Traveling to China for the sole purpose of becoming first time parents proved for us, to be the single most awe inspiring event of our lives. We visited three Chinese cities in 15 days on our quest to meet our first daughter Ava, born in Yueyang, Hunan. As you read this story enjoy the comforts of your local Minute Clinic, an American $15 co-pay and instant health gratification when faced with a minor health ailment.
Settting the Scene
It is September 2002, Changsha, Hunan China. The Main Muffin Man (my comfort loving and sometimes intense husband) and I have very recently become the proud albeit scared to death parents of one high maintenance little girl. She is the end result in a long and arduous journey to parenthood. I'd eat caterpillar fungus to please her. It is exactly one day after meeting my new 8 month old and I am only requiring an occasional Tylenol PM and Eastern style deep breathing techniques to survive the first few days of parenthood and a wicked case of jet lag.
I settle in to our Five Star Hong Hong style hotel room listening to my new baby scream bloody murder because she does not want to lie down and go to sleep. The Muffin Man valiantly paces with her on his shoulder in an attempt to lull her to sleep until the carpet in our room is almost threadbare.
All Is Not Well In The Land of Nod
Two am arrives. I wake. Baby is sleeping, Muffin Man is snoring. I'm having a dream that I am at the beach and there is sand in my eyes. Wait, there really is sand in my eyes. They are sticky. Really sticky. I slowly make my way to the bathroom, careful to tiptoe as not to wake anyone. I flip the light switch and EEEKK, I see red eyes. It looks like a flaming case of pink eye, it is definite...no it is not. I am not sick in China and I will not get pink eye because it is the ONE medicine that I did not bring in the 87 lb. suitcase. I go back to bed and will myself though psychic powers to be completely healthy by seven am.
It is seven am. The Main Muffin Man skips the am kiss and looks me in the eye and says, "Wow, you look horrible." Is that????? "Yes dear, it appears that I have contracted a vigilant and painful case of conjunctivitis from these 5 star hotel sheets. Take the baby to breakfast and I will quickly visit the hotel doctor."
Chinese Medicine Light
My dear but brash talking husband advises me to skip the doc in the box and head to the hospital. "For pink eye?"I ask. Please...drama boy. I am the one who has been reading incessantly for 19 months about China. Everyone knows you don't go to a Chinese hospital unless...well you know...you absolutely have to.
I head to the hotel clinic. The Dr. looks at me and only flinches only a little. She grabs her Purell bottle and quickly prescribes an eyedrop. It looks a little like the bottle I've had in the States, but the writing is Mandarin so who can be sure? Cost $.50. I obsessively squirt the drops in my eyes as directed and go about our day.
Drama Boy Was Right
Unfortunately, sometimes you get what you pay for in this world. My conjunctivitis begins to worsen. Despite being uber careful, my husband wakes up with it the next morning. He is shall we say, less than pleased. We are scared to death we will give it to the baby. A panicked call to my nurse practitioner sister in law back in Arizona ensues. She gives me the reality check about giving it to Ava. Perrin, she says, "This child has been living in a Chinese orphanage for 8 months, imagine what she's been exposed to.") What about our travel mates, I ask? We figure there is no quicker way to lose a new friend than sharing a communicable disease. The Muffin Man begs me to call the guide and ask to go to the hospital for better drugs. I refuse. "Buck up and borrow my meds." I tell him. Americans don't go to Chinese hospitals unless they need a leg amputated.
The next morning I sheepishly call our guide. My eyes are starting to swell shut. I am worried that the welt over my cheek will do something gross, like burst. Our guide Tina, says uuhhh, "You really want to go to the hospital?" I tell her, "No Tina, not my first choice, really the univeristy tour sounds more interesting but my face is swelling and my dear husband is feeling snarkier than normal."
My head starts to feel funny as I visit our bathroom. I now have huge welts that are threatening to swell and close my left eye. My forehead is squishy with water retention. I think a lymph node that is supposed to be in my neck had floated to ear level. The Muffin Man has a scared look on his face, he begs me call a cab headed for the hospital, guide or no guide.
Changsha City Hospital, Chinese Medicine Heavy
I concede, and this begins our trip to a Chinese hospital. It turns out our guide is secretly pregnant and has been instructed...Don't Visit A Chinese Hospital.
