An Englishman in the People’s Republic, Part 3

In 1985, I interviewed a New Zealander who had just had his appendix out under local anesthetic. (Link)  Some months later Tom and I were talking about Robert’s experience, and he said he knew about another foreigner who’d gotten an appendectomy in China. He knew the story was true because he knew the people involved.

Tom’s story

There was a Frenchman who was in Nanjing University in 1981-82. He got an acute pain in his stomach. He went to the Number One People’s  Hospital in Nanjing, where he was told his appendix would have to come out. Unfortunately, it had ruptured, and they left in a lot of the poison. He was getting really bad, really fast—fever, delirium. Some of his friends were quite worried about him and contacted the French Consulate in Shanghai.

Now it just happened that there were two French warships in the Shanghai harbor on one of those exchange visits. The Consulate General asked the Chinese authorities for permission to send a helicopter to Nanjing to pick up the French student for treatment. It was a half-hour trip. The Chinese refused on the grounds that allowing a foreign plane to fly over China would be a violation of sovereign territory. As you know, the Chinese are touchy because of their memories of foreign imperialism, when foreigners could sail freely up the Yangtze and the Chinese couldn’t. It was a very big thing for the communists to be able to say to people, “Look, there are no foreigners here now. We have control of the country.”

The student’s friends in Nanjing—there were four of them—were left with no other recourse but to pick him up physically, carry him out of the hospital, put him on the train, and sit with him for the four hours to  Shanghai. Then they walked with him, took a taxi part of the way, to the warships docked on the Bund.  It had probably been over twenty-four hours since the first operation. The doctors on the ship operated again, apparently for some time, but they decided they’d better send him to a better-equipped hospital in Osaka. He was operated on there, and he recovered. He could have died in China.

I’ve been ill quite a few times here. Before I came to China in 1982, I’d never had an illness other than a cold. At that time I was smoking a lot, and I think smoking in China is deadly.  There are a lot more germs floating around than there are in England and America, and your body is weaker when you smoke. Then also, I was changing climates—from Shanghai to Yunnan to Xinjiang to the north. Especially if you’re in the desert, getting a cold is really dangerous because it can lead to an infection. Everyone I know who’s been in the desert has had something go wrong with them, like a horrible fungus growing on their faces for two days and then disappearing.

When I was in the desert in Gansu province I had a bad cold which led to an ear infection.  I was coming back on the train alone from Lanzhou on my way to Xian. Suddenly in one ear BANG…BANG…BANG…BANG. Then it started in the other ear. It continued for the last two days of a three-and-a-half-day journey. By the time I got to Shanghai I could hardly hear at all with my left ear. I thought I was losing my hearing. I hadn’t slept in two days, and I was crying because it was so painful. There was no one on the train to help or even to express sympathy. The guard wanted to know what was wrong, but he wasn’t a medical person, so he couldn’t do anything.

I went to the doctor in Shanghai. He was American-trained and did not do what they often do at the hospital here for ear problems—take this piece of wire, put some cotton wool on it and ram it down your ear. He said, “You’ve got an ear infection. I can give you Chinese medicine for it, and it will take about six months to heal. I don’t have any antibiotics.”

I believe traditional herbal medicine is good because it’s natural and doesn’t have any harmful side-effects. It can only do you good, and it can’t really do you harm. But it’s very slow, and I was really in pain. I was just thinking about flying to Hong Kong.

He added, “You can’t fly because it’s in the eardrum, and the eardrum could burst.”

I was very lucky. I went to see the American nurse at the American Consulate, and she said, “You need some antibiotics. I’ve seen this before, and if you can get these antibiotics, no problem. I don’t have them, but you’re in luck, because one of the American students had something almost exactly the same, and he had the antibiotics sent from America.”

I went to see him, and he gave me the rest of the antibiotics. Within two weeks it had cleared up, but it was scary, particularly when I was on the train and didn’t know what was happening. You’d think that in the largest, most modern city in China they’d have adequate medical facilities.

Another time, also in 1982, there were four of us in Chongqing—Cliff, myself, and two French students from Fudan University. I wasn’t feeling too good. We got our boat tickets, and we sent off down the Yangtze. I was sweating a lot, I obviously had a temperature, and I was itching all over my body. Scratching. So then I went and showed the rash on my foot to the doctor on board ship. It was lots of lumps.

He said, “Oh, that’s nothing to worry about. I’ve got the same.”  He was totally uninterested.

When we got to Wuhan, I was really in a bad way, and that night I went to bed about 8:00 or 9:00 and slept all the way through to six or seven in the morning. I woke up to find the sheets absolutely wet. I had broken this fever, and I was absolutely covered in spots. I didn’t know what it was. One of the French students thought it was chicken pox. When we went to the hospital, the immediate reaction of the staff was, “Have a penicillin shot.”

So I had a penicillin shot.

“You’ve got an allergy.”

“Could it be chicken pox?”

“No, no, no. You’ve got an allergy.”

“Well, what am I allergic to?”

“We can’t tell that, but it’s an allergy.”

“All right.”

I just wanted to get back to Shanghai, so we took the boat the rest of the way down the Yangtze. On the boat we were trying to get better conditions for me, get me moved to a better class. They boat officials looked at my spots and said, “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with you.”  They didn’t want to give me a better cabin. We stayed in fourth or fifth class, whatever we were in. After the fever broke I felt a lot better, and my friends gave me Calamine Lotion to stop the itching.

