Friday, September 01, 2006

Sincere thanks to all of you for your kind words and to Spike for spreading the word. Here's a short version of life in a Cantonese cardio care unit. Currently on the mend with C in Shenzhen...
Stand By Me
Time passes a drop at a time when you're the only gweilo pinned to an IV drip in a Cantonese cardiac care ward.

My five geriatric wardmates in Hong Kong's United Christian Hospital, ward 5-B - an aging structure that according an elevator plaque, came courtesy of Hong Kong film pioneer and philanthropist Sir Run Run Shaw (who, with brother Run Me Shaw was the first to bring talkies to South Asia, not to mention '70s classics such as Monkey Kung Fu and Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold) - are stoic.

Though we can only communicate through smiles, grimaces and occasional farts and belches, I assume that like me, questionable lifestyles and dietary choices -- a steady diet of cigarettes, booze, oily foods, stress and perhaps genetics -- have thrown us together as roomates for a few days and nights.

It takes about 12 hours to figure out the rhythms and customs of ward 5-B, including the distressing news that, unlike hospitals I've been unfortunate enough to be in in the United States, the visiting hours (5:30-8 p.m.) are strictly enforced.

It's also helpful if you packed your own toilet paper and some other sundries such as soap, shampoo, shaving gear and snacks. Fortunately, my first visitor, a coworker and angel of mercy named Olivia has shown up and cunningly talked her way into the ward outside of visiting hours with some of what I need, including TP.

Authorized visitors armed with books arrive a few hours later. The books are especially welcome as a steady diet of Hong Kong TV squawking from the ceiling rack is unintelligible and unendurable, though I am briefly rejuvenated when a bottled water ad featuring a Cantopop singer who goes by the name "Justin" is broadcast. "JUSTIN! JUSTIN! JUSTIN!" fans scream. "I hear you," I mutter. "I'll be better. I promise."

After the pain began shooting through my left arm and shoulder, coupled with heavy sweats and a chest that felt like the late John Candy was sitting on it and daring me to join him, I had presence of mind to pack a few things before hailing a cab. While I was sweating and cursing while fumbling for my fare, it was clear that the cabbie was also stressed and couldn't wait to eject me at the emergency ward entrance. Cantonese are notoriously superstitious and the thought of a foreign ghost haunting his taxi for eternity was obviously distressing.

Inside I went through a battery of questions, forms and tests before being wheeled up to bed 11 and my home away from home for three days. I am introduced to my doctor, a third year resident who looks all of 13-years old. The meals arrive on schedule at 9 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. and while my wardmates slurp theirs down with chopsticks from bowls, I am pointedly served a tray with a fork and fare piled on a plate.

Breakfast marks the biggest difference, though. While the others consume congee, a nutritious, kinda-sorta low fat mix of rice gruel and eggs along with a slice of toast, I am given a traditional American cardio care morning repast of a lunch meat and Velveeta white bread sandwich with a room temperature box of irradiated milk: expiration date December 13, 2017. The "milk" will survive longer than I, I fear. I also wonder what constitutes a heart healthy diet in Hong Kong medical lore? And why do all the medical workers and most of the visitors wear surgical masks? What disease can one contract from a heart attack patient?

(There are other cross-cultural medical puzzlements. At one point following an angiogram for which a very small incision was made in my right groin, I am told that I absolutely must lie still and flat on my back for 15 or so hours so as not to open "the wound." Nature, boredom and my digestive system take their course after 8 hours when I tell a male nurse that I must leave the bed to use the toilet.

("It is not permitted!" Hong Kong's male version of Miss Ratchett informs me sternly. "Do your business in the bed." He hands me a bed pan. Hostility ensues on my part and I insist that there are certain bodily functions I am not comfortable performing with a bed pan. A remedial English speaking doctor is summoned who nearly shouts in his insistence that straining my bowels on a toilet rather than in a bed pan could "open wide wound, break artery and kill you so fast." I reply that Lenny Bruce and Elvis both died on the toilet and that I am willing to take a chance. He is clearly not impressed nor knowledgable regarding Lenny and Elvis's last hours, but finally relents. I am happy to report that I have risked death by toilet and lived to write about it.)

Diagnosis: no damage to the heart muscles, though an angiogram to explore my arteries for clogs, wreckage and the fabled ruins of the Temple of Ancient Cheeseburgers is strongly advised. I agree to it and afterward, find myself recuperating for an hour along with a masked nurse named Maggie in what appears to be a combination storage room and MASH unit. She asks me if I want to listen to some music.

"English songs?" I ask.
"I will see," she says in that robotic English delivery by people not normally accustomed to speaking it. She sorts through some discs and shows me one labeled "TV Music" which contains an, uh...,er, eclectic mix that ranges from drek to almost delightful. "Disc 2, please," I say largely because Ben E King, The Temptations and even Doris Day singing Que Sera Sera are less likely to give me another heart attack than Air Supply, Lobo and Toto.

As King croons Stand By Me my eyes begin unaccountably welling up. I miss C who is away in Shanghai at the moment, but I am also suddenly unbearably homesick and overwhelmed with self-pity.

The past is calling. I want my dead mother. I want my second ex-wife. I want my son, my father, my sister and Stateside friends. I think of a picture in a New Yorker I had seen a few hours ago of a new adddition to Denver Art Museum and want at that moment more than anything to be walking outside it by the Red Grooms cowboy and Indian sculpture on a hard, clear, crisp sunny autumn afternoon to meet them all. I want to kick my way through crackling leaves.

