Cast Cutting in China: Check-ups in a Foreign Land

[pullquote align=”left”]One of my favorite stories to tell people is about the time that a horse rolled over me and fractured my wrist and L3 vertebra two weeks before my first trip to China. I was pretty out of it for a few days, but I got a cute, purple, short cast on my left forearm and somehow managed to go on my merry way across the world for nearly a month of English teaching and then traveling.[/pullquote]

Despite my pleading, the US hospital was unwilling to take off my cast just four weeks into the healing process, when I was due to fly out. Instead, I’d have to wear the cast for an unnecessary extra four weeks because of my trip.  I was not prepared for the 40-degree heat and high humidity that would make my cast an unbearable arm prison within the first two days in China.  The itching was so bad that I began sticking a chopstick down the cast, which would inevitably bring up chunks of rotting skin.

That’s when I asked Marco—an enigmatic Chinese dude who wore aviators, carried a black man-purse, and had connections in the Nanjing mafia—to help me out.  Off we went in Marco’s little black VW Jetta with its tailpipe barely rigged on by a coat hanger.

We were staying at a private boarding school quite some distance from Nanjing City, so the nearest hospital was one village away.  It looked like something straight out of the Cultural Revolution.  Nurses wearing paper hats with red crosses on them had me fill out paperwork (with some help from Marco since my Chinese reading was minimal at the time) and head down the bare concrete hall for x-rays to see if I was fit to have the cast off.

After two x-rays (the first of my casted arm and the second of my good arm for comparison) taken by a massive and indescribably ancient machine, I was sent in to see the head honcho, who was seated in a dusty office with several other doctors, musing about my x-rays over green tea and cigarettes.

I was fit to have the cast taken off, he said, and I would be tended to in his private office, no less, just around the corner.  After paying the mere $13 for x-rays and consultation, I sat nervously in the office.

Two nurses arrived and inspected the cast as if it were made from the intestines of an alien life form.  They murmured a moment, disappeared, and then reappeared with what can only be described as a humongous pair of scissors.  One of the nurses struggled to stick an edge of the giant scissors down my teeny, silicon cast while the other watched with mysterious eyes.  A lot of intense sawing ensued, none of which was successful in breaking me free of the little purple cast.

More murmuring and they were off again, this time returning with a tiny round saw.  As they approached my cast, I prayed to god that this was the type of saw that could cut a cast but not skin. Finally, my arm felt fresh air for the first time in five weeks.  Meanwhile, the nurses were enthralled with the cast and wanted to keep it as a souvenir, nasty rotten skin and all.
In all my moving around the world, having a medical problem abroad has got to be the single worst part of expat life.  The language barrier alone is enough to scare the lights out of you, not a mind fears about hygiene, sanitation, the general medical knowledge of the doctors, and everything else.
Having just come from my first appointment at a sparkling new Czech clinic with a brilliant doctor that spoke perfect English—all of which cost me only $1.69 in total—I can safely say that what is most interesting is that the scariest, most expensive, and generally WORST doctor experiences I’ve ever had have been in the United States.

Sure, the Chinese hospital was dusty and old with the doctors smoking inside, but they cared for me perfectly and didn’t bankrupt me for it.  And yeah, Chinese pharmacists have given me a pill made out of cow gall bladder to soothe a cold before, but guess what?  It worked.

via flickr - drs2biz

I had similar experiences in Ireland, even seeing basic student doctors or walk-in clinics. All were incredibly well appointed and clean. Most of all, the physicians were quite competent.  And unlike in the United States, most doctors around the world don’t just brush off your symptoms and shove the latest “Pill of the Moment” down your throat.  They listen to your symptoms, check you thoroughly and offer remedies—whether they are herbal, pharmaceutical, dietary, or otherwise—that are right for your condition.  Best of all, you are not asked to hand over ungodly sums of money to them for it.

And that makes all the scary “Will the doctor understand me?” and “Will my medical history translate” moments completely worthwhile. 

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