Sunday, February 10, 2013

My First Tibetan Hospital Stay - Wild Mushrooms

On most field trips to the west, we stayed in a local hotels.  One day in Aba, a town with a Tibetan majority, we went to the Tibetan market and saw these delicious-fresh looking wild mushrooms sitting on her scarf on the ground. She must happen to see them on the way somewhere and did not have a basket to put them in.  I always loved mushrooms. We had two women and three men in our group. The other woman was a local school teacher and she said, “you could cook them in my apartment.” I was hoping she would say that. So, I bought all the wild mushrooms this Tibetan woman was selling. She was delighted and thanked me again and again since I bought all of the mushrooms she had. She could go home. Then, I went to the store and bought some canned pork. The five of us went to her apartment for dinner. She and I cooked dinner. The mushrooms smelled so good that we just couldn’t stop tasting them even before they were done. Needless to say, the two of us had the most mushrooms.
     After dinner, she and I went out for a walk. The three men decided to play cards and drank beer. She told me that her stomach didn’t feel so good and she threw up. She said, “you know those mushrooms you bought were mixed. I usually only buy only one kind. Maybe one of them was poisonous.” I felt fine at the time. But it was the first time ever that I bought wild mushrooms from a Tibetan market without an expert around to identify them first. On the safe side, I suggested that we walk toward the local hospital just in case she was unlucky from that one poisonous mushroom. She agreed since it was getting dark and we didn’t have any other way to get around except by foot.
     When we reached the local hospital gate, my stomach started to bother me too, but I couldn’t throw up. The hospital was quiet and most doctors had already left except for one office that was still open. We went in and told the only doctor about what had happened that afternoon. He said that we had to stay for further observation. I was surprised and asked why because I didn’t feel that bad. He said, “This is just starting and we don’t know what is going to happen to you since you ate all the mushrooms and you don’t know what kind you ate. Tonight is going to be a long night for you so we just have to wait and see.” I started to get nervous. “You mean we could die.” He did not look surprised. “Every year there are people who come in here and die from eating poisonous mushrooms, even those who had collected and eaten wild mushrooms for most of their lives. You know how many poisonous mushrooms look exactly like others that are not?” He continued to fill out admission papers for us. He checked our eyes and handed us the papers. “The in-patient complex is behind this clinic. Walk to the back of this building, give these papers to the doctors there and the nurses will show you to your beds. Tonight will be critical. Good luck!”
     We walked out without a word. It was dark already outside. We stood at the corner of the clinic and tried to locate the in-patient courtyard. We couldn’t see anything except the darkness ahead of us. I felt my knees weaken like that one time when I encountered the snake at a farm in high school. We stood there for a long time not knowing what to do. Then a man from the back of building walked toward us. When he came closer, I asked him for directions to the in-patient courtyard. He said, “follow this path from where I came. Can you see that little house ahead of you?” “Yes,” I said, “but there is no light, that is why we didn’t go forward.” “That’s the morgue, but after you pass by the little morgue, your will see the light and you will see the in-patient courtyard.” He answered us and walked away.
     We both felt scared and we just stood there. Should we proceed? The morgue seemed to be carrying us one step closer to death. Going back to the hotel, we knew that we couldn’t even make it and probably would be even worse. The evening wind blew, and we shivered and I felt it was hard to stand. There was only one choice and that was to go ahead. “Come on, let’s go.” I held her hand while we walked toward the morgue in the dark. I felt my legs getting weaker and weaker as we walked slower and slower. We held our breath quietly since we did not want to wake the dead, and we held our hands tighter and tighter. As we walked, we put our feet down so gently so that the morgue would not know we were close to it, so its black door would not open and swallow us.
     When we finally reached the front of the morgue, we could see the lights from the in-patient compound on our left. Though the light was very dim, the light was like a far away lighthouse. It felt like we had been wandering days in a dark sea; we had been surrounded by death. Like the light of life, the urge and hope of life made us suddenly strong. For a moment, we didn’t even think we felt sick; we raised our heads and sped up our walking.
