December 31st: medical tourism

[Editorial note: This has been edited to about half the size it was originally. Eeek!]

The morning of the 31st, Debbie’s back was hurting more than the night before. We decided that it would be better for her to see a doctor rather than chance it. After breakfast, I called Hsiu-Lan to tell her that we would not be going to Dharma Drum that day. She offered to bring Debbie’s luggage to Dharma Drum. Debbie and I would stay in town so that Debbie would be able to see a doctor.

Debbie and I took a taxi to the National Taiwan University Hospital (aka Taida). I felt somewhat more comfortable with Taida than other hospitals and Debbie deferred to me in this matter. On the way to the hospital, I suggested to Debbie that it might be better for me to push her around in a wheelchair rather than let her walk. Our taxi driver made sure a wheelchair would be at hand after we arrived at the hospital.

Unfortunately, by the time we had reached the hospital, it was impossible to see a doctor in the morning. I called Hsiu-Lan to inform her of the further delays. We already had established that the hospital visit would prevent lunch with Prof. Chuang. Now, with the additional delays, it looked like we’d also miss our evening invitation to have supper with Hsiu-Lan and Bill. After talking with Hsiu-Lan, we sought the food court. I asked a passerby for directions. In response, he took upon himself to personally lead us to the elevator.

After going around the food court once and mentally noting our options, I parked Debbie’s wheelchair at the end of a table for four. I ordered noodles for Debbie from one of the food joints and something vegetarian for myself. When I came back to our table, I found that someone had decided that the unoccupied chairs were up for grabs. Luckily my chair was still unoccupied. I gave Debbie her food and sat down to eat mine. It was not the first time Debbie was using chopsticks but I think Chinese restaurants in the West arrange the food to minimize challenges. The food I ordered for her that day was not designed to spare a Westerner’s ego. It proved frustrating for Debbie.

After lunch, we came back to the waiting room upstairs. As we were waiting, another Westerner approached us. I noticed him approaching from afar but I purposely did not pay him any special attention until he addressed me. He asked me to confirm whether he was at the right place for his doctor’s appointment. I examined his appointment sheet and replied that this was where he should wait. It turns out the kid needed some sort of injection for pain in his knee, due to a martial art injury, if I recall correctly. Debbie and him compared notes about joint pain and other similar ailments.

Commentary: As a general rule, I do not show any special interest in the random Westerners I encounter when I’m in Asia. The reason is that I want to avoid feeding the erroneous assumption that all Westerners know each other. “Oh, you are Canadian, surely you must know so and so. He’s Canadian too.” Sure, Canada is a village of five people.

Eventually, Debbie’s turn came to see the doctor so I grabbed Debbie’s wheelchair and wheeled her into examination room. I had never seen (and I think Debbie neither) such a scene. The doctor was spinning left and right on his swivel chair going from one patient to the other. Two elderly women being prepped for injections were sitting on an examination table. A coterie of young medical students was present carefully observing the doctor’s performance and taking notes. After a bit, the doctor turned to us. He first asked whether we spoke any Mandarin. I explained as I would explain many times during the next two weeks that I speak a little Mandarin and my wife speaks none. Debbie explained her pain, in English. The doctor asked a few questions. Finally, he ordered an X-ray.

So I wheeled Debbie to her X-ray exam. There was already a woman waiting in line there when we arrived. Upon seeing Debbie in the wheelchair, she graciously motioned for us to go first. Debbie got her paperwork and waiting number. When the number came up, Debbie first had to change into a hospital robe and then was admitted to the X-ray room itself. The nurses asked me to wait outside the X-ray room so I don’t know exactly what happened in there. Debbie reported to me that the girls were very giggly for some reason. Whether this was just nervousness because they had to perform in English or something else entirely, we’ll never know.

I helped Debbie change back into her clothes and wheeled her back to the doctor’s waiting room. We waited again until a nurse motioned us to come over. The circus in the examination room was still as spectacular as before but the coterie of students was absent. After taking care of other patients, the doctor turned to us and started commenting on the X-ray. It soon became evident that he did not fully understand what he was seeing on the X-ray. After I explained to him what kind of surgical operation had been performed on Debbie five years earlier, he understood the picture in front of him. He showed us where Debbie’s current problem was, prescribed medicine, commented that maybe surgery would be needed again and suggested that Debbie get a corset. He said that a nurse would tell us where to get one.

After we obtained all the information we needed, we paid the hospital fee, which came to about US$50, and then took possession of Debbie’s drugs. A volunteer helped us determine that the pharmacy inside the hospital had no corsets, contrarily to what the nurses told us. The volunteer found that there was a pharmacy close to the hospital which sold corsets. She kindly took upon herself to walk us all the way to the other side of the hospital, across a street and into the store, and waited while we ordered. I assured her that we’d be able to get back but she insisted on staying with us. She accompanied us back to the hospital while I tried to thank her in Mandarin the best I could. When she figured we could no longer get lost, she parted ways with us.

Commentary: Imagine a foreigner coming to the US and having the same problem Debbie had. The hospital bill would be in the thousands of dollars. No matter how the demagogues want to explain it away, that’s inhumane.

Once we found the front entrance again, I hailed a taxi to drive us to Dharma Drum. I forgot to mention that while we were waiting for the doctor, Bill had called me to check on us. He offered to pay the taxi ride from the hospital to the college. We accepted his offer so we took a cab. When we got in the neighborhood of Keelung, our driver did not know where he was going and had to stop about five times to get directions. He had to turn around at least twice. While he was trying to figure out his way, I asked him whether he knew where he was going. Eventually we got to Dharma Drum but I was not happy with the detours we had taken. The driver recognized his mistake though and knocked off about one fourth of the fare.

It had already been planed that we would use Bill’s apartment during our stay at Dharma Drum so we headed up there. When we arrived, Bill was out with Hsiu-Lan. Eventually Bill came in. He was carrying cake and Douhua for Debbie and I, a gift from him, or Hsiu-Lan, or both, I don’t quite remember. In fact, that’s about all I remember of that evening. The stress of the day probably scrambled my brain that night.

Next episode: a huge dog!

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