Wednesday, July 27, 2011

MAD at home

July 25, 2011
We have been home for over three weeks, and it is time for this blog to go on hiatus.  In about two months I am going to give a talk entitled, Travel as Transformational Experience: The Story of MAD and TAJ and their Trip Around the World.  As I pull that together I will post at least part of it on this site.  There are many stories from our travels that have not made it into print.  I still hope to write them down before they escape from my memory.  
I am playing with the idea of starting a blog called “MAD at home.”  I have found my writing practice very therapeutic and I hope to continue to write but I find this more challenging at home.  I also find myself being angry more when I am home and I want to sort that out and get to the root of it.  The second week I was home, two of the toilets backed up in our house, Oliver, our younger dog, got sick, and my car would not start.  Had my car started I might have driven straight to the airport and booked a ticket to somewhere far away.  Unpacking, cleaning, sorting through piles and dealing with broken things all required more emotional energy than I had to give and I found myself sliding into my long established habits of being the overly responsible middle child and resenting every minute of it.  I needed to review that lesson about there is no “Y” in “happiness,” and remember that the only thing I really have control over is my reaction to these situations.  All of that is still a work in progress.
The summer of 2006, we bought a small house near Knife Lake in Mora, Minnesota.  My brother owns a house across the road right on the lakeshore.  While the house has needed a fair amount of work over the years it has always been my refuge.  Unfortunately, last summer we had a major mouse invasion.  The few times I made it up to Mora, I spent the entire weekend setting mouse traps, cleaning up mouse poop, and listening to these uninvited guests scurry around inside the walls when I was trying to sleep.  At the end of the summer I did what I hated to do – and put out some D-Con mouse poison.  In the fall my brother checked the house and removed five dead mice from the living room.  This spring a neighbor set traps through out the kitchen and basement, and removed a few other critters.  For weeks now the traps have not been touched and this past weekend Josh and I came up to deal with the damage.  After two full days of vacuuming, washing and scrubbing, I am feeling some sense of this house being the refuge it once was. 
Whenever it seemed like too much work to face the three-hour drive to get there I would remember my mantra “Away is Good.”  Once here, I have just enough distance to get some perspective on my life in St. Peter.  I have made a commitment to myself to try to come up here once a month.  Now I need to say that out loud and hold myself to it.
I sincerely hope to travel internationally more in the future, but I realize our “trip around the world” was most likely a once in a lifetime experience.  What I need to do now is reflect on what I learned from that experience and figure out how those lessons inform my day-to-day life.  I have not yet figured out how to schedule the required time for serious reflection and writing into my life at home.  Getting away to Europe or Israel or China is not in the immediate future.  But getting away to Mora, Minnesota is manageable.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Homeward Bound

Later today we will leave Mainland China.  We will once again board the Ferry to cross the Pearl River Estuary to Hong Kong and after spending the night in HK begin the very long jaunt home.  Hong Kong to Detroit (roughly 17 hours) plus an hour and twenty minutes in Detroit where we hope to get through customs and make our connection, then Detroit to Minneapolis (two hours), and once all of our luggage arrives - an hour and half back to St. Peter.
Curiously I am almost at a loss for words.  My anxiety level has been on the rise for the past few weeks.  I am ready to be home – but not excited about the time and effort it will take to get between here and home.  Most of the apartment’s household items have been boxed, hauled up to UIC, and left for future visiting faculty. 
This past week was filled with many meals and many goodbyes.  On Tuesday, we went with my good friends Kris and Yanyan to a YumCha restaurant in Zhuhai for morning tea.  Tuesday evening, I went out with five other colleagues for seafood.  Yesterday, I had lunch with Sandra and Andy, two of my colleagues from “Whole Person Education.” Sandra directs the choir at UIC and has also been a good friend.  After we had finished our lunch she quietly sang the Jewish folk song, “Shalom, my friends,” to me.   “Till we meet again, till we meet again, Shalom, shalom.”
Last night, Bob, Josh and I walked to Tangjia and ate dinner at a favorite restaurant that we simply refer to as the “dumpling place.”  No one speaks English there, but we have figured out a number of items on the menu we all like.  We walked back to the apartment through the streets of Tangjia, and Josh said, “Remember the first time we walked through here?” I want to process what these past months in China have been all about  - but right now everything just feels raw. 
So instead, for now, I focus on the task at hand:  The last of the packing and cleaning up.  One step at a time – a van to the port; the Ferry to Hong Kong; the airport express to the hotel; the airport express to the Hong Kong airport; a plane; customs; a plane; a car and home.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Songs in my Head

