Number One People’s Hospital
In the mid-80s I was on a business trip to Shanghai, staying in the venerable Peace Hotel on the bund, when I contracted a fairly bad case of food poisoning. I postponed meetings, and remained in bed for a day or so, but finally decided I’d better see a doctor.
My colleague, fortunately, had a relative who was a retired official. A call was placed and full assistance — perhaps a bit more than I had bargained for — was promptly forthcoming.
First, a hotel manager and two of his deputies came to my room to express their concern, and question me in some detail about my condition:
“How many times have you…? ”
“What did you eat yesterday? “
“Sausage and eggs? How many eggs?” and so on.
This was kind and well-intentioned but struck me as information going to a committee of the wrong people, since I wanted a doctor, not a hotel manager and his deputies.
I think they wanted to clarify whether or not I was on the edge of creating a serious “foreigner incident” for them. Convinced that I was not, they expedited the process of getting me to the Number One Peoples’ Hospital.
It was winter time, and in Shanghai, and other parts of China south of the Yangzi River, buildings do not have central heating, so when the mercury drops down below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, it can be colder indoors than outdoors.
The main entrance of the Number One Peoples’ Hospital featured an open door with a heavily fortified quilt-like door covering, split down the middle, to provide some insulation while allowing people to slip through the middle on the way in or out.
Ground floor windows were open. It was chilly. Corridors were dark and some of the people waiting there on wooden benches smoked despite the NO SMOKING signs. One fellow blew his nose heartily, and then smiled as he lit up another Double Happiness smoke.
I was escorted up to the foreigners’ department on the 6th floor. It didn’t occur to me at the time that there was anything unusual about having a department in a hospital specifically for foreigners, since at the time in China there was a special currency for foreigners (Foreign Exchange Certificates), special stores for foreigners (Friendship Stores), and a lot of other special things for foreigners.
In hindsight, most hospital departments are divided and named according to categories of illness: internal medicine; external medicine; ear/nose/throat; obstetrics and gynecology, and so on. At the time in China, sick foreigners like me merited a whole category of illness which transcended all of the above sub-categories. This was very special treatment indeed.
As I entered the large, open, partition-less room which housed the department for sick foreigners, I saw a host of doctors and nurses in white gowns and white caps. Especially compared to the rest of the hospital, the room was clean and brightly lit.
I sat down and waited. The walls were missing the large posters of Chinese and Soviet leaders’ portraits which were still popular in those days. Instead there was a large sign saying “Please pay in Foreign Exchange Certificates.”
A nurse came over, asked me some questions, and gave me a bi-lingual form. to fill out regarding my medical condition, symptoms etc. including a declaration of whether or not I suffered from any AVERGIES (sic).
Finally my turn came, and I was summoned to a chair and bench in the middle of the room. The waiting area consisted of chairs along the walls, creating the sensation that all the patients waiting there were watching “the action” in the center of the room, where I was now seated. There were no magazine racks offering the kind of gossip or inspirational magazines you sometimes find in medical and dental clinic waiting rooms. All eyes, it seemed, were focused on the middle of the room.
The nurse in charge of my case had the brusque, efficient manner of a drill sergeant. She looked at my form, and ordered me to loosen my pants as she asked further questions and began probing around the lower zone of my stomach. She then waived me over to a desk, where I was given some medication to take back with me.
Momentarily, I had a great sense of relief and figured I was ready to go. No such luck.
“Shot!” came the advice from the nurse, in English.
On many occasions I have found that in Shanghai, English trumps Chinese among those locals who speak both, no matter how good the foreigner’s Chinese is. This was one of those moments, and I was not about to quibble with Big Nurse. So I responded in English.
“Arm?” I said hopefully.
“No! Drop your pants.”
I stifled my shyness, complied with the order, and got my highly public shot in the butt.
I paid with Foreign Exchange Certificates, and returned to the Peace Hotel. I felt much better in a matter of hours, and haven’t been back to the Peoples’ Number One since.