Friday, May 17, 2013

The Eye Saga, Day One: "A Hospital by Any Other Name . . ."

As people may or may not know, over the past 2-3 months I have had a troubling increase in my migraines (actually, there has been a general increase ever since the May 2011 car accident, but the past few months have been surging out of control).  It reached the point where I truly felt like I was a poor, battered little rowboat adrift in an endless typhoon of migraines.  I eventually concluded that I must have a brain tumor and perhaps only weeks to live (migraines tend to stifle logic).  So, I reluctantly trudged to the local international clinic at the hospital, where I was subjected to more tests than my body has seen in years: MRI, blood work, you name it.  All came back normal or at least un-worrisome.  Finally, in desperation, I thought about having my eyes checked.

Previously, I had always assumed that such issues as double-vision, severe eye pain, and other vision problems were merely symptoms related to the migraines — it had not occurred to me that these might, in fact,  be the triggers.  Since the conditions with my eyes were getting worse even in the rare moments when I did not have a headache or migraine, it seemed that an examination was in order.  As the initial eye visit and a visit to the local eye hospital concluded, this was in fact the case.  Furthermore, both doctors said that surgery was necessary, along with further testing.  They were positive that I had strabismus (a condition that causes double-vision), but also concerned that I may additionally have glaucoma.

And so, "hi-ho, hi-ho, to Beijing I must go . . . "  I took time off from school and scheduled an appointment at an excellent hospital up in Beijing.  I booked a hotel.  I booked a flight.  With my magnetic attraction for trouble and disaster, what followed was perhaps quite inevitable:

The Trouble with Visually-Impaired People Booking Flights
The night before I left — around 11:00 pm to be precise — I wisely remembered to double-check my plane ticket to determine the exact time that I would need to leave home.  As I soon learned, it is perhaps not the wisest course of action for a person struggling with vision issues to book her own flights.  Yep, the flight that I thought left at 9:30 am was actually a 9:30 pm flight!  Panic!  Forehead smacking!  Lamentations!  I rushed online to change the ticket and learned another important lesson:  Orbitz sucks.  Sure, they may have great prices and convenience when initially booking, but the minute you try to change a flight . . . grief.  It could not be done online, the phone number that Orbitz provided for overseas customers did not work, and finally my only recourse was to call my father in America over a deplorable Skype connection and beg him to call Orbitz on my behalf.  I emailed him all of the details and finally, at just past midnight, the flight had successfully been changed.  Whew!

On the plane to Beijing, I enjoyed perusing two complimentary newspapers.  After fully digesting all of the highly amusing heavily-biased articles (I do love Chinese newspapers), for lack of anything further to read, I happened upon the page where horoscopes are listed.  Now, of course, I never read or regard such idiocy . . . but maybe I should have just this once.  Mine read, "When things start to get tense today, don't lose your head.  Make sure that you're keeping a cool mind.  Patiently arrange everything and handle those tasks one by one.  You are going to make it!"  (I recall thinking at the time, "Sheesh, good thing I don't believe in omens!")

I got in and found my hotel with a delightful lack of trouble.  I relaxed briefly, then asked the hotel concierge, in Chinese, which bus to take to the hospital from the hotel.  She cheerfully informed me that it was actually within short walking distance and gave me directions.  I was perhaps a bit too prideful at completely understanding the entire conversation . . .

A City Tour of Beijing's Hospital Industry
Indeed, a short walk away and exactly as directed, there was a hospital . . . but it looked too small and the name wasn't quite right.  Since my Chinese friends have graciously overloaded me with phone numbers of complete strangers to ring in case of trouble, I texted one lady whom I had at least met once before to ask what the characters were for the hospital I was supposed to go to.  She texted back, "协和医院".  Nope, that definitely did not match the name on the sign.  So, I walked a bit further, found nothing, and decided to ask for further directions.  I was still about an hour early since I had not wanted to run the risk of being late.  The nurses at the front desk of the wrong hospital were quite friendly and immediately told me that I needed to take a taxi.  Although catching a taxi in Beijing is much like snipe-hunting at times, I actually got one rather quickly.  He understood my accent and cheerfully headed off to the hospital with me.

It was a long drive.  Too long.  People had told me to book that particular hotel because of its convenient proximity to the hospital.  Now, granted, convenience is often largely in the eye of the beholder . . . but I cannot think of any definition in which a 40-minute drive across gridlocked Beijing is considered "so convenient!".  I began to worry that perhaps the driver thought that I was out sightseeing and had requested transportation to the Summer Palace or some such location.  Was my accent that bad?  Quite possibly, I told myself.  To test this theory, I oh-so-casually struck up a conversation with the driver about the quality of hospitals in Beijing.  Was this a good one?  Oh yes, quite famous, he reassured me.  Ah, good.  So we were headed for the hospital after all . . . but still a nagging doubt persisted.  Convenient distance?  Really?  Something was off . . .