I don’t transition quickly.  We leave China in about ten days but I have been processing this departure for the past few months.  A wide-ranging musical soundtrack running through my head often accompanies my ruminations.
The 1973 hit by Seals and Crofts, “We May Never Pass this Way Again,” was the tune spinning in my mind as I rode the bus home after my final meeting at UIC.  Yesterday was the day I officially “checked out” at UIC.  That involved getting many signatures including, but not limited to, documenting I did not have any unreturned library books, turning in my staff handbook and I.D. card, getting permission to keep my UIC e-mail address until the end of the month, and turning in my office keys.  
It also involved a final divisional meeting with the Board of Examiners to discuss any deviations from the “grade distribution” rules.  (Regardless of class size, faculty are only allowed to give 10% of the students the grade of A or A-, 15% can be given a B+, etc.)  Anyone who knows me as a teacher can understand why these grade restrictions made me completely nuts.  I think Benjamin Bloom got it right when he wrote, “ The normal curve is a distribution most appropriate to chance and random activity.  Education is a purposeful activity and we seek to have students learn what we would teach.  Therefore, if we are effective, the distribution of grades will be anything but a normal curve.  In fact, a normal curve is evidence of our failure to teach.”
Above & below: friends at United International College

I was thinking about my colleagues in the general education division, when I started hearing the Seals and Crofts song.  Over half of the faculty in our division are not returning in the fall.  A few of us are heading back to the U.S., one secured a position in Hong Kong, and for others, it was simply time to move on.  Like faculty at every college and university I have ever known – this can be a cantankerous group.   I remember back when I was co-chair of the Faculty Development Center, I went to a conference where a wise-cracking speaker defined  “faculty” as a  “a group of individuals who think otherwise.”  While I sometimes question the subject of the bickering and arguing, I appreciate the passion and principles it represents.  In the U.S. a frequent topic of faculty discourse is parking or rather the lack there of.   In the GEO division our fire-filled arguments centered around when a meeting is an official meeting requiring minutes, and when it is an informal gathering therefore not requiring minutes.  I am content to leave that argument behind me.
About a month ago I started hearing the refrain from the 1969 tune by Joe South and The Believers.
Don’t it make you want to go home?
Don’t it make you want to go home?
All God’s children get weary when the roam,
Don’t it make you want to go home?

It is true, I am weary and do feel it is time to go home.  But dang!  It has been quite a ride!  Josh and I have packed in enough memories to last us a lifetime.  My teaching responsibilities this semester prevented me from spending as much time writing as I would have liked.  I hope over the next few months to write more about our experiences in China before they slip into the fog of my middle-aged memory.

Josh with his classmates at QSI
A few weeks ago Josh attended the graduation ceremony and celebration for his friend, Kyoka.  She was the only senior at his school this year and she will be attending Temple University of Tokyo in Japan next year.  As part of the ceremony Josh and his classmates sang the Beatles song “In my Life” to Kyoka, and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.  In fact, just thinking about the opening line, “There are places I remember,” gets me a little weepy. 

Later today, Bob, Josh and I are leaving for Hong Kong for a few days.  We decided against doing any long distance traveling during the last weeks here and instead are spending time with the people we have come to call friends, and in the places we enjoy.

The days are going quickly, and I am once again negotiating this outward curve.  I am trying to stay present to the experience of being here, since I know “we may never pass this way again.”  But lately I have been hearing Bonnie Raitt singing to me “And home sings me of sweet things, my life there has it’s own wings, fly over the mountains, though I’m standing still.”

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

For My Story Students UIC, Spring 2011 (Written in the style of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children)

