New York to Beijing – Emergency! Going Clubbing at the Clinic

shunyinew 2

Journal Entry #9

Emergency! Going Clubbing at the Clinic

I woke very early on our 6th day in Beijing. Jet lag was not the reason. For the past few days, I had begun to notice that my lower molar was giving me pain. That is what woke me up on this particular Saturday morning. It was around 6:00am. During the night my jaw was swelling along with the pain. So, when I got up, after taking more Advil, I opened my laptop, got on the school’s wifi, and tried to search the web for dental issues. I had an idea that it might be an abscessed tooth. It is the tooth that I had already had a root canal procedure on a few years ago. From what I gathered online, it seemed to verify that this was the possibility. I knew that I needed to get antibiotics as soon as possible so the pain would begin to decrease. There was also some information that mentioned keeping the infection from spreading to the jaw bone and seeking care immediately.

I was worried. I usually am not. But, as you all know, we have just arrived in China. I had no idea where to go for the dentist, and no idea if anything would be opened early on a Saturday morning. I didn’t even know if we had our new insurance cards yet. And, I knew something about needing a passport to get services. Because we were applying for residency for the year, we had to hand ours in to government services for processing. This would take a month.

I needed Soren’s help at this point so I woke him up. He took one look at me and agreed – I needed to see a doctor ASAP. To complicate matters, we did not have phones yet. (Not sure if I mentioned that yet.) I found out the hard way to make sure our American phones are on airplane mode all the time. When we got off the airplane in Beijing, I turned it on briefly to text one photo to friends letting them know we landed. I quickly got a return text message from AT&T stating that I would be charged $100 for this error. We were going to suspend our US phones and either switch out the Sim cards or get Chinese phones. We had not had time to take care of this yet since Soren was working every day during the week. Even though the apartment had a phone, we had not figured out how to work it yet. We were not even sure what type of service this landline provided. It seemed to be more of an inter-campus communication tool. There were no instructions for the phone.

It was breakfast time in the cafeteria so Soren went down to try to find an administrator or someone with information to help us figure this out. We knew that worst case scenario, we would try to get a cab and get to the nearest hospital. We preferred getting to a dental clinic or other facility that would be closer.

When Soren returned to the apartment around 7:30am, he had good news. He met the Head of School at breakfast and they arranged for a driver to meet us at the gate ASAP. Also, Soren used someone else’s phone to call ahead to a clinic that was near the school to see if they were open. Soren said the clinic answered and told him to go ahead and bring me over and they would see me as soon as we got there, about a 10 minute cab ride away. Phew! Or, at least I thought.

Soren searched through some materials he got from the HR office and found my insurance card. Then we left Nona and Lars in the apartment, playing on their iPods. I told Munyiva that I was headed out to the clinic so she could check on them if we didn’t get home until later in the day. I had no idea what experience we were in for as Soren and I got into the cab.

I really did not even know where we were going. At this point, I was never more thankful that Soren spoke fluent Chinese. We arrived at Pinnacle Plaza. This was good. It is the international market I had been to earlier in the week with Dean and Munyiva. I knew there was a United Health Family Clinic and Dental Clinic in the compound. Great! It was 7:45am.

We paid the driver and walked to the clinic doors. We saw lights on inside, but when we tried the door it was locked. The lobby was made visible to the sidewalk by large glass panels. We could see people inside, some mopping, other scurrying about. Soren knocked on the glass to get their attention. A nurse came to the door and he communicated my situation with her in Chinese. He mentioned that he had spoken on the phone with someone there who encouraged us to come by now. There was some back-and-forth in Chinese and I could see this might not go as smoothly as we hoped.

Soren told me that she said the office did not open until 9:30am and that the first available appointment was at 10:30am. At this point, my jaw was really sore and I was getting a headache. I hadn’t had coffee and my frustration was beginning to rise due to pain and lack of caffeine. I made sure to lean in close to her and pointed to my jaw with hand signals to show that I was injured and in need of immediate care. It was obvious. You saw the picture.


The nurse agreed to let us sit in the lobby while we waited for the doctor to arrive at 9:30am, an hour away. But, she explained, to Soren, the doctor would not be in any earlier and it was unclear still if we had to wait till 10:30am. We decided it was better to wait at this clinic than try to find the hospital downtown. That could take just as long and cost more.

There was a Starbucks next to the clinic, so I asked Soren to get a coffee for me to gently sip on while we waited. I found the waiting area in the lobby and sat on the couch in the empty clinic while he went over to get a grande latte for me. I was miserable and the doctor would not be in for an hour and a half and it was still unclear if they would prioritize me over the appointments. might have to still wait until 10:30am.