     We walked into the courtyard. The nurse took our admission papers and said, “follow me.” The hospital was just like any other in Chengdu from where I came. It was filled with sick, suffering patients, only here they were all Tibetans. There were beds also in the hallway with patients and their family members around making this hallway so crowded that we could hardly get through. I tried not to step on anyone’s personal belongings. A strong, overwhelming, bad odor mixed with the usual hospital smells made me run to the nearest garbage container. There I threw up for the first time. Most of my dinner was out. I felt lighter right away. I was surprised that the nurse found us a private room since I thought we would stay in the hallway like the people we saw. Our room was by the east-end of the hallway and had two beds. The nurses let us settle down in our beds and put two large basins by our beds. At this time, a male Han doctor came into the room. Never had any male doctor gotten that close to me. Now he bent over me while I lay in the bed hopeless. I felt like I wanted to scream. He pressed down on my stomach and asked, “does that hurt?” I said, “no.” He checked my friend and told us that we would throw up all night long but probably would not die.
     The doctor was right; we kept throwing up all night long, but nothing came out except that yellowish bitter liquid from our stomachs. When we threw up, we had nothing in mind except trying to throw our own stomachs out. While exhausted waiting for the next time to come, we watched our door since we could not close it. We worried as if the Tibetan patients outside in the hallway would come in and throw us out the window. I had never been in the hospital before. I had come so far, so high, almost 3000 meters above sea level, and I felt alone where none of my family or friends knew what was happening to me. I never felt that bad but I could not even cry. By the crack of dawn, we stopped throw up; I was so tired and weak that I didn’t even care what was going to happen to me. I fell asleep.
     A tall, strong male Tibetan nurse woke us up around noon to give us each an IV that would make us feel better. I couldn’t believe that big needle would go into my arm. My grandmother used to have bruises from an IV when she was in the hospital. I started to feel nervous again. How skillful was he? Was I going to see him use a needle to poke endlessly at my arms trying to find a vein like what had happened with my grandmother? I was still here; at least I was not throwing up. What if he gave me a wrong bottle of something that would slowly kill me? I was trying to tell him that I did not need any IV; I wanted to get up but I couldn’t. I lay there hopelessly awaiting my fate.
     Soon he came back with a metal rack that he pushed by my bedside. I saw a bottle hanging from the top, upside down. “What is it?” I asked suspiciously. “Your breakfast,” he smiled and said, “This needle looks big but it will not hurt after I put it into your arm. Just a little pinch when I put it in,” he said in Chinese with a slight Tibetan accent. Just as he said, he finished everything in a moment. “Now, try not to move too much so it will not leak. I will be back before the bottle is empty,” and then he went out. I kept awake for a few minutes watching the drops of liquid run down the tube and just wanted to make sure that I was not hurting. Then I fell asleep.
     We woke up in the late afternoon and I did feel much better. Then we realized that the three men were still back at the hotel. They must be sick too. We were so busy taking care of ourselves that we didn’t even think about our colleagues. We asked the nurse to call the hotel to check on them. They were probably wondering where we were at breakfast and lunch. When they rushed to the hospital to see us, they did remember that they did not feel great after playing cards. Two of them threw up once, but one did not. They thought they might have drunk too much alcohol. They went to bed after the first round of cards. They were fine in the morning. We thought the reason the one did not get sick and the other two only a little was because they did not eat that much mushrooms, but mostly pork and drank the liquor.
     We went back to sleep shortly after they were gone. The next time I woke, I saw that our IVs were almost empty. I started to worry again. I heard that if air goes into your blood vessels you would die. There was no sign of the doctor or nurses so we waited and waited and I saw that my friend’s bottle was empty with only the tube with liquid still in it. Mine was almost empty too. I got up and out from my bed and took down the bottle and held it in my hand, and started to walk to the doctor’s office passing by the Tibetan patients in the hallway again. I had to say it was much easier than when I came in the previous evening. The Tibetan nurse saw me right away when I appeared by his office. “Why are you out of your bed, What do you think you are doing here? You really want to die.” He said. “My friend’s and my bottles are empty,” I said. “Yes, yes, now your blood is replacing the empty bottle,” he said with a very upsetting tone and came over and took the bottle from my hand and raised it much higher. “Wow, I didn’t notice my blood in the bottle when I walked here,” I was horrified when I saw my blood out in the tube as he dragged me back to my room.
     “Obviously you are better and I don’t think you need any more IVs.” He said and started to take care of my friend at the other bed. Then mine. We checked out the next morning. While we walked out the in-patient courtyard, we passed by the little morgue. We started to laugh, and we laughed so hard for a minute that we had scared ourselves the night before because we felt a force inside. We walked out the hospital gate, and I did not tell my family. 
     We did not have a penny and no one asked any money so I think it was part of  free care.