Tell me a story.  Tell me about your mother and your father and the place where you grew up.  Tell me about the time you rolled off the bed, or hid in the room with the piano, or were trapped in the elevator, or rode home from the pool on your father’s bicycle looking like the girl in Aladdin. Tell me how your mother stayed up late to fix the dress you had torn on the rollercoaster, or encouraged you to be a tumbler, or had that life-changing conversation with you. 
Tell me about your grandmother who waited patiently for you in the rain, who got angry when you played computer games instead of doing your homework, who whispered that you were her favorite, who kept a Buddha in her home, who slept with you outside after the earthquake.
Tell me about your grandfather, who loved his garden, who worked so hard for his education, who held your hand and listened to you ask why Uncle Cow did not wear shoes, who taught you to play mahjong, who made special dumplings just for you. 
Tell me about preparing meals with parents and debating over how to indentify counterfeit money. Tell me about the moment you knew they all loved you.
Tell me about the time when you were a sword fighting woman warrior, or stood up to the man who smashed your bicycle, or the time you got a cockroach in your hair, or when you found a cockroach in your rice, or when your neighbors ate your pet dove, or when you accidently drown a duck.  No, don’t tell me that one.
Tell me about where you lived when you were young and where you live now.  Tell me about the town where all the people can sing and dance, the place where the pandas live, where the snow smells like peppermint, where the Goddess was to tired to mend the hole in the sky so the village is always filled with gentle rain. 
Tell me about how you started keeping a journal, writing in your diary, writing a blog, speaking in front of an audience.  Tell me how you discovered your voice.  
Tell me about the mysterious stranger who pulled you out of the swimming pool, or sat by you on a bench and told you her mother was now a star, or the one who has been married to your grandmother for forty years.  Tell me those stories. 
Tell me about when the Japanese soldiers came to your ancestors’ village, of the hard choices that were made when there was one more child who they could not afford to feed, about the foster son who betrayed your great grandfather.  Tell me the story you only heard one time.
Tell me about the time during secondary school when the floor began to shake and at first you thought it was a heavy truck, but then you realized it was an earthquake. Tell me how you were the last one to leave the classroom. 
Tell me about the time you felt incredibly alone and afraid.  When you were sure a stranger was following you, that someone was trying to kidnap you, that a murderer was on the loose and how you were so relieved to get home.  Tell me about the time you watched the horror movie and screamed until the supervisor pounded on your door, or could not get out of bed even to use the bathroom.  Tell me how the picture you created saved you from the water ghost and when you discovered darkness could be beautiful.
Tell me about the times when it was not ghost stories but truly terribly times when you thought you might drown, or die from serious illness, or cried yourself to sleep every night out of sheer loneliness.  Tell me how you learned that every day and every life was precious
Tell me about the food you love, the spicy noodles, the soft-boiled chicken, the New Year’s Eve dinner, the Mantis Shrimp pie your grandparents prepared to celebrate your acceptance at UIC.  Tell me about your secret garden, the cave, the green grass, the flowers, the river, the Buddhist temple, and even the crowded city street, that all provided solace for you when you were filled with grief.
Tell me how terrifying it is to be a year four student with more work to be done than is humanly possible. Tell me about quiet rooftops and magical books, and close friends who provided comfort and care when you needed it.
Tell me about your hopes and your dreams. Tell me what’s next.
Tell me how week after week, forty-eight people moved the tables and chairs to make a circle because they wanted to see each others’ faces when they told stories.
Tell me that story. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Brief Update

First of all, I am feeling better every day and absolutely sure the worst of this is behind me.  On Monday I saw the specialist in HK for the second time.  I did not have Dengue Fever.  The hepatitis tests are not back from the lab.  One disconcerting thing was that he re-checked my immunity for Hep A and B.  I was vaccinated for Hep A before I went to Namibia (should last lifetime) six years ago, and for Hep B before I left for China.  I show immunity for Hep B, but no immunity for Hep A.  It is as if I never got that two-shot vaccination series.   I am returning to see the doctor on Friday and at that time I am going to get re-vaccinated for Hep A, and the results of the Hep E test should be back.  
I still get tired easily, but aside from that my only continuing symptom is some cramping in my legs. The doctor is not sure if this is from the original viral infection, or from the allergic reaction to the antibiotic I was given.  

Also, he said that after researching this antibiotic he learned that so many people have allergic reactions to this antibiotic ("Avelox") that current best practice is to not prescribe it unless there are no other options.  He then said, "Apparently Mainland China has not gotten this message."

My potassium levels are back to normal.  He also did an EKG to check my heart because the weird muscles spasms were not originally limited to my legs - my arms and sometimes my chest muscles felt strange.  All good with the heart.  

My liver function is improving, and he said to resume a normal diet just to avoid alcohol.  That I can do.  My colleague Victor accompanied me on this last trip to Hong Kong.  Due to the Ferry schedule, we arrived about an hour and a half before my appointment. In a high rise next to the building containing the doctor's office, we found a "360 Market" - which is a branch of "Whole Foods Market" in Hong Kong. I thought briefly I had gone to heaven.  They had a large "food court" on the second floor.  I bought a few things to bring home for Josh, and had a good lunch.  If I feel up to it, I plan to do some serious shopping there when I go back on Friday. 

Yesterday, I went to campus and taught my story class.  Really all I needed to do was sit and listen to students read stories.  That went well and I was happy to be back in the classroom.  I came right home after class, rested, did a little light housekeeping around the apartment and mostly took care of Josh, who came down with a nasty cold over the weekend. Given all he has been through the last few weeks, I am not surprised.  Fortunately, we arrived in China well equipped with Advil, Tylenol, Sudafed, and two “Z-packs” (zithromax).  Unfortunately, I had not taken this full arsenal to Beijing with us.  As his cough and congestion got worst, Dr. Mom decided it was time to start at Z-pack.  It was a good choice, and probably 12 hours after the first dose he started to show some improvement.  Today (Wednesday) we are both spending a quiet day at home, continuing to improve.