Pregnant guide sends Novice guide to complete the task. She seems pensive in the hotel lobby but nonetheless willing. I have Ava in my arms. She looks at me and says, "Baby must stay here, no go." "I've had this kid about 30 hours and you want me to leave her with someone I met at O'Hare airport five days ago?" I ask.
Novice Guide: Yes.
Me: Ok. (I quickly call a travel mate, who is most accomodating.)
We hop in a cab. Because we are riding at about 90 miles an hour though HEAVY city traffic I begin to wonder if I will die in the cab. I wonder if the internet last will and testament we wrote will hold up in court back in America. Will my mother really raise a Chinese baby that I only knew for 30 hours?
The cab dumps us off at a large dirty white building, we have to cross 4 lanes of traffic to get to the building. I am now one-eyed...but I've been good at Frogger since 1984.
Novice guide ushers us into the building which is semi-open aired. I think that this is so strange, what do they do when it rains? Do patients have to wait in the rain to be treated at the hospital? We hop on a stainless steel huge elevator. She pushes the number 9, it is written in English. There is urine in the corner and someone has upchucked recently. I start to cry. Muffin Man softens and touches my shoulder.
Ding, floor nine. Novice guide says, "This is the Op-TO-Mow-Oh-Jee wing. Lots of people but good Doctor. Grab my shirt and follow me. " She says. What?, I look at my husband. Muffin Man says she means ophthomolgy. Oh, right. We circulate among children and adults in what looks like a long wait in a big sterile waiting room. Novice guide turns to me and says, "You brought lots of cash money right?" Ugh huh. Yeah, as I wonder what "lots" means. My mind spins. I know my parents in Detroit will wire us a few thousand if necessary. The Muffin Man has distant relatives that have some money, so in a pinch...
Novice guide grabs a ticket of some sort from a lady behind a counter. She pushes and shoves us to the front of a long line. I yell at her, "No, this is not right, we will wait like the others." She gives me the EYE. Follow me or no help! I back down, as now my ear starts to throb with pain. We wait only 10 minutes and I know we were pushed to the front because we were American. We wait behind a man with small infant who appears to be only 3-4 months old. She has a lazy eye, and looks so much like Ava, I openly gasp. He whistles and she pees on a rag through her Chinese split pants. I offer him a Western diaper out of my bag, but he refuses not willing to look me in the eye.
The doctor looks at us for about 10 seconds and says "Bad Case" in English. He hands the guide a slip of paper. We literally run off the floor into the pee stained elevator. Novice guide says, "You sick, 4 medicines each. We fill prescriptions on first floor, that is where you pay up." I am expecting the call to Detroit here, 2nd mortgage on my parents home? We get off the elevator and step up to another window. Again, we don't wait as the locals do. Novice guide shouts and spits a bit. I wait trying not to think of Ava scared, being passed off to yet another set of new parents.
Novice guide turns to me and explains how to use the 4 medicines each. Then she says, $34.30 US Dollars right now! Muffin man starts to laugh, big guttural guffaws. I am completely speechless and make her repeat herself. Really, that's all? She explains that communist countries have subsidized medical. I simply nod, as if this makes all kinds of sense. (At this moment I choose not to go into the whole "Ok, why the scary you bring money speech?") I chalk it up to cultural differences.
I breathe in---breathe out----breathe in----breathe out. The Novice guide again tells me I will have to pay for the cab ride....No problem, I say in a Zen like happy moment. I fork over $2.25 for the cab ride and thank her profusely for her trouble getting us medical attention. She sits up proudly, "Chinese medicine good, helps you." Yes, I humbly bow with my hands together in gratitude. Xie Xie, Xie Xie.
Back At The Ranch
The Muffin man and I feel tired and sore. But we rush to the hotel breakfast bar. It appears we have been gone less than 2 hours. Ava is a happy camper strapped into her new stroller looking at her other baby friends. The Changsha University tour is on despite the rumors of a "very sick" family. The Muffin Man professes that he needs to rest and heads for the refuge of the room.
Sporting a second wind, Ava and I head for the tour bus as scheduled. We sit at the back alone....as I am still contagious but, happy. I am tired, clearly beyond what I have ever known tired to be but I have my baby in my arms and nothing else matters. It has been an amazing journey that has brought me to a foreign country to meet the most beautiful child I have ever seen. Ava brings the surreal moment back to the grittiness of reality as she sits on my lap and starts to giggle staring at my swollen heinous face.