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Love in the Time of Swine Flu

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By now the widespread detentions of suspected and confirmed cases of H1N1 in China are well-known. Determined not to repeat the mistakes made in handling the SARS outbreak in 2003, the Chinese government has implemented some of the strictest quarantine procedures in the world. Informational posters are everywhere – two in my apartment building alone. Notices inform residents that those returning from abroad must report to the health bureau to check that they do not have a fever. After I returned from the US, I was called every day by a woman with a pleasant voice who asked me if I had a temperature or not. Every day, I dutifully told her that I did not, and that I felt fine. For some time, I’ve been complaining to anyone who will listen that this panic and concern is mostly unwarranted and futile – it is likely that ‘novel’ H1N1 will not simply go away, and it is impracticable to detain everyone in the world who contracts it, nor will it stop its spread. I’ve been dismissive, even cavalier about the prospect of contracting it myself, so I was thinking sour thoughts about karma and comeuppance when I found myself feverish and prostrate in the emergency room of a well-known Beijing hospital.

H1N1 Test

“If we do this test, we aren’t supposed to let you leave the hospital,” said the doctor, waggling the plastic-wrapped syringe holding a long cotton swab. I muttered my assent, having already been told that I was a textbook example of a potential case – recent international travel, high fever, persistent and dangerously elevated heart rate, headache, wet coughing. He continued, explaining that some others had basically decided to check themselves out anyway, and that the hospital simply wrote “Patient refused advice” on their report to the authorities, ostensibly covering their legal bases. I took this to mean that if I wasn’t falling down and vomiting, I could leave after I felt better, and they would call me at home, where I would remain self-quarantined until I was cleared. I had him go ahead with the test, and then laid back and let the IV fluids slowly bring me back to life. For awhile, the treatment didn’t work – fever remained, my heart continued booming away and I began to worry. Just as concern for my life began to overcome my reckless attitude, I did start feeling better – much better. My fever vanished, my headache stopped, and my heart resumed beating at a normal, healthy pace. This took several hours, during which time the ER doc swapped with the new shift. He came in and said, well, glad you’re feeling better, but we have to admit you. Do you have insurance?

I did, or so I thought – but as it turned out, it hadn’t been activated yet. Great. The hospital cashier came and told me what it would cost to be admitted – over two thousand dollars. I refused and informed them I would be leaving in a ‘polite-but-firm’ manner that probably erred too strongly towards the firm. The doctor returned and said, please don’t leave. You need to stay. I wondered at just how far he would push this, but still tired and weak, I didn’t feel like fighting much and let him make his various calls here and there. My girlfriend, who had convinced me that lying at home burning up delirious was not the best way to recover, informed me at some point that she had overheard them calling the special office on H1N1, at which point I realized no matter how many calls he made, well-intentioned or not, the hospital would be counselled to keep the both of us quarantined. Out of fear of liability or official sanction, the doctor would never sign off on me leaving, and poor Chen, who had been drawn only half-willingly into my weekend of plague detainment, would be forced to stay as well.

I briefly pondered exiting out the first-floor bathroom window, which was carelessly left open (what kind of second-rate forced quarantine was this?) before amending my desires to free food and a free doctor visit the next day. They considered this for awhile and agreed, proving that one can bargain away one’s rights in exchange for free healthcare. I suppose I had some other alternatives – calling the embassy and making a fuss (would they be able to do anything, though?), simply walking out the door and daring them to use force to stop me, or throwing a fit, breaking various pieces of medical equipment, referring to the doctor only as ‘Mengele’ while holding the nurses at bay with an IV pole brandished as a spear. Demanding my consular rights seemed silly given that I wasn’t being accused of anything, storming out seemed like it would probably provoke a very stupid confrontation of some sort (the doctor seemed very nervous about the prospect of my leaving, far more than the previous doctor), and while with the amount of drugs in my system I might have been able to overpower the entire ER staff and the underfed security guards, shooting up the place just seemed rude. So, the bargain was struck, and I spent the next 20 hours or so trapped in a relatively luxurious hospital suite, quarantined with my girlfriend on the most interesting date night in history. Given that I potentially had the horrible, evil and deadly swine flu, it wasn’t very gentlemanly of the hospital to force her to stay with me, but it was better than facing certain death and a limited selection of satellite TV channels alone. Of course, I did not have H1N1, although it’s taken me this long to start feeling normal again. And in the end, I am grateful to the hospital – they were professional despite a difficult situation and a less than happy and very woozy patient – and to Chen, who sacrificed her weekend to be trapped with me in a Beijing hospital. And as for my ‘no big deal’ argument, how about settling it with some nice, cold numbers? China – 1,800 confirmed cases, 0 deaths. Compare to: United States – 43,000 confirmed, 336 deaths.

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Written by Michael

July 27, 2009 at 10:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Hey Michael,

    Took me a while to realize you’re blogging over here now. Interesting experience, and glad to hear that you are ok. What was the total damage bill wise? I don’t know what kind of insurance you’re on, but in the programs I’ve been involved in here, the National Health Insurance allows me to make post-visit requests if I hadn’t been registered in the system/received a card but was within agreed upon program time (as in card received in September, but program starts in August).

    Dale

    August 15, 2009 at 1:04 pm


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