A number of people have suggested that I come home immediately, and I must confess that during the worst of this if there had been a Star Trek method to beam me home I would have taken it.  However, I really do not want this experience to be my closing chapter on China.  My general education class at UIC in The Theory and Practice of Story, has been one of the most rewarding teaching experiences in my long teaching career.  I did not want to leave without giving some kind of closure to this class. 

I will return to see the specialist in Hong Kong on Friday, and then hope to be done with this whole illness episode of the saga.  Bob will join us in about three weeks, and our family of three will spend the last three weeks in China together.  We are excited to share with him all that we have loved about our time here. 

One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, has a line in a recent poem that states, “I love this world even in its hard places.”  I cannot say I love the hard places, but I continue to love this world in spite of its hard places.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Did Not Turned Out As Planned

On Thursday, April 28th, Josh and I set off with Yanyan and her parents for Chongqing for her wedding.  From Zhuhai we took a bus to the airport in Guangzhou, which was about a two-hour trip.  Yanyan’s parents had never been in an airplane before and I enjoyed their excitement in the whole adventure.  Weddings in China are really all about the groom.  The groom’s family plans the entire wedding, pays for the entire wedding and the guests are almost all from the groom’s family. The groom’s “English name” is Ryan.  (Just as I have a “Chinese name”  -Lu Xin Mei – most younger Chinese people have an “English name.”)  We arrived in Chongqing at close to midnight, and Ryan’s family had dinner waiting for us at the apartment.  It was the first time Yanyan and Ryan’s parents met each other.  It was perhaps 1:30 AM when we finally got to sleep for the night.
Ryan’s family was very excited to host “westerners” as guests at the wedding and, being very proud of their city, Chongqing, wanted Josh and me to see as much of it as possible.  Li Li, the groom’s sister, and the best man (who’s name I never quite got) took us to the old market streets, to dinner at a “hotpot restaurant” and out on boat ride on the river to see the lights of the city.  It was all very interesting, but also insanely hot and humid.   And, I was exhausted.  We arrived back at the hotel where we were staying after midnight.   We had thought someone would be getting us at about ten the next morning, but at 6:30 AM, Li Li knocked on our door and told us we needed to be ready to go in an hour.  We were taken back to Ryan’s apartment, where we were encouraged to have some breakfast at the little noodle shop on the street, and then the wedding party was loaded into decorated cars and set off to get the bride.  Yanyan was staying at a friend’s apartment.  We all arrived at the apartment door, where Ryan, carrying the bridal bouquet, needed to beg and plead to be let in.  Once inside the apartment, Ryan needed to continue to work to receive his bride.  Yanyan was tucked away in a bedroom, and Ryan had to sing for her, and slide red envelope containing “lucky money” under the door, until finally the door was opened and Ryan was able to give Yanyan the bridal bouquet and they were united.  Next, we all traveled to a park where photographs were taken.  Ryan and Yanyan were one of six bridal couples we saw in the park that morning.  And from the park, we went to the restaurant where the actual ceremony was to be held. 
There were about 200 people in the restaurant, and with the exception of the bride’s parents, Josh and me, and two of Yanyan’s close friends, all were friends and relatives of the groom.  There was a decorated raised platform at one end of the restaurant, fairly loud disco type music played the entire time, and a young female M.C. directed the ceremony.  Yanyan entered with her father and was handed over to Ryan.  The four parents sat close to the raised platform.  There was a very simple exchange of vows and rings.  “Someone” needed to give their approval to the couple’s marriage and I was asked to be this someone.   I just needed to say a few words in English, saying I approved this marriage then say “Zhu ni men xin hun kuai le,” which means “I wish you a happy marriage.”  Of course everyone applauded my effort to sputter out a few words in Chinese.  Each of the fathers said something, which I assume was wishing the couple a happy marriage, then the couple served tea to their parents, and the ceremony was over.  Yanyan changed out of her white wedding dress, into a beautiful red dress (red for good luck) and the guest ate their meal while the couple greeted guests at each table.  
Yanyan and her  parents - at airport

Light show on the river

Ryan and Yanyan

Me and Yanyan after the ceremony.

