I eagerly waited for a pick-up after dialing the number Jason (Li Ke) had given me. It was his mother’s cell phone number, the only way I could contact her as she was staying with her daughter in the hospital.
“Wei (Hello?)” I said in Chinese when I heard a voice answer. “Wo shi . . . (I’m . . .)”
I didn’t even get to finish.
Dai Wei Chun, Jason’s mom, excitedly called out, “Connie Laoshi! (Teacher Connie!)”
Jason had warned her I’d be calling to make arrangements for a time I could visit Li Xiao Juan, Jason’s 26-year-old sister who had finally had her heart operation 2 days ago.
Jason’s sister was born with a congenital heart defect, a small hole in the heart which was only detected about 5 years ago. This needed to be repaired and repaired as quickly as possible as it was only getting worse.
Because of all the procedures the doctors have been laying out that could be done, Jason wasn’t exactly sure what was going on. His distance from home only allowed phone calls to explain what was happening during the past 3 months and these he relayed to me. There was talk of open-heart surgery and this is what I previously thought would be done.
However, a decision was made instead to use an implant to help close the hole. I had no idea what that entailed so I looked it up on the Internet. Here’s what I found, in very simplified terms:
The doctor finds a small hole in the heart. This hole is called a patent foramen ovale (called a PFO) or an atrial septal defect (called an ASD). It is between the right and left atria (upper chambers) of your heart.
The doctor wants to close the small hole using an implant. The implant looks like two small fabric umbrellas, one on each side. Over time, the tissue around the hole grows into the fabric and the implant becomes a permanent part of the heart.
A cardiologist uses a catheter (small, narrow tube) to place the implant in the hole. The procedure is called a transcatheter hole closure. This is used instead of open heart surgery.
This operation is fairly non-evasive. The patient is awake, an incision is made in the groin or neck (the groin for Li Xiao Juan), the catheter is threaded through the vein to the heart and the implant (two fabric umbrellas) is released to plug the hole. The patient needs bedrest for awhile, receives blood thinner and antibiotics for infection, but other than that, he or she is free to go home after a few days in the hospital. In China, however, this procedure called for Li Xiao Juan to stay a week in the hospital.
After talking to Jason’s mother, we agreed that today in the afternoon around 3:30 would be a good time to visit. Chinese hospitals have no visiting hours as people constantly come and go. This is because, as I mentioned before, it is the responsibility of others to care for the patient’s needs (food, clothing, cleaning) and not the hospital staff. Jason’s mom was staying during the daytime while his father was working. At night, Mom went home and Dad came to stay with their daughter. Jason’s sister shared her bed with whoever spent the night. Bed-sharing with patients is also common practice for care-giving relatives in a Chinese hospital.
Although I could have gone to the hospital by myself, I was fortunate enough to have two of my three Muskateers on hand to accompany me: Rich (Wang Yun) and Diana (Ding Yan Bin). Although Rich had finished his college courses last week, and even returned the 6-hours by train to his hometown, he suddenly realized he’d forgotten his medical textbooks which he wanted to review during the summer. Thus he made a second trip yesterday back to the capital city to retrieve them from his dorm room. Diana, being only an hour away, came (naturally) because of Rich. This would be their third time to meet under my watchful eye, making me wonder if I’m the chaperone or the matchmaker.
With the Huaxi Hospital address and the room information in hand, we headed off by taxi to visit our patient. As is customary in China, I brought fruit with me for Jason’s sister. I purchased bananas, pears and peaches but was then told by Rich that bananas are considered unhealthy for those who’ve had operations. I almost left them behind until we remembered she might have visitors. They could eat the bananas even if she couldn’t.
I’ve been to many hospitals in China but never one in a capital city. Most were small town or county hospitals, which I can say were not exactly the best facilities. But Huaxi was brand new, a large complex of clearly marked buildings with a lovely park cradled in the center. It even had elevators and air-conditioning, which was nothing I had ever experienced years ago in China. This was a state-of-the-art medical facility and entering it, I truly felt Jason’s sister was in the best of care.
On the 12th floor of the heart recovery unit, we found Jason’s sister in Bed 16 along with 6 other patients. Each person had a simple bed with a hard mattress, a chair and a small bedside table with a cabinet underneath to store things. A bathroom-washing area was also included in the room which everyone shared. No showers, however, as showering is considered unhealthy for those who are sick. Sponging off only are the orders doctors and nurses give to patients.
We only had a bit of a problem in that Jason’s mother went down to meet us at the front entrance when we went up to the room directly. She had no idea where we were so she called Jason, thousands of miles away, to call me and ask me in English where I was. Of course, she could have called me directly to speak with her in Chinese but she was worried that maybe I’d not understand.
After Jason called me (from across a province), I then called his mother (downstairs) to return to where we were (upstairs) sitting with her daughter.
Ah, the blessings of having a cell phone!
We visited for about an hour, sitting on the edge of Li Xiao Jian’s bed and chatting away in Chinese while the other patients looked on in wonder at her foreign visitor.
I told funny stories of my American family and my experience in the big earthquake. Jason’s mom showed us the X-rays of her daughter’s implant. (Patients take their X-rays with them when they go to different departments, rather than have the hospital keep these for them where they might get lost or misplaced.) She also thrust bananas into our hands and carefully peeled a peach for each of us, which we quickly gobbled down. It was getting on dinnertime and we were hungry.
Jason’s sister told us how relieved she was to have the operation over with. She explained the doctors told her to rest for 6 months before going back to work or doing anything strenuous, thus she’ll be at home all this time recuperating. She’ll have four check-ups during the next two years, after which the heart should be fully healed with the aid of the medical procedure she just had on Monday.
It was quite an amazing thought to think that medical science has advanced to this stage, where open-heart surgery no longer is necessary for such cases as that of Jason’s sister. And even more amazing to realize that China, in such a short time, has now developed the ability and know-how among its own medical professionals to do these operations in such safe, sanitary environments. This was definitely not the case 14 years ago when I first came to China.
Although hospital policy forbade us from taking pictures inside, we did manage one very quick snapshot of me and Li Xiao Jian before the nurse stepped in the door to chastise us. I debated not breaking hospital rules but I wanted at least one memory to take back with me.
Now I have a visual memory and I’m not feeling one bit guilty for having broken the rules to get it.
I now have next month to look forward to when Jason returns from school and invites me to his home for a home-cooked meal. By that time, his sister will be feeling much better and our picture-taking session won’t be placed under restrictions. We can take as many as we want, and that’s exactly what I plan to do.
From Chengdu, sending you a blessed “Ping An!” (Peace)