"You are sad?" Maggie asks through her mask.
"I am homesick," I say. "Sorry."

Ben E. King is still singing. Maggie walks closer to the gurney, hands me a folded tissue, stands almost at attention and looks down at me, eyes wide and sincere above the mask.

"I will stand by you," she says.
Upon hearing that you lack soap, shaver etc and way of communicating to your fellow wardmates. I fear that the staff's surgical masks is worn for other reasons than getting a gweilo decease.

Get well soon Justin. I need you to flex my lips the right way instead of my normal frown.
Glad to see you're well enough to start writing and blogging again. And god forbid that there should be a next time, but if there is, call me sooner and I will deliver an ipod to your room. I'm back in HK Saturday, let me know when you're back and I'll buy you a sasparilla.
It's great to see you updating again!
Sorry for outting you my old friend but I'm glad to see you are on the mend.

No more going to the Chip Shop after this!
We miss you too Justin. Glad to hear you're doing ok. Much love from Colorado!
I don't know how you did it, but you elicited in me a completely convincing feeling of farting and belching together with a bunch of strangers as simultaneously absurd and comforting.

Your writing is very humane. Please treat yourself this way.

- in Shenzhen
At least you didn't get charged for six meals a day and a long list of drugs that you never got to experience (common problem in Shanghai's "foreign" hospital, Huashan). The skies here in Denver are blue, the air is cool and college football starts tommorrow. I'll hoist a giant burrito and a Breckenridge Avalanche for you.
God it is wonderful to see you blogging again. The next time I get over there I am going to bring you an emergency pack (like we pack in California when we are waiting for the Big One) of TP, bottled water, sundry chocolate bars, etc. Just so that you can schelp it around until you don't need it.

Take care
I brought you soap, as you forgot to mention.

But, alas, what the nurse at the end of your tale says made me well up, too. I have found many many Hong Kong people like that. Willing to be much kinder than we like to give them credit for being.

There is always a certain lovely sincerity under the skin of the Cantonese in Hong Kong. I love that. I have learned over time to accept this sincerity and to enjoy it.

Hi Justin,

I'm sorry to hear about the heart attack but I'm glad you're better and resting now.

Take care.
Glad to see you are at it again. I hope you have a full recovery.
Interesting about the angiogram, I had one done about 3 month ago (the medics thought I had blockages), checked into the hospital at 10 am and was send home by 2 pm and told to leave the dressing on, not to shower and not to exercise for 3 days. After 3 days take the dressing of and shower and start exercising. Btw I had no blockage.

Keep healthy - Fred
That last part made me laugh out loud. Your gf has quite a sense of humor.

Glad that you're going to be okay. Get better, man, and please take care of yourself.
Anonymous Doug is correct and I regret the unintentional omission. He was the first with a necessity and it was the best soap I've ever had.
Called "Dr Bromer's Magic 18-in-1 Hemp Peppermint Pure-Castile Soap" it's in liquid form and not only served me well for showering but also for shaving and as a shampoo stand-in. The label is also jammed with the late Dr's philosophical ramblings so it also stood in as entertaining reading material until the William Faulkner novel and a Michael Eisner DisneyWars book arrived.
As the Dr says: "Absolute cleanliness is Godliness! Teach the Moral ABC that unites all mankind free, instantly 6 billion strong and we're All-One!"
The pump just needs some priming. Long walks. Quit smoking. You'll be fine. We need your blog.
Sorry, I misread. For some reason I thought it was "C" who said she'd stand by you. Apologies. What a nice thing for Maggie to say.

Actually, if you had to have a heart attack, better in HK than in Shenzhen, I suppose. Across the border, they may have just stuck a saline drip in you and given you smelly tea made from ground-up yak dung. Or perhaps some pills that suspiciously looked and tasted like they had been formed from mere baking soda.

Honestly, I've had my own Chinese health care system adventures. They could have been worse.

Again, get better soon.
Hey Stuart,
Yeah, I've had a couple minor misadventures that took me Shenzhen hospitals and it's not too pretty. Not pretty at all.

I studiously avoided the Saline Solution however, much to their professional and economic dismay - an extra whatever 50-hundred and more yuan for the all purpose drip.

Thanks for the link. I'll check it out shortly.
Glad you're on the mend.
Today seems to be a day of remembrances of long ago. As Boulder musician/broke hippies we used Dr. Bronners shampoo. I remember reading that crazy label and recall that he indicated that it could be used to cure just about all of the world's illnesses. I also remember that it was really hard on the scalp and hair and the last thing it should be used for is shampoo....

Missed your blog the last few weeks. Glad you're back. Rest, recuperate, stay out of hospitals and away from doctors if at all possible, and writewritewrite.

Love your old fart self,

I love Chinese medical experiences. I had an awful case of some sort of intestinal problem common with foreigners (although my version was much worse). I must say, it's difficult using a squatter when you have trouble standing and there's an IV in your arm.
Everyday crit!
Checked your link and found you're a Naropa-ite! Damn, man. Good to see.
Other than that, gotta say that the HK hospital I was in had sit-downs, not squatters (thankyouJeebus, small favors).
Maybe this is just a gal thing, but watch the Doc Bronners peppermint on your more sensitive body parts. It tingles, and not in a good way.

Glad to read that you're doing better.
Holy crap, Justin. Glad you are on the mend. Be in touch - I'll send you an email.

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