I felt brave today, not so much for avoiding the temptation to throw up as my surgeon cut off strips of my toenail with scissors, but more for allowing this to happen in a Chinese public hospital. I had (emphasise on the had because in all honesty I’m not too sure what now lies beneath my taped gauze) an in-grown toenail. Not a big deal, but it has been a giant pain for the past month – first of all because it developed a nasty infection and secondly because it made walking in closed toe shoes unbearable. This means I spent the last chilly month wearing flip-flops and enduring the glares and tsk-tsking of the general Chinese public.
Chinese hospitals are the chaotic and bare-boned, archaic brothers of the hospitals I’m used to. But I do have to give them props for being efficient to the point of hostile and incredibly cheap. I paid 80RMB (less then 15 Canadian dollars) for seeing a doctor, having the surgery and the post-medication. I also had the benefit of some called-in ‘guanxi’ (power – the backbone of China) and ‘Laowai’ (Foreigner) status. This meant I was able to skip to the front of our first hour-long queue. From my experience, hospitals are all about waiting, but in Canada this waiting happens in the ‘waiting room’, where in China the waiting happens in lines. You are constantly shepherded from line to line, and these lines are all over the place! On different floors in different buildings and sometimes in all together different hospitals. Hanging above these lines was a sign reading “Solemn Silence’. And well the ‘solemn’ aspect was partly observed by the line waiters, the ‘silence’ definitely was not. My line waiting antics went something like…
First line: registration (note: people were waiting hours just for this one line – I cut)
Second line: more paper work
Third line: seeing the surgeon
Fourth line: scheduling the time for surgery
Fifth line: picking up the medication and syringe needed to numb my toe
Sixth line: checking back in with the surgeon
Seventh line: seeing the nurse
Eighth line: seeing the surgeon
Ninth line: post-surgery medication
Tenth line: waiting for a taxi home
The actual surgery was more than a little bit awful, but keep in mind that I am a giant baby. The surgery, as with all the minor surgeries, happened in a large, linoleum lined gymnasium lined with rows of school desks. When I say school desks I literally mean school desks – the kinds that have the writing desk attached to the armrest of the chair. There were up to 30 patients sitting in these chairs, with equal number doctors and nurses milling around stitching, sawing and disinfecting. I was one of them. The first step was numbing my toe with a ball-point pen tip sized needle. There was nothing slim or delicate to that thing, or the nurse’s needle handling skills for that matter. There may have been some tears in my eyes and explicit profanity professed. They put my foot up onto a knee-high metal stirrup and covered it in yellow iodine and waited for the freezing to kick in. Then the surgeon sat down and went to town for about 5 minutes. This part wasn’t painful but I had a whole new contender to wrestle with; nausea. I didn’t look and didn’t breathe, but the sound coupled with the vicious toenail tug-of-war was enough. I really didn’t want to vomit but my stomach had different ideas and so went my internal power struggle: Julia versus her stomach. I came out victorious but the look on my face must have been close enough to losing to cause alarm. I was then manhandled by a nurse who dug her fingers into my arms and half lifted/half dragged me and my doped up foot to a gurney to rest. When I opened my eyes and peered down I saw Joan, my translator, holding my overly large, bandaged toe in her fist, a look not-even-close-to-happy across her face. “Why are you holding my toe?” I asked. “Because the doctor told me to” she responded, again not happily. Apparently someone else needed the gurney so I was then told to get up and out on my way.
And now I will go on a slight tangent about two things that Chinese hospitals do NOT do well: bedside manner and sterilization. I recognize that those nurses and doctors have a priority that has nothing to do with my comfort and emotional well being and it’s a valid one, treat as many people as possible. There is not connection, no consideration and certainly no caring involved. It is all very robotic but like I said before, efficient. And with a population the size of China I suppose this is evolutionarily necessary. Onto my second tangent, this entire process was completed without any gloves! When I asked Joan about this she shrugged and commented ‘well they don’t touch you’, which was true. I was touched by pliers, scissors, tweezers, gauze, needles, iodine soaked cotton swabs and tape but never hands in the surgery gym. But at the same time I was bleeding, a lot. When I told Jenn this she commented ‘have they never heard of HIV?’. It doesn’t matter if your using instruments, I really firmly believe that when you purposely draw someone else’s blood you use a barrier!
My parting message as I headed out the door was: no seafood, no spicy food and no alcohol. “For the next couple of days?” I inquired. “No for a month” Joan responded. ‘Damn’ was my response. I really like all of those things…