THE INFECTIOUS DISEASE WARD
We’d been out that afternoon for lunch with one of my wife’s former high school classmates, at a restaurant that served the city’s first – and best, I was told – kung pao chicken, and then bounced around Beijing’s Central Business District by subway.
Coffee. Shopping. Drinks at the hotel bar where my wife first worked when she was just 17.
When we got home to my brother-in-law’s house in the city’s far-northern reaches, it was dark. We were beat tired but my wife already knew something was wrong. The lights were off; no sign of life.
After we got inside, we found the note. They’d taken my father-in-law to the hospital. Now 80, the former officer in the People’s Army is frail and a bit of a hypochondriac. He’d been running a fever over the past few days and Mama, my mother-in-law, continued to fret.
Apparently, sometime that afternoon, she’d made the call. He needed to go to the nearest hospital. He, of course, resisted. Even though he saw disease around every corner, he was also stubborn. In this case, his will won out over his constant worry. But Mama’s willpower was even stronger, so off they went.
My wife got on the phone to her mother. Xiao Hauzi, the Little Monkey, my brother-in-law’s secret son, and his mother were there. The boy was causing havoc. Worried about his grandfather, he was alternatively crying (probably tired; it was after 10 p.m.) and getting his little hands into places they had no business being. Grabbing medical equipment, busting past other patients. June Bridals high low asymmetrical wears
His mother needed to take him home to get some sleep. We would be the much-needed reinforcements to keep up Mama’s spirits while nurses did tests on my father-in-law.
We hopped into an SUV outside and motored off into the night. I was behind the wheel, passing signs I could not read, driving on roads I’d never negotiated, headed for a hospital to which I’d never been.
Thank God for Google maps.
It was cold that night, in the mid-20s, and I’d only worn a sweater; I figured we’d dash right into the warm of the emergency room. No need for a heavy winter coat.
We pulled up to the parking lot outside the emergency room, it’s red light a beacon in the darkness, and walked inside.
Chinese working class people, have a brusque way of handling what they consider to be strangers’ inane questions. They were like Italian bank tellers, stone-faced, unyielding. Ultimately unhelpful.
A question like; My father has been brought in with the flu, didn’t apparently deign a verbal response from the woman sitting at the emergency room front desk.
With a grunt, she waved her hand in what apparently was the extent of her directions to the place we could find my father-in-law.
Back outside. Into the dark and cold. Around the building.
To the infectious disease ward.
We started walking. And bickering. My wife had urged me to wear a jacket. Now we were walking in the frigid night and I was shivering. She already had a father in the hospital; she didn’t need a husband to join him.
I began trying locked doors as we made a sweep around the building’s perimeter. The place was on some sort of lock-down.
Finally, we found an open door and hurried inside, the warmth of the indoors our best greeting so far. We raced up the steps and down a 1950’s era corridor that brought images of mad Soviet scientists experimenting on unwilling shills. Babies were heard crying from behind closed doors.
This isn’t the place, my wife decided, and turned in her tracks.
It’s the Children’s Ward.
Wait, I said. I’m not going back outside. Let’s just keep going. We’ll find someone who can give us directions. People who were inside, where it’s warm.
Since my father-in-law is a retired military officer, that makes my wife, his eldest and most strong-will child, the general’s daughter.
I’d been given my marching orders.
Back outside we went.
I did make one private’s decision in the heat of battle. I told her I was going back for the SUV.
Wait here, I said.
I ran for the vehicle. When I returned, she was gone.
The heat blasting, I turned a corner to the very back of the building and found her standing in the dark before an ominous neon sign.
The Infectious Disease Ward, of a Chinese hospital, far, far from home.
With images of SARS and the Bubonic Plague, I took a deep breath and followed her inside.
Chaos reigned there.
Everyone – doctors, nurses, patients, janitors – wore one of those paper health masks you see on subways throughout Asia.
Somebody handed one to my wife. But not me. There was a mask vending machine by the front desk, but I had no money. Someone took pity on me and handed me one.
Then the Little Monkey came running at me, pushing before him a wheelchair that held my sullen father-in-law – he the one who did not want to go to the hospital, who had to be talked into every procedure, x-ray, or other test conducted on him.
We walked down the corridor, past masked mothers tending to their masked wailing babies. At the last room to the left, apparently the attending physician’s office, a line had formed.
The Little Monkey pushed the wheelchair to the front of the line, past masked faces whose eyes voiced their displeasure. The doctor, a woman, looked up from her desk.
He’s got pneumonia, she said of my father after consulting her paperwork. It’s not the worst, but at his age, it could get serious fast. She said one reason was that his salt content was low.
My wife is – how do I say this – if nothing else an excitable woman. She turned to her mother and in a blast of released stress and anxiety, excoriated her for not taking better care of her husband.
The dressing down took place in front of a half-dozen people, their eyes wide. I remained in the background, where it was still safe, with less chance of collateral damage.
The doctor apparently had heard enough. She’d dealt with my unhappy father-in-law. And now this force of nature, his daughter. With an exasperated smile, she said; How many disagreeable people do I have to deal with to treat this patient?
By then, the Little Monkey had wheeled the chair holding my grandfather around, slamming people’s ankles. Then he dashed off to grab some dangling medical equipment.
Ohhhhh, his mother said, I have a headache.
She ushered him out the door and presumably to bed back home.
That left me, my wife and her parents to wait for the next treatment – my father-in-law was ushered to a crowded room where masked people sat in chairs like at some inner-city blood bank.
He was hooked to the first of three saline drips for a two-hour procedure. Outside, I sat across from a young woman whose eyes had thrown daggers at my wife during her earlier outburst.
And so we waited.
I paced. I moved the SUV closer to the door to make the quickest getaway in the case we got my father-in-law out of there. My nose itched under the mask.
I stood guard next to my father-in-law after he complained that the saline wasn’t dripping fast enough. Apparently, he’d read my mind. I jiggled the bag and willed the fluid to flow, while every 15 minutes I pulled him into a better posture in the chair.
He was a wispy man, all of 100 pounds, who had served his country, raised three children, and once held my then-infant wife in his arms under a summertime night sky and asked her which she wanted – the moon or the stars?
Finally, after a few hours, we were given our walking papers. I was like the Little Monkey, commanding the wheelchair down the hall in case they changed their mind and decided to do more experiments.
Later that night, I felt a nightmarish catch in my throat. I woke in a cold sweat, fearing the worse, a trip back to the Infectious Disease Ward of a Chinese hospital in a place far, far from home.