The center of the table was covered with dishes containing food, and the wait staff continued, and continued, and continued, and continued to bring more dishes to the table.  I will guess they served at least twenty different dishes.  All the food is placed on a large “lazy Susan” in the center of the table, and you just take from whatever dishes appeal to you.  Fortunately, Yanyan’s friend, Jessica, was sitting with us.  She spoke excellent English and explained what each dish was. 
After the meal, Josh and I were taken back to the hotel where we were able to rest for a number of hours, before being picked up and taken to another “hotpot restaurant” for dinner.  Chongqing is known for its hot and spicy food and Josh, who loves spicy food, was really enjoying it.  I am not such a big fan of spicy food, and I was trying to be very selective and eat only what I thought would sit well with me. After the meal Josh went with the groom and bridal party to a Karaoke bar, and I returned the hotel to rest.  Josh got home about 11 PM, and about the same time, I started feeling like I was running a fever.  I took some Advil, felt a bit better and went to sleep for the night. 
The next day, I was clearly feverish, but suppressing the fever with Advil, we got on a plane and flew to Beijing.  I knew we were staying in a nice hotel in Beijing, and I thought if we could just get to the hotel and I could rest, I would be okay.  Unfortunately, it all turned far more complicated.
I ran out of Advil, and sent Josh out in search of a pharmacy to find something to suppress a fever.  He came back with a kind of aspirin that you dissolve in water like “alka-seltzer.”  I tried this and it did not help.  I decided I needed to seek medical help.  The hotel said there was an excellent hospital, five minutes away by cab, which had special emergency services for foreigners.  We got in a cab, and were taken to a spot on the street and told to walk down about 100 meters to the entrance.  We found the entrance and went in.  In Chinese hospitals you must pay for everything first.  Josh quickly mastered the system.  You are handed a piece of paper, you take it the cashier, you bring the receipt back and then the medicine is provided, or the test is run.  I had blood drawn, and when the results came back the doctor asked if I had a history of liver disease.  He said my liver counts were abnormal, and my white blood cell count was very low.  He thought I had a viral infection, with perhaps a secondary bacterial infection.  He prescribed three days of an antibiotic, gave me two different kinds of Tylenol, and then sent us back to the hotel.  For some reason they do not allow taxis within 100 meters of the hotel, so we walked to the main street and then tried to hail a cab.  The temperature had dropped, I was cold and feverish, and finally we got a cab and returned to the hotel.  That evening, I took the antibiotic, the Tylenol, and dropped off to sleep for the night.  The next day when I woke up I was dizzy, and had a great deal of trouble seeing clearly and thinking clearly.  I remember thinking “I really am sick.  Good thing I got that antibiotic.”  I slept on and off most of the day.  Later in the day I took the second antibiotic pill, and a short while later – vomited.  We just had room service send food up and in my befuddled state I continued to think if I just rested I would get better.  The third day, my lips started to swell, and I knew something was really wrong, so Josh and I headed back to the hospital.  I met with another doctor, who immediately realized I had an allergic reaction to the antibiotic, and wanted me to stay in the hospital for the night.  More blood work was done, and I was hooked up to I.V.’s to treat the allergic reaction.  Once again, I was told my liver was not functioning properly. 
To understand this situation more completely I need to explain a little more about Chinese Hospitals.  Doctors see patients, and prescribe treatments.  The nurses carry out the doctors’ orders, give injection, hook up I.V.’s, draw blood etc.  And the family does EVERYTHING else.  No food or even water is provided in the hospital.  No one helps you with your I.V. etc, when you need to use the bathroom.  No one really even checks on you.  If there is a problem, your family informs the nurse or doctor. 
I knew this was the system, but I thought since this hospital had “services for foreigners” they might be a bit more accommodating.  I was not going ask Josh to sleep on the floor next to my bed in the hospital, and sent him back by himself to stay in the hotel.  Kattie, the tour guide we were supposed to work with in Beijing, came to the hospital with her boyfriend.  They brought apples, and stayed with me for a few hours.  She assured me that the hospital where I was staying, Peking Union Teaching Hospital, was one of the best in China.  She also told me that on the other side of the hospital, not the special entrance for foreigners, there were many, many people sleeping on the floor, waiting to see one the doctors the next day.  It was one of those moments, when my privilege as a foreigner was very evident to me.
