Poor health

It’s the Chinese New Year holiday, and I’m just finishing three days off work, but unfortunately things haven’t really gone to plan, and we’ve been unable to do almost any of the planned activities. Still, at this point we’re just glad everything is ok.

Everything started to go a bit wrong on Friday night, when M woke up coughing and wouldn’t go back to sleep. When I woke up the following morning he had a temperature, and when I got back from work he still looked tired and was coughing away worse than ever. That night was Spring Festival Eve, traditionally time for dumplings, fireworks and the interminable CCTV New Year’s Gala (this year featuring performer of the moment Celine Dion), but these were eaten quickly, ignored and on in the background respectively, as the night ended up being generally divided between taking care of / worrying about the kid and disagreeing about why he was ill and what to do about it.

The next day we did the sensible thing and took him to the doctor. Except in China you* can’t go “to the doctor” – you have to take a taxi to the children’s hospital a couple of miles away, stand in a series of queues in cold hallways with other ill children, and be periodically allowed to elbow your way into a little room to see a grumpy doctor at a computer who can’t be bothered to look at you apart from barking questions and rolling their eyes if you don’t follow the script. The diagnosis seems to be always that you need to have an IV drip full of antibiotics, then a list of other expensive “western” and “Chinese” medicine, whatever is wrong with you. If you meet a particularly irresponsible doctor he might demand that your 6 month old baby have a full chest x-ray before he’ll give an opinion on his slight cough (as happened to us in 2011 – we went and found another doctor instead).

It’s at times like this that I can’t help but wonder if it was a good idea to escape the expat bubble and join normal Chinese life. It brings home a little how uncertain and dangerous everyday life can be without the safety net I grew up to expect in the UK. If you get seriously ill in China then you’ll get nothing in the way of benefits and will have to spend your savings (and most likely those of your family) in a series of badly run, dirty hospitals, be fleeced for all you’re worth, go through Kafkaesque levels of bureaucracy, and not receive anything resembling decent treatment at the end of it all. It’s no wonder people here complain about “western medicine” when this is the only side of it they see. (Fortunately, I do have health insurance as part of my job, but (being British) I’ve no idea how to make a claim on it, and if it came to that point we’d have to find a half-decent place in the centre which would charge perhaps triple the going rate in the USA, and as heartless as it might sound we don’t want to risk spending a month’s salary on every little sniffle.)

The upshot of this is that nobody trusts the doctors, western medicine, or even Chinese medicine. That sense of doubt and panic whenever anyone gets even slightly ill is unfamiliar to westerners and (to me) unbearable. How can people take it not knowing whether their child’s rash is Meningitis, and not wanting to ask a doctor? Expectations are set low, then, and the demand everyone seems to make on arrival at a hospital is “give me some medicine.” I want a doctor to talk to me openly about any health problem, then feel free to offer nothing except ‘bed rest and fluids’, but this isn’t even imaginable here. Without trust, there can be no reassurance; without reassurance, there’s stress and panic.

Fortunately, one thing is the same here and at home – most illnesses will go away on their own without any treatment. Many people go to the doctor at the natural peak of their illness and attribute their recovery to the treatment they get, whether it really worked or not. Over the last couple of days it’s been very reassuring to know these facts, though unfortunately it’s difficult to communicate them to V’s parents, who seem to think we’re monsters for not accepting the IV drip full of antibiotics. “You’re not a doctor,” they say, but what is a doctor here exactly?

Three days later, M is better at last, and I think we did the right thing. I do hope, though, that next time someone gets ill we’re somewhere else.

*I’m using ‘you’ here to refer to the vast majority of Chinese people, not the middle/upper classes or “foreigners” – this might be a strange use of the word ‘you’ but I’m going to stick with it.

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