This Story Could Have Been Yours

Whether you have lived in China for a decade or just a strawberry picking season, there is one possibility that will always linger at the back of your mind: “What if I need to go to hospital?”


The symptoms began with cold and flu that progressed into vomiting and eventually, a temperature of 39.5. I knew something was seriously wrong. An intense, throbbing pain on the right side of my abdomen finally forced me to reluctantly see a doctor. A series of scans confirmed my growing suspicion that I had acute appendicitis. I would need to undergo surgery that very same day.

The huge cultural gulf between Chinese and my own country’s healthcare became quickly apparent. A doctor smoking a cigarette told me that I would need to stay in the hospital for approximately a week. A huge poster saying “no hong bao” formed a backdrop behind him.

To be fair, the town (near Houjie) where I live is very small and on the outskirts of Dongguan. Still, it all just felt so surreal. I could have opted for a slightly more expensive hospital in Houjie or Nancheng, but with the way I felt, I just wanted to get the ball rolling.

Extremely reluctantly, I had to agree to a catheter insertion. I will spare the gory details, but for any man who has never had it, count yourself lucky. If you do, grab on to something tight!

The hospital required several thousand renminbi up front, which did not meet my insurance excess, so I had to pay out of pocket. I asked what would happen if one could not afford the payment. The staff explained that while there are debt repayment plans, they were unsure if they apply to foreigners.

With the “golden” receipt, I was led to begin prepping for surgery. Room at the inn was seemingly in high demand, as there were a few patients on beds in the corridors of the ward. I later discovered that there is a payment hierarchy system that determines where you rest your head.

I got uncomfortably settled into my shared room and it was show time. From there, an uncompassionate young nurse unceremoniously relocated me via my IV drip to another bed that I would ride to theatre.

By now, the pain was intense and constant; I just wanted it done. It was a totally new sensation for me to gaze at the ceiling, while being wheeled along. A fleeting thought flashed through my mind, “what if something goes wrong?”

I regained my composure after being left totally alone with nobody who could speak English.

In my opinion, anyone who cannot speak a basic level of Mandarin should not go to a hospital like this. There are certain things surgeons ask that demands some level of communication. I can only strongly suggest finding a hospital specifically for foreigners, if this is the case.

Oddly, the surgeons’ main curiosity was the length of my name. They all kept repeating it over and over between themselves. At that point, I felt like I was in that scene from Being John Malkovich when he enters his own head!

After three long hours of surgery, I was finally slumped back into my original bed and just slept and slept. I awoke in the early hours with the strong urge to urinate, but my legs were still not totally my own.

I managed to drift off again until I finally felt I could walk. Now, stood over the toilet, as much as I desperately wanted, I simply could not go.

After having so much fluid pumped into me, I was ready to burst. Extremely reluctantly, I had to agree to a catheter insertion. I will spare the gory details, but for any man who has never had it, count yourself lucky. If you do, grab on to something tight!

Before long, I began to get agitated with the staff and the surrounding patients. Particularly a young lad who had been through a crash. He had a wide circle of family and friends who cared about him, which was nice, but I could not believe that the hospital permitted his visitors after 11 pm. Meanwhile, they were loud, brash and totally inconsiderate to anyone else in the room.

On top of this, his phone was constantly ringing the same annoying tone. Had these people never heard of vibrate? I was ready to snap and needed out.

Luckily, a bed in a higher-level room became available the next day. At that point, I would not have cared if it cost a thousand per night. I was ushered to my new sanctuary and finally felt that I could truly begin my healing process.

The next few days went well, as I gradually gained strength. Finally, my stitches were removed by a young, heavy-handed doctor and I was discharged with my new trophy—a five-inch scar above the hip.

Please take note of my experience. If you are unsure about your health insurance coverage, double check it. Hell, triple check it! Also, it’s really worth squirreling away about 10,000 RMB for such an event. I know it is not easy for everyone, but one day you may find yourself like I did and need to draw on funds immediately.

I will end with two favorite phrases from my grandma: “Your health is your wealth” and “Money is your best friend.” Here in China, they both seem more relevant than ever.