I had not really been paying attention to the facilities because I was so concerned with communicating and finding out when I would see a doctor. Now that I was sitting down, I began to look around. It was a lovely, new and shiny clinic.

However, something was wrong. It was dark in the lobby when we came in, but I thought it was because they were just opening up for the day. It turns out, they were in the middle of a power outage. How did I know? Well, the lights were flickering on and off, making a crackling sound every time. Flash – Crack – pause – Flash – Crack – Pause. There was also a high pitched beeping sound, as if an alarm had been tripped. It was not in sync with the lights. It needed a warning, like video games – could cause seizures. It was like a Rave.

While I was absorbing all the sensory input, a few men came in with some equipment and started tinkering in an office adjacent to the lobby. They were taking out some ceiling panels and setting up ladders. All the while, a woman, dressed in scrubs, with booties on her feet, kept walking through the lobby, carefully mopping up after everyone.

Soren came back with the coffee and also noticed all the action taking place. He said that the nurse had mentioned that they had had some type of power outage and that they were attempting to get a back-up generator hooked up while they took care of the issue.

We settled into the couch, me with my head resting on Soren’s shoulder, holding my latte. The sights and sounds continued in a pattern. Flash, crack, beeb, mop. Flash, crack, beep, mop. This did not help me feel any better. There were a few nurses who arrived over the next hour, all coming in with excited tones, facing chaos in their office. I asked Soren to double check with one of the nurses when she walked through the lobby. Here is where I really needed English. Soren is way too nice. I wanted him to express my discomfort and ensure that I could jump to the head of the cue and if I couldn’t there was no way I could sit in this lobby for another 2 ½ hours.

The nurse suggested that we could also try to see the dentist in the clinic around the corner of the clinic in the same plaza. She thought they might be opening their offices soon too. We thought, “Why not?” So, we walked out of the clinic, turned right, rounded a corner and saw the entrance to a dental clinic. We went into the reception area where an assistant was at the desk. Soren explained my situation again. She looked sympathetically at me, but as she spoke in Chinese to Soren, she was shaking her head in negative affirmation. I could tell, before he even spoke, that we would have to head back to the general clinic or decide to get a cab to the hospital. Soren explained that while the dental clinic was opening soon, the only doctor seeing patients today was a pediatric orthodontist. That was clearly not my issue.

Then, something bizarre happened. You ask, “What could be more bizarre than what has occurred so far?” Well, the story just keeps getting better. The dental assistant told Soren we did not need to walk back outside to return to the general clinic. She pointed to a long, slender hallway. We walked through the dentist office to the back hallway. It had a few turns, then opened back up into the lobby of the general clinic. They were completely attached. That explained why all the beeping, flashing, and cracking was also in the dental office. When we returned to the couch, we noticed that a thick, long, black cord was running the length of the hallway and wrapped through the lobby. We assumed it was a cord for a generator? No idea. I felt like I was in a Philip K. Dick movie.

She was still mopping.

A few patients came in and joined us in the lobby. I was beginning to get upset. It was taking forever, I felt we may never see the doctor, and hoped we were not wasting our time. I made Soren go ask the nurse when the doctor would be in again. 9:30am remained the answer. She did tell him that she had called the doctor who was coming in today. She let her know about the power outage and my case. We had at least another 30 minutes, but it seemed that I would be able to see her before the other routine check-ups on the appointment schedule. That, at least, was good news. She gave us a clipboard to fill out paperwork while we waited.

Around 9:15am a tall, thin, sandy blond-haired woman, in scrub pants, came bustling into the office. She went straight to the counter to sign in and looked directly over to me on the couch. As she walked past to go to her office, she said, in English, “I’ll be right with you as soon as I put my things away.” There is a God!!! She was American.

Who knew I would feel such comfort in this? Many of my doctors in the States are not necessarily Americans, so it was not really that. It was the fact that she spoke English I realized. Translating makes you feel vulnerable and insecure, especially when you or a loved one are in pain. I developed a great empathy for all the immigrants in the US who have to navigate health care, education, and more in a second language. It is very unsettling. It is also good to note, that all of the Chinese staff was kind to me. They did not expect that I should be speaking Chinese. They knew I was a foreigner and they wanted to help me get the service and care I needed. What a difference in how we in America treat language.

