Wrap it in a paper towel
Break a twig in half and set it straight
- Vampire Weekend
One Friday some three weeks ago, I had spent the entire morning busy preparing for a lunch party of eight guests. In my usual fashion, I was overly ambitious about what I could make in four hours. Yes, it takes four hours to make vegetable soup, deviled eggs, pumpkin pie, and roasted sweet potatoes. My kitchen lacks time-saving conveniences like a microwave (for now), dishwasher, multiple stove burners, multiple pots, and canned pumpkin. Let’s just say...cooking (like a westerner) ends up taking a long time.
So the clock was ticking and I hadn’t showered or changed out of my pj’s. I decided to skip the shower and make-up and go straight into wearing my skinny jeans. After zipping up and buttoning the fly, I thought, I really don’t want to wear these jeans. I will go with boot-cut flares. I had about fifteen minutes until people were to show up and I still hadn't finished peeling the eggs. Those pants had to come off like NOW.
But those dang jeans resisted. They hugged my larger than average calves (I blame my Cantonese genes) like caramel on an apple. Irritated, I jammed my hands in between the jeans and my calves. Jeans stubbornly clung on for dear life, but something was strange with my left hand middle finger. The top most joint was stuck in a strange bent position. Not painful, just a little sore.
This injury did not seem to be a dire emergency so I carried on with a very enjoyable lunch with my friends. Soup was good and I had made the best pumpkin pie ever. I mean, good grief, I was only taking off my pants.
All my lunch guests were likewise dumbfounded at my injury. We had recently moved to an insanely filthy apartment, and they speculated that I had over zealously scrubbed the filmy cigarette smoke off every nook and cranny thus weakening my poor middle finger. Maybe I should soak it in hot water--no, maybe ice water? Maybe acupuncture? Nobody had a good answer.
My Chinese friend, Heqing, offered to take me to a nearby clinic that specializes in Chinese medicine (中医). After lunch and everyone but me finished cleaning the dishes, off Heqing and I went. In a typical Chinese fashion in an overcrowded place typical of China, Heqing entered the clinic running from uniformed person to uniformed person, to reception window to reception window, yelling in Chinese until she got an acceptable answer. All right, go to this little room with a doctor. The doctor took one look at my finger and told me, “Go to the hospital emergency room (急诊).” Will I need surgery? He wouldn’t say.
Well, this dreaded day was bound to come sooner or later: the day I would have to go to a Chinese hospital. The place where cheap medical care means sacrificing your dignity and sanity. Where patients are treated more like sick cattle rather than sick people. What can I do? My finger needed help.
Emergency rooms are different in China than the US. In the US, you fill out a form and wait patiently in a waiting room until your name is called. Then you see a nurse who assesses your condition and directs you to an appropriate doctor. Then you get your own room and you stay there until your treatment is over. You might have to leave the room to get an x-ray or something, but you always go back to your room. The doctor and nurses speak to you at soothing volumes and respect your privacy. If you aren't suffering a trauma, I dare say ER visits can be a somewhat peaceful experience.
In China, each medical procedure (x-ray, blood test, body scan, stitches, etc) has its own room or area requiring a separate prior payment and doctor approval. Suppose you go to the ER for an arm injury. The visit might go something like this:
1. Wait in line to register and pay fee.
2. Wait in line to see doctor.
3. See doctor. He sends you to x-ray.
4. Wait in line at register.
5. Pay for x-ray.
6. Go to x-ray room.
7. Wait in line.
8. Get x-rayed.
9. Wait for x-ray. Pick up your x-ray from desk.
10. Wait in line for the doctor.
11. Give the doctor your x-ray. He makes a diagnosis. This doctor may not be the original doctor you saw the first time.
12. You start over with the next step in medical treatment.
You get the picture.
Thankfully, I had Heqing. A native Beijinger, she knew which hospital to go to and how to get there. Having spent several years living abroad, she knew enough English to translate medical speak to me so I was not completely in the dark. Thanks to her, my dreaded ER visit wasn't all that dreadful.
A thirty minute bike ride later, we entered the Peking University 3rd Hospital (北京大学第三医院) emergency room. And in typical Chinese fashion in a crowded place typical of China, Heqing skirted around the elderly laid up on gurneys or in wheelchairs, running from uniformed person to uniformed person, reception window to reception window, yelling questions in Chinese until she got a satisfactory answer. Then we did the registering, line waiting and x-ray procedure as laid out above.
After looking at the x-ray and asking my nationality, the young doctor assessed that my finger was obviously not broken. Yes, I had to explain what happened. I was changing my clothes when my finger suddenly went askew. If you think that sounds silly in English, imagine how silly it sounds in Chinese. What a crazy foreigner.
The doctor told us to go to another hospital that has a hand specialist. He scribbled some stuff on a piece of paper and sent us off, x-ray and scribbles in hand. Again Heqing was a lifesaver. She understood what the doctor said (I sort of phased out during that part) and she knew how to get there. We hopped in a taxi headed to the renowned Jishuitan Hospital (北京积水潭医院).
This hospital was less busy and more straightforward. Heqing didn't have to run around asking a bunch of questions to an array of people until she got a satisfactory answer. I was just hoping I wouldn't need surgery. I paid the registration fee and went directly to the hand specialist. We only had to wait ten minutes before entering the tall, handsome and gleaming white teethed Dr. Wu's office--who also spoke English. I immediately gave up on speaking Chinese. He promptly diagnosed my finger's condition as屈肌炎. Uh, what's that in English? Unfortunately, Dr. Wu's English wasn't that good, but I understood that my finger ligament was broken (韧带断了). Again, I explained how taking off my pants resulted in this injury. What a crazy foreigner.
Later, I made like Sherlock Holmes and put my internet sleuthing skills to use deducing I have mallet finger. Mallet finger is caused by blunt force trauma, damaging the upper tendon connecting the upper finger bones. I guess my pants and I are equally matched in strength.
Dr. Wu told me I would need to wear a splint continuously for six weeks. Don't take it off or get it wet. Eighty percent of patients with this kind of injury heal in six weeks. If not healed by then, surgery may be required.
Six weeks of my finger not getting wet? I can't wash my finger? Won't my finger start to stink? How will I wash dishes? This is really going to be a damper in my upcoming Indonesia vacation. I guess surfing is off the board.
Dr. Wu sent me downstairs to the splint making room, where I paid a fee for a young technician to customfit a splint. An hour later, my finger straighted up and buttressed, Heqing and I hailed a taxi and sat in rush-hour traffic back to the first hospital.
In summary, we went to one clinic and two hospitals in about five hours. The total cost came to about 55 USD not including taxi costs (see cost table below).
So for now, I am donning my ever so fashionable splint and getting plenty of poor you looks. BirdMAN has to clean more dishes and I'm making simpler meals. But I'm still wearing my skinny jeans. I am just much more careful about taking them off. One finger injury is enough.
Chinese word of the Blog: 锤状指Chuí zhuàng zhǐ (hammer shape finger)