Needless to say, I did not sleep very much if at all that night.  The next day, Josh returned at 7:00 AM, they did more blood tests, continued to talk about my liver not functioning and hooked me up to more I.V.’s.  I this point I felt I really needed to sleep and drink lots of fluids as I was feeling dehydrated.  With the doctor’s permission, I returned to hotel to rest for the afternoon, and then returned to hospital for one last I.V. in the evening.  We got back to the hotel quite late that night and drank lots, and lots of water and went to sleep.  The next day I was feeling quite a bit better but my legs were cramping and I felt quite fatigued.   I was feeling so bad that Josh had not gotten to see anything in Beijing besides the hotel and hospital and decided we could at least go see Tiananmen Square, which was only about a ten minute taxi ride from our hotel.  We did that and returned to the hotel, where I just rested, drank lots of water, and knew I had to get back to Zhuhai where I had more support. 
On Friday, we took a taxi to the airport, boarded a plane and headed back to Guangzhou.  Our mantra was “a taxi, a plane, a bus, a taxi.” Getting home would not be easy – but I knew I needed to get where we had more support and where Josh would not have to handle everything by himself.  I was feeling weak, my legs were cramping, and no matter how much I was drinking my mouth was incredibly dry.  The weather was so bad in Guangzhou, the plane could not land, and it flew to the Zhuhai airport.  The Zhuhai airport is actually two hours away from where we live, but I convinced the flight attendant that I was very sick, and we were allowed to get off the plane, instead of sitting on the plane until the weather cleared up and it made the twenty minute flight back to Guangzhou.  I could not get my bag, which had been checked, but I decided to sacrifice the bag and just get home.  I filled out many forms for the bag, we hailed a cab and two long hours later, we were in our apartment. 
My friend, Kris Ho, came over the next morning and brought rehydration salts that you add to water and drink.  She also cooked simple food for me that I could eat.  I rested, and let my friends take care of me for the weekend.  I knew I was no longer feverish, but I was extremely fatigued, and the cramping in my legs was persisting.  I suspected my electrolyte balance was messed up and was concerned my potassium level had dropped too low.
I informed the international education office at UIC what was going on, and made the decision to return to Zhuhai Hospital #5 on Monday morning.  Kris Ho accompanied me to the hospital, where Olivia, a nurse who speaks very good English and helps westerners negotiate the system, met us.  Olivia escorted us to the admitting doctor, who said, I needed to see a psychologist because I just thought I was sick.  Olivia convinced the doctor I needed further treatment, and I was directed to get a chest x-ray.  The admitting doctor looked at the x-ray and concluded I had pneumonia.  He then ordered a CT scan and to have me admitted.  I needed to make a deposit of 2,000 RMB, and then I was taken to a room with three beds, that I would have to myself.  I even had my own bathroom with  “western toilet.” Luxury.
By this time Jessica from the International Education office at UIC, and Yanyan had joined Kris and me at the hospital.  Jessica brought fruit, and Yanyan volunteered to spend the nights with me.  The CT scan showed I did not have pneumonia.  But, as I suspected, my potassium was very, very low and blood tests continued to show my liver was not functioning well.  I spent two days in Zhuhai Hospital #5, having I.V.’s to rehydrate me and restore my potassium levels, and some kind of “anti-virals.” The second day, Jessica, from International Education, returned with Dr. Jane Liu, the UIC health service physician.  Dr. Jane was able to speak to the doctors at the hospital, and was very reassuring that many kinds of viruses could affect my liver, and that my other blood chemistry numbers were better.  After spending two nights in Hospital #5, I was given the choice to stay an additional night or be discharged. I chose to be discharged. 
Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, my husband, Bob, has spoken to my brother Mike who travels internationally on a regular basis.  My brother’s company, Accenture, has a contract with an international emergency medical organization – International SOS.  Mike had contacted this organization, and a physician from Hong Kong called me.  Based on our conversation, this physician suggested I see an infectious disease specialist in Hong Kong as soon as I felt well enough to make the trip.  She also suggested that I may have contracted Hepatitis E, a food borne form of Hepatitis for which there is no vaccination, and is prevalent in extremely warm climates.  She said Mainland China did not have the technical sophistication to make a specific diagnosis of this kind, and the specialist in Hong Kong did. 
I decided to spend Thursday resting, and make the trip to Hong Kong on Friday.  Charlie O, a colleague who began at UIC at the same time as I did, heard about my illness and called Wednesday evening.  He offered to escort me to the doctor in Hong Kong.  The trip to Hong Kong went very smoothly, and I felt very good about the doctor, Dr. Lai Jak Yiu, who I saw there.  He spoke excellent English, and was also able to read all the notes from both the hospital in Beijing and Zhuhai.  He was very encouraging and said that I was clearly in recovery from the viral infection that had brought me down almost two weeks earlier.  