We got to a ginormous conglomeration of buildings with the correct characters (协和医院) on the front of one of them.  It was a bustling, crowded, not-terribly-clean place with an overlying aura of hopelessness and a lot of people in lab-coats rushing about.  There did not seem to be any way to enter the buildings, as every single likely door was labeled “出口" (exit).  I glanced at my phone — only 20 minutes until the appointment, and they had asked me to arrive 30 minutes early to handle registration paperwork.  I quickened my step and beseeched the first non-harried-looking lab-coat wearer, in my best slightly-stressed Chinese, to please tell me where I could locate the eye clinic.  He pointed abstractedly to the left and muttered something unintelligible.  I sprinted in that direction, located another exit, and hailed another lab-coat wearer.  This lady smiled encouragingly, pointed back to the direction from which I had come, and told me to go to the third floor.  I was still outdoors at this point, so the mention of a third floor was not as helpful as the mention of where an entrance existed would have been.  The next four wearers of white lab-coats directed me to four additional directions.  It seemed that this was a hospital from which patients leave, in droves, but seldom actually enter.  Was it like the Ministry of Magic with a phone booth or toilet entrance?  I noticed, with no small amount of concern, that I was now exactly on time for my 2:30 appointment.

Fighting back some inopportune tears of frustration and also fighting to convince my eyes to see only one hospital instead of two, I battled my way through a crowd of people who seemed equally baffled by this entrance-less fortress.  My eyes alighted on a sign that bore glorious English words.  Once I managed to focus my eyes better, I saw that the sign said "International Clinic" with an arrow pointing towards a direction that none of the lab-coat wearers had sent me toward.  I raced into a quite forlorn entryway (Huzzah!  An entrance!  Who cares if it isn't a pretty one!), found a bored security guard, and begged him to direct me to the eye clinic that, frankly, I had begun to doubt the existence of.  Furthermore, I was growing increasingly uneasy that this might not be the correct hospital, despite the characters on my cellphone matching those on the front of the (I assume) main building.  The guard directed me to the third floor . . . oh, so the first lab-coat wearer was partially correct — just a bit geographically challenged.  I was now definitely late for my appointment, so I charged up the stairs with all the vigor of Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill.

Ah ha!  I spied other people with non-Chinese faces.  Foreigners!  Yes, this was indeed an international clinic . . . crowded, old, quite dank, but unmistakably a place where a foreigner might seek aid.  I wasn't so sure that I wanted my eyes being operated on in this place, but it seemed preferable to limitless migraines.  Maybe it wouldn't be so bad.  After all, appearances can be deceiving.  Some of the best-tasting Chinese food bears a troublesome resemblance to a bowel movement, after all.  I could be brave and seek treatment here.  I took a deep breath and sought out the nearest nurse.  She didn't seem terribly fond of humans, but she did direct me to a different dank hallway when I asked about the eye clinic . . . sadly, there was no eye clinic down that hallway.  I did find a urology room, but felt it wouldn't quite suffice as a substitute.  Timidly I returned to Nurse Frightengale, who sternly directed me back down that same hallway.

I found a nurses' station and asked another nurse about the eye clinic.  By this time, the eye clinic was beginning to resemble Xanadu in my mind — a mythical and lovely land that cannot be found.  I was, by now, about 15 minutes late.  This nurse smiled and reassured tearful me that this was the right place . . . but she had never heard of the doctor I was supposed to be seeing.  "Isn't this 协和医院?!" I semi-shrieked.  The nurse nodded.  Something was very, very wrong.

I called the hospital (the one I had made the appointment with) and asked them, as, in retrospect, I should have from the beginning, what the name was in Chinese.  "和睦家," the very friendly and perky operator helpfully informed me.  "和睦家?!?!?  I'm at 协和医院!"  I gasped.  "Oh, that is very far away," the operator sympathetically clucked.  "You definitely will not be able to see the doctor today."

The Comfort of a Semi-Stranger
I walked about, blinded by tears, as I struggled to track down a taxi.  A bus nearly ran me down, followed by a car and then a motorcycle.  I felt very alone and utterly despondent.  I would never make it to the hospital.  I would not be able to get the surgery in a timely fashion.  I may have weeks of waiting ahead of me . . .  3:30, and I was still semi-blindly struggling along, hopelessly lost and taxi-less.  And then, my friend's friend texted me.  I texted back a terse reply about seeking out a taxi after going to the wrong hospital and she immediately called me.  After a confusing interlude of walking and scanning crowds for a Chinese face that I had only seen once before (and briefly at that), we amazingly were able to find one another.  I felt a bit like Stanley located Dr. Livingstone at last, minus the cannibals.

Diana (her English name) was deeply apologetic over the mix-up and immediately made me a fresh appointment for the next morning.  She sat me down in a KFC and held my hand while I poured out, in a mixture of English and Chinese, the tale of my tragic day.  She led me by the arm back out to the street where she located an elusive Beijing taxi.  She then located the correct hospital (just down the street in the opposite direction from the first one that I had walked to . . . about ten minutes' walk from my hotel).  Diana saw me safely to the door of my hotel and then left, with a promise to accompany me the following morning.

I love my new friend Diana.

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"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"