My poor Gary! After being away for so long he has returned back to Wuhan. Not in triumph but in agony.
While working himself to the bone in Shanghai he started experiencing pain in his upper abdominal region. After a few days the pain migrated to his lower abdomen. Now concerned, he consulted with a doctor who concluded he had appendicitis. He needed surgery immediately.
Gary flew home and checked himself into the hospital. He called me just after his surgery, still woozy but not goofily so, to let me know he was back.
I already knew he was back in Wuhan and in the hospital, and I knew what was wrong with him. Having somehow become part of the jungle drum network, I had no less than 3 friends tell me he was back and what kind of shape he was in. I didn’t want to steal his thunder so, when he called me I made all the proper expressions of shock, concern and awe.
Upon his declaration that he would be in the hospital till next week Wednesday I told him my next day off would be on Sunday. No lounging around for me on that day; I would head out to see him while he is still confined. He averred that I did not need to make a trip to the hospital but he saw the light when I assured him that he would gain a certain amount of ‘guanxi’ for being the only patient to have a foreigner visit him.
You see, I already suspected how the whole thing was laid out. He would be in a ward with 8 or 12 other patients. No privacy curtains, no private bathrooms, no heat. No fancy hospital bed with all these controls that would position him any way he wanted. And I was right. But it is even worse than I suspected.
I had to take a taxi to this hospital. So off the beaten path was it no buses ran even close to it. I asked Gary to text me the name of the hospital and the taxi driver did not know where it was. I had to call Gary and let him explain to the driver how to get there. I wonder how and why Gary chose that hospital over any more accessible ones. It is not close to his home, nor is it one of the dozen or so hospitals I know on sight from any given bus window. Could it be because that is the hospital that deals with failing appendices, mandating his confinement there?
I suspect it had more to do with cost than his ailing appendix.
This hospital was nowhere near as impressive or statuesque as any other hospital I know on sight, and definitely puny compared to the hospital I had my treatments in a few weeks back. At first glance it looked more like a convalescent care home or a nursing home than a hospital. There were 3 buildings forming a rough U-shape around an attractive open garden where patients, mostly seniors were sitting around in the pajamas, on benches or in wheelchairs, sunning themselves.
None of the buildings were taller than 6 stories. Their façade was a uniform light grey and white, color alternating by floor. There were no directional signs and no massive flow of people marching in and out with varying degrees of purpose. I was at a loss on how to find him now that I had found the hospital.
I called him again. He had been watching for me at the window. Of course, I’m not hard to spot even wearing a hat, being heads and shoulders above most Chinese. After telling me to turn around and look up I was able to spot him at his window. It won’t be long before I am again in his company: an elevator ride up to the 4th floor and down the hallway about 5 or six rooms, if I counted those windows right.
I needn’t have worried. My friend Gary is a popular guy and he already had an entire cortege at his bedside. He sent one of his minions down to meet me. Said minion and I have long been acquainted, so we exchanged greetings in the lobby and caught up with each other’s doings while in the elevator. Now a short walk through an open expanse, then past the dialysis clinic and there, 4th room on the left was Gary, in the bed by the window in a ward of 6 beds.
It was better than I thought. I projected a ward with at least twice that many beds.
I was right in my imaginings about everything else, though. No privacy curtains and no private bathroom. Two fluorescent lights hanging from a high ceiling in the middle of the room. An IV support pole hung over each bed – remember how the Chinese love giving ‘injections’. Some of the beds had metal side tables. Gary’s was wood, as was another bed’s across the room. One of the patients was snoring loudly. Another was ambling about, a female visitor – his wife? – in tow. The other beds, although assigned, were not occupied. Their covers were tossed back, as though someone had just gotten up. I suspected those other patients were outside, catching the sun. The only other furniture in the room were a few hardback chairs and one round table, where Gary’s other visitors were currently playing cards and munching on the fruit I was sure he would have, considering my own experience with fruit-giving in the case of illness.
There were no fancy monitors or gadgets mounted on the walls over each bed, like you would see in American hospitals. There was one older model CRT-type television mounted from the ceiling in the far corner of the room There was a nurse call button behind each bed, belatedly installed, judging by the conduit lines snaking down from the ceiling. The walls themselves were light blue and white, the white starting about 4 feet off the terrazzo’ed floor. A nice crop of mold was growing where the wall met the ceiling, over the bed across the aisle from Gary’s.
The beds were indeed hospital beds, with the capability of being cranked up so the patient can sit up or cranked down for maximum comfort, come sleep time. When I say ‘cranked’ I mean exactly that: each bed had a crank jutting out from under the footboard. Gary asked one of his friends to crank him up so that he could converse with me in relative comfort. I cracked my shin on that crank when walking past, on my way to join him for a cigarette.
Smoking is not allowed in the individual rooms but is permitted in the open air landing across from the dialysis clinic, close to the elevators and stairs. Most Chinese being heavy smokers it would not do to deprive them of their nicotine during confinement. I would hate to meet a crowd of ill, riotous smokers in need of their fix… wouldn’t you?
It was while waiting for Gary to finish his nicotine fix what we heard first a small child’s wail, and then a mother’s lament echoing down from the floors above. I could understand, by the progression of her howls and by the few words I could make out that her son had just died. Gary confirmed my interpretation of the vocal drama playing out above us. Apparently her son was 9 years old. What he succumbed to we could not make out.
Both of us were disturbed by her cries. Gary stubbed his cigarette out and, with her distress plainly audible and mirrored on his face we went back to his room. Still her heartrending cries of grief could be heard, now as a spooky reverberation off the concrete walls.
What a creepy scene! The old style ward set up, the mold encroaching down the wall, the high ceilinged room, the fluorescent lights, the old, 4 bladed, nicotine stained fan, the IV poles, the antique beds, 4 of them with covers thrown back, the man snoring across the way, my poor friend, pale and rail thin under his bloodstained comforter… were it not for the sunshine streaming outside, the set up would have been a perfect stage for some ghost story or horror movie.
My normal inclination would be to make light of the whole thing. Bring on the laughter and good cheer! Of course, Gary cannot indulge in laughter on his first day post-op. It would be too painful, with his stomach just having been cut open yesterday.
So why did I choose to say out loud that the whole scene was creepy and reminded me of some horror movie? My poor friend grew about 4 shades paler, admonishing me for my admittedly accurate observation. He had to spend 4 more nights there; he didn’t need to hear about how sinister his current environment is. I thought it might be a good idea to leave while he still had sunshine and good-natured, not so graphically imaginative friends around.
Once again accompanied by one of those friends who, lucky owner of a car, drove me back to the main road, we saw the grieving mother sitting outside, her head cradled to an older woman breast. She was still wailing, her whole countenance an expression of grief. I don’t know how she will sleep tonight, or for the next few nights.
Feeling her sorrow I turned away. We left her, Gary and Creepy Hospital behind.