He is running a great deal of lab work to pinpoint more precisely what happened. Frighteningly, his first hypothesis is that I contracted Dengue Fever from a mosquito bite.  The other possibility was as the International SOS doctor suggested - Hepatitis E.

What ever it was, I am past the worst of it.  Today, Saturday, I feel about 80% recovered.  I am still weak, but I feel so much better than I have felt since this all began.  I will spend a very quiet weekend at home, and on Monday I will return to Hong Kong to meet with the specialist again, and go over the complete lab results.  
I am still in awe of how Josh took charge and handled the situation in Beijing.  I told him he could write his college entrance essay exam on how at age 14 he saved his mother’s life when she became seriously ill in Beijing, China. 
During the long days in the hospital I needed to keep my mind occupied so I did not dwell on negative outcomes. I was thinking of the six-word memoirs featured in Newsweek magazine. In terms of our holiday trip to Beijing, “Did not turn out as planned,”  was my six-word memoir. 


Monday, April 18, 2011

A Birthday Surprise

Last week I received a birthday greeting e-mail from my friend Sue who lives in New Hampshire.  In it she said, “I hope for you something unexpectedly beautiful and something unexpectedly exciting!”  I don’t think a trip to the Zhuhai Hospital #5 Emergency room was what she had in mind.
Josh had left early Monday morning for a service-learning trip to Shenzhen. Junior high students from his school, together with junior high students from an international school in Shenzhen, spent three days participating in outdoor activities and volunteering at a community care center for migrant children. Shenzhen, often called the Overnight City, has a huge population of factory workers who migrated there from more distant, and often rural, areas.  (There is a documentary film about the effect of all this on families that has received critical acclaim called Last Train Home.) 
On Tuesday I had a perfectly lovely day.  I met with my class from 8 -10 AM, met with my colleague Kris to plan our class for the next day, then spent the afternoon shopping with my friend Yanyan.  I even found a dress to wear to Yanyan’s wedding in two weeks, which was the major goal of our shopping.  Given the fact I am a giant by Mainland China standards this was quite an accomplishment.  That evening, I contentedly read a little farther in Peter Hessler’s Country Driving, and went to sleep for the night, happy for the opportunity uneventfully celebrate my birthday by sleeping in a little later in the morning.
At six am I woke up with serious discomfort in the lower right side of my back that radiated into the right side of my abdomen. I absolutely could not figure out what it was, and no amount of repositioning seemed to make it any better.  I got up, moved around, stretched on floor, and started to get concerned.  Sometimes it seemed a little less severe and I thought I must have some gas trapped in my twisty, turny intestines.  (I happen to know I have very twisty turny intestines since I have had the pleasure of multiple colonoscopies at past points in my life.)
I sent a text message to my colleague Kris, who lives in the same apartment complex, and asked if she would go with me to the small traditional Chinese medicine clinic located in the clubhouse within complex where we live.  She agreed, and met me at my apartment a short time later.  While walking to the clinic the pain subsided a bit, and once again, I thought it was something that would pass and I would make it to school later that day.  Kris explained what was going on to the doctor there, who listened to my pulse and suggested that my circulation was poor.  He recommended acupuncture, and I agreed to try that to see if it would help.
When laying on my stomach the doctor first did some massage work on my back, and the pain diminished.  He then placed the acupuncture needles at strategic places and told me to try to relax.  After awhile he removed the needles and asked me to roll on to my back.  I did this and the pain came back with a vengeance.  He tried a few more things then suggested if the pain continued I should go to the hospital.  Kris walked me back to my apartment and I encouraged her to go teach her class promising I would call if I needed her.
Then I did what any 21st Century person does when grappling with an unknown ailment.  I googled “pain in lower right side of abdomen.” The first thing that came up was “appendicitis.”  There is an added complication to this possibility because in my family the appendix is often “retrocecal” meaning it is located behind the part of the intestine called the “cecum” and no amount of pushing and prodding on your abdomen elicits the response that normally indicates appendicitis.  In other words, even doctors who speak perfect English and practice in the U.S. – often miss this one.   
I decided it was time to go to the hospital, and I called Jessica, the staff member in International Education who is my “go-to” person whenever I don’t know how to handle something. Jessica spoke to her supervisor, who called me back and said a student would come to my apartment and escort me to the hospital.  Then I sent an e-mail to my husband saying I needed to speak to him on Skype and to call me right away.  By this point, my pain was escalating and I knew I really needed to get to the hospital.  Bob called and I spoke to him for a few minutes and explained what was going on, sent off a few e-mails to explain why I could not be in class, cancelled my rehearsal, and called Josh’s principal in case other arrangements needed to be made for Josh when he returned from his trip later that day.  My door buzzer rang, my escorts Veer and Vankcine (two first year students from UIC) had arrived and they helped me down to the waiting car (with a very kind driver) and off we went to the hospital.  
Veer (left), Michele and Vankcine.
