ray room.