The afternoon we arrived in Shanghai I went to the hospital. There were no doctors about, but there was a nurse.

“Well, it looks like it could be chicken pox, but it could be an allergy. I’m afraid I can’t tell you. I wouldn’t like to say. You’ll have to wait for the doctor to come tomorrow.”

Finally, five days after my rash appeared, the doctor was willing to tell me that I had chicken pox. There’s nothing you can do for it. It just goes. But they wanted to give me an injection every day, and no one would tell me what I had. I had to keep badgering them for information.

Then there’s my back. Yes, my back. I used to go to the acupuncture clinic every week, every day. When I first went I’d never had acupuncture, so I was a bit apprehensive. They just gently sat me down—they assumed I would be worried about it—and started sticking needles in. It really does not hurt. No, I didn’t think to avoid Hepatitis B by bringing my own needles. I’ve always just let fate take its toll.

The doctors in the clinic had no idea what was wrong with my back. Eventually, after about a month, I started asking them, “Could it be a strained muscle?”

“Oh, it could be.”

“Could it be something else?  Could it be the nerve?”

“Oh, it could be the nerve.”

“Could it be a ligament?”

“It could be the ligament.”

In the end it proved they didn’t know what had happened. I was getting a bit worried by this point and thinking of going to Hong Kong if they couldn’t settle it soon. So I said to the head of the acupuncture clinic, “Look, I’m really worried. Your acupuncture in the long run might be doing me good, but I’m in pain. Can’t you help me? What’s wrong with me?”

They just kept evading the question. They were asking me what I thought was wrong. I wanted them to tell me, because they are the doctors.

“Well, okay, we’ll send you to the back people.”

“You mean there are specialists here?”

“Oh, yes, yes.”

“Well, why the hell haven’t I seen them?”

“Oh, no, no, you didn’t need to.”

“Thank you.”

This day I was really in agony. I think it was about the 23, 24th of December, 1985. It was quite close to Christmas. I’d been in real pain since about the 11th. I’d had a twinge in my back for about three or four months. At first I hadn’t taken much notice of it, and it hadn’t really bothered me. But that day I’d had it.

So the back people came to see me, and they turned out to be the surgical department. In Chinese hospitals there’s usually a major division between the Chinese medicine sections and those that deal mainly in Western medicine and Western techniques.  The surgical department were Western medicine people. The doctor checked me all over and said, “You’ve pulled a muscle in your back.”

“Well, is that simple?  Is it easy to fix?”

“Yeah, very easy to fix. All right. Come with me. We’ll just give you an injection in the back.”


I’m quite skeptical about injections, though by now I’ve had lots of them, but I didn’t fancy an injection in my back. Cortisone—we looked it up in the dictionary. I knew they gave you cortisone for pain, but I remembered hearing it’s not good for you. I wanted to talk to somebody who could speak good English and explain this to me. I just felt they weren’t very encouraging.

I actually met the head of the hospital, Dr. Li, the same lady who operated on Robert. She’s a lovely lady. When I met her I said, “I know Robert.”

She was very pleased. She said how nice Robert is and that he’s really a good friend of hers. I think that’s surprising, but he is. She speaks very good English, and she said, “It’s just a little injection. It doesn’t go deep into the back. It will ease the pain, and you can come back in about a week, and then if it is a pulled muscle there should be no more pain.”

I thought about it for a while, and they kept trying to convince me and saying they’d had the injections themselves, so I lay down and waited for him to do it. He stuck this need in my back, and I screamed and screamed. People came running in from other rooms and watched. It was fucking agony. The needle stayed in for a few seconds and then it was okay. I could feel this burning sensation in my back, and then about half an hour later my back went numb. They’d told me I wouldn’t be able to move around a lot for the rest of the day, and I couldn’t.

The next day there was no pain. It was incredible. The shot relieved all the pain. Then I talked to other people about it and decided I should go to Hong Kong to see someone about my back. I wouldn’t have another injection, so I the pain came back. I don’t think cortisone injections are the answer. I should say that the Hong Kong doctors didn’t know what was wrong with my back, either.

Acupuncture is interesting, though.  The acupuncture clinic is the biggest one in the hospital. People obviously have great faith in it, because a lot of people come there. You know Jessica?  For years she had a bad skin problem on her face which European doctors couldn’t cure, and acupuncture here has cleared up in a few months.

The same day or a few days after that, I had a throat infection. It was something very simple, easily cleared up—in England. I had it two years ago. My doctor gave me some antibiotics, and it cleared up within a week. So I told the doctors here, “Look, it’s nothing really very dangerous. I’ve had it before. An antibiotic will work, but I don’t know which one.”

They looked at my tonsils, and just said, “Aah!”

The people there didn’t speak any English, and I didn’t know what the word for “tonsil” was. We looked it up, and they said “It’s acute tonsillitis.”

“No, it’s not. It’s an infection of the tonsils. It’s different.”

I think it could have been a translation problem, but it ended up with me trying to shout at them, “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

They wanted to give me two injections a day of penicillin.

“Can’t I have tablets?”

“Oh no, no. No tablets here.”

I know for a fact that there are penicillin tablets in the area. I’m not particularly worried about the hepatitis problem. I just didn’t think I could stand more than one injection a day. When I went to Hong Kong the doctors gave me some antibiotics, and the infection cleared up in about three or four days.

So now I would rather not see any more Chinese doctors, thank you. I’m leaving soon, so maybe I won’t have to.