I knew exactly where Hospital #5 was, because I had passed it on the bus multiple times.  I knew the Hospital was only 10-15 minutes from the apartment, but at this point, on a scale of 1 – 10, the pain I was feeling was easily a nine.  I was sweating profusely, griping the door handle and praying not only that I would be okay, but that I would not pass out before we got there.  Veer, Vankcine and the driver (who’s name I never got) were my guardian angels for the next five hours. 
Hospital #5 is very large and institutional.  And, we had arrived close to lunchtime.  But Veer and Vankcine got me registered and into see a doctor in just a few minutes.  The doctor thumped the left side of my back (fine) then thumped the right side of my back, which almost sent me through the roof and resulted in me yelping very loudly.  He ordered an ultra sound to be performed, and Veer ran off to find a wheel chair for me, and Vankcine held my hand and kept reassuring me I would be okay.
Off we went, kind driver, Veer, Vankcine, and me the wheelchair, to another floor to find the “ultrasonics unit.”  When we arrived, we could see through the glass doors there was a chain around the handles.  The staff was having lunch.  But my escorts were not to be stopped and they started shouting through the opening between the doors.  Soon a nurse came out, and they took me inside and a few minutes later I was being examined by the ultra sound technician.  I explained the whole business about my appendix not being located in the usual spot and then the technician spoke to the students.  They translated to me, “he said he understands quite a bit of English, but does not speak it well.  It is not your appendix.”  He asked me roll on to my stomach and for some reason the pain escalated again.  After a few minutes the technician cleaned the ultra sound gel off my skin and spoke to my faithful translators.  “He says you are building up fluid around your kidney, because you have a kidney stone blocking.”  Now I had heard that passing a kidney stone could be as painful as childbirth but I never quite believed it.  About four years ago, I had ongoing discomfort in my back and was diagnosed with having small kidney stones, told to drink more water and reassured that I would pass them.  But that experience was nothing like this. 
At this point we returned to the main area of the emergency room, and Veer ran off to get the medications.  The pain was so bad I was completely nauseated.  In Chinese hospitals you need to pay for your medications (and treatments) before they give them to you.  I was given two injections (one for pain, and one for the “kidney stones”) and then hooked up to an I.V., which I assumed was to hydrate me.  After about an hour the hydration was working and I needed to use the bathroom, so Vankcine held my I.V. bag and escorted me to a typical bathroom found in commercial buildings in China.  This bathroom contained what we not so affectionately refer to as “squats.”  (No toilet, just a porcelain toilet bowl submerged in the floor, with a space on each side for your feet.) I managed to use the bathroom, and get back to bed in the E.R, before the nausea took over and I started vomiting.  A short time later, they switched my I.V. to a glucose solution, and I actually started to feel quite a bit better and even dozed off a little. About four in the afternoon, I was released with a bag of medication, sterile needles, I.V solutions, and instructions to drink more water, keep exercising (to help the kidney stone move along) and return, to either this hospital or the one closer to UIC , the next two days for injections and I.V.’s.  At this point I was so relieved to be out of the pain I was almost giddy.
My two trusty translators and the kind driver (who had checked on us all afternoon), took me back to my apartment, where I called Josh’s principal (told him I was back home and instructed Josh to take an taxi back to the apartment when he arrived at the Port), sent an e-mail to Bob (“I’m okay  - it was a kidney stone”), drank lots of water, and answered the phone a lot in between multiple trips to the bathroom. 
I tried to take if fairly easy the next few days.  Sandra, the administrative assistant in the General Education office, escorted me to the hospital for my follow up I.V’s, on Thursday, and Genie the T.A. in the General Education office, relieved Sandra of her escort duty and sat with me the remaining time on Thursday, and all of Friday.  Each time the two I.V.’s took about four hours to administer.  Needless to say I learned a lot more about Genie’s life, and she learned a lot more about mine.
So yes, I did have some unexpected excitement on my birthday.  I am not someone who believes bad things happen for a reason.  Sometimes bad things just happen. 

Acknowledging that, I will also say there was a lot of unexpected beauty in this experience.  I mentioned in an earlier post the famous quote from A Streetcar Named Desire about being dependent on the kindness of strangers.  I cannot say enough about how kind and supportive Veer and Vankcine were throughout this experience.  I got together with them on Friday to settle our finances.  (Which by the way, came to a total of 787 RMB or $120.)  I told them it was a really scary experience to be in so much pain, but they had helped to make the whole thing less frightening.  Then they mentioned, for the first time, that they had been scared too.  We agreed to meet for tea or a meal later in the semester. 
While I felt very alone in the early morning hours on Wednesday, once I made one phone call, an entire support structure fell into place and I experienced heartwarming care and concern from students, staff, colleagues and administrators.  I would classify that as both unexpected and beautiful. 

Josh posted a note on my facebook wall that basically said it all.  "Hi Mom happy birthday! I know it may not be the best birthday you've had but you will remember this one.  Love Josh."

Indeed I will.