The doctor literally tossed her items into a nearby room off the lobby, and signaled to me to follow her, back down the hallway to the first empty patient room. I sat in a chair next to a sink counter, and she pulled up a stool to the computer station. It was a modern, clean, neat room with new equipment. She began asking me questions, general ones you would expect anywhere. Her voice was soft and warm and, when she checked my jaw, her hands were very gentle. She realized that, due to the power outage, she could not type information into the computer. Around this time, a nurse poked her head in and said in broken English to the doctor that they needed to get into this room to fix the power problem. We needed to move rooms mid-examination. The doctor looked at me and smiled good-naturedly and said, “Welcome to China.”

shunyiclinicdentistchair 2

The Dental Office Patient Room

I followed her back down that long hallway to the dental clinic, following the long black cord. She found an open room with a dental chair and asked me to take a seat. Then she said, since the tech was out, we would have to do this old school. She took out a pen and found a piece of paper and began taking patient notes that she would input into the system when it was up and running. I liked her a lot! She was very kind and clearly felt bad for my pain. She was someone I would want as a GP anywhere. She checked out the inside of my mouth and confirmed that it was most likely an abscessed tooth. She said she would give me Augmentin but that I would need to follow up with a dentist on Monday. I was so happy to hear that I would be getting antibiotics. We spoke a bit more about China, why we were here, my kids needing rabies shots. (More on that later.)

I asked the doctor where the nearest pharmacy was to fill the prescription. I had heard that most expats at Keystone missed CVS more than any other store. She informed me that the clinic has its own pharmacy and I could get the medication immediately. We finished up the visit. I thanked her profusely and she walked me back down the hallway toward the general lobby.

About halfway down the hallway, she stopped. She pointed to a small built-in bench in the wall. It had a cushion on it. She gave me my prescription and said to wait there. This was the pharmacy.

I have attached a very short video of sitting in the hallway for your appreciation. By this time, the lights were not flickering, but the beeping continued, and I had no idea what she meant by pharmacy, since all I saw was a small closet door, cracked open and dark. I was unsure what would happen next.

Video with sound 0f hallway waiting room:

After a few minutes of waiting on the small cut-out bench, a very young Chinese woman, in jeans and converse, came over to me and held out her hand, I presumed for the prescription. I handed it over and she hand signaled for me to follow her. It was only two feet away. She went into the closet door area. She turned a small corner, and, “viola”, the pharmacy appeared. She opened up a window-sized rolling-door-gate with a counter. (This window gate is visible in the short video above.)

I could see into the entire closet-pharmacy room now. She turned around and searched the shelves for what she needed and brought it back to me at the counter. She gave me some paperwork to sign and my Augmentin.  I thanked her, “Xie xie!”

As I made my way back to Soren, the lights were still flickering, peeping, and crackling, but I had saw the doctor and got my script. I was happy! I was finished by 9:45am and the lobby was full. We paid the counter, with the promise that once we had our passports back, we would send a copy. I opened up the medication and took one of the pills with my remaining latte to get my first dose. I thought, shoot! I forgot to ask for pain medication.

Soren and I decided, that since we were in Pinnacle Plaza next to Jenny Wang’s international food market, we would grab a few items before hailing a cab back. I still didn’t feel well, but because I knew I had my meds, I was on the mend and could handle walking through the grocery store for 20 minutes.

It was Soren’s first time to this market, so he was checking out the products more than I was. I bought chicken noodle soup and crackers and planned on having that for lunch.

When we got back to the apartment at 11am, the kids were still on their iPods and in their jammies. A typical Saturday morning for them. We made them get dressed and told them to go and play outside or in the lobby until lunch.

I gave Soren a big hug and thanked him for going with me and for being able to speak Chinese. I was still very uncomfortable. Soren back has been fine for a few days and he had stopped taking his pain killers. I decided to take one and lay down. I didn’t wake up until evening.

We made it through our first emergency. I am happy it was me and not one of the kids. We heard that during the week, all the Keystone faculty go to a day clinic called Parkway. They pick you up and bring you back from your appointments as part of their service. I would make an appointment with them on Monday to see a dentist. Even though the experience at the United Family Health Clinic was a bit chaotic, the facilities, nurses, and doctors were superior. I got great, high-quality care, even through a power outage that felt super-trippy.

(So you all know – after 3-4 doses of the medication, the swelling went down and I felt fine again by the end of Sunday. Actually, no tooth pain by that point. I went to a follow up dental appointment. They told me I needed to have my tooth pulled. I decided to get a second opinion. As of today, the infection has not returned and the second dentist says we can probably just do a surgery rather than pull the tooth. It is still to be determined and is not solved. But, all the care I have received has been excellent.)


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