Below is a copy of my email to some friends, which I sent in August 2004, from Yunnan Province, China. That day, I had saved an American’s life. As I typed, I was knackered, discombobulated and tearful.
I record this email here, for posterity, for my children, as well as a record of what I thought – at that time – of Chinese medicine and their approach to SARS. This makes more sense to me now, 17 years on, given the initial approach of the Chinese government to Covid.
I really detest my writing style – so many typos! But more than the typos, I don’t like the tone of the person who wrote it – me – particularly the cultural tone. I am glad that I have changed.
As at a few years ago, Greg was still alive and well. We remain connected.
I write this email to you a different man that wrote the last. I have a lump in my throat, a potential tear in my eye and I am semi delirious through lack of sleep. Maybe this should not be in an email but I have nobody else to talk about it with.
Last Monday was to be my last day in China as my flight from Bangkok was today, however, I had been placed on a waiting list to extend my stay by one week. The kind lady in Bangkok had bought my story that I was ill in China and granted me my extension. Delighted, I returned to my guest house to break the great news to my two travelling companions.
So, we decided to go to something called the Tiger Leaping Gorge in a remote hilly area of Yunnan bordering Tibet (dont worry if you have never heard of it because I hadnt either). The gorge is possibly the largest in the world, with 3900m between the top of the mountains and the Yantse river below. The only problem we had was that the gorge was closed because of the wet season which made it even more prone to landslides than before. Many travellers and locals had died on this gorge.
We arrived in a ghost town. Only one cafe open and managed by an eccentric Aussy woman called Margo. After settling into our hotel, which for some bizarre reason possessed a western loo, we returned to the cafe to pick up some info on the next day’s trekking. She made us some delicious food which did not contain the following: chicken feet, heart, head, eyes or bones. We began to settle down and drink beer. Margo told us everything that we needed to know, including the fact that we must start walking at the crack of dawn and the first three hours would be a 1000m assent.
As we relaxed, whilst listening to Savage Garden, Margo received calls from other points along the trek that an American couple that had set off from her cafe hours earlier were in serious trouble. She began to panic but we continued to drink beer as there was nothing we could do and the beer was good. As the afternoon became evening and the locals had begun their annual torch festival, the heavens opened. We made friends with an American (yes, another American traveller in China) and a shy Chinese guy called Wang Wei ‘Wrong Way’. More calls came in from the almost deserted Gorge that the American couple were in need of desperate help. We just sat, drank and watched a local child in beautiful traditional dress pull the wings and legs off an unfortunate huge insect. More calls came in.
Suddenly, out of the rain, emerged a Chinese man, shaking. He was saturated and scared. The atmosphere amongst us five travellers changed. The problem was here. An American woman burst in a minute later in a state. Her boyfriend, Greg, was in the local hospital across the river. He was seriously ill. He set off in the morning with a cold and when he was 3000m up his chest began to hurt, he vomited, went into a fit and fell 5-feet down the gorge, landing on his head and swallowing his tongue.
Margo called the US embassy (a bunch of useless bloody morons) and I ran to the ‘hospital’. Can you imagine what this ‘hospital’ looked like in a rural village of 1,000 people? I found a crowd around the patient and the American girl, Liz, wailing. The patient, Greg, had his eyes open, fixed in one position, whilst he was in a constant fit. His arms and legs moved uncontrollably, as they had done for the last three hours and continued to do so for next 12 hours. I cannot think of a hospital I would less like to be ill in. The crowd around the bed consisted of 15 people, including the drunk chief of police, a doctor, some nurses and anyone else who wanted to see a foreigner in risk of losing his life with only Wrong Way who could translate for us. Liz was delighted that there was a Westerner around who understood what she was saying.
I cleared the room, with the help of Wrong Way. Greg, the patient, continued to scream and fit. I assembled the doctors in the next room and, with the help of Wrong Way’s very broken English, I managed to understand that Greg was in danger and that we owed 700 yuan (80 US). The consensus was to take him by ambulance (van with flashing lights) two hours to a little city with a better hospital.
It took 8 men to carry Greg, with drips coming out of him, to the van. Liz wanted me in the van, as a friendly face, even though we had never met, and Wrong Way got in to help translate. The journey was crazy. Greg was unconscious, but yet his arms and legs would not stop. Liz talked to him throughout. The journey was undertaken at midnight on roads that were prone to landslides, through the rain. To make it worse for me, I had been drinking most of the afternoon. I called all the people that Greg knew in the US, insurance companies and anyone who would listen to me on my mobile, as you need a special phone that is registered with the communist regime to call abroad (bastards).
We got to the hospital OK and were put in a ward with a bemused old man. There was only one doctor on duty and nobody that spoke English. The nurses filled him with drips, as Wrong Way tried to explain what had happened. Greg’s breathing deteriorated, and nobody seemed to know what to do. The night was horrid. We took him to have his brain scanned. Wrong Way held his head in place and I pinned his legs down, as Liz held his hands and tried to talk to him but he couldnt hear. We think that the scan was OK. No blood on the brain. Small mercy.
We took him back to the ward where there was urine and blood all over the floor. A vision of hell. In China, there is a rather do-it-yourself approach to health care. We had to hold the oxygen over his face and often had to hold the drips in place. One vision that will live with me forever is Wrong Way holding Greg’s hand in place from pulling his drip out, whilst Wrong Way slept. I tried to doze but needed to reassure Liz that he was in a good place which I didnt believe. Liz didnt sleep and just talked to Greg with more love than I have ever witnessed.
The morning came and so did 30 non English-speaking doctors. The monring was so horrible. His condition got worse and his heartbeat was erratic at best. Liz remained calm. I tried. Wrong Way tried explaining what had had happened and I rang International SOS to get Greg out. He was moved to another room with an expectant mother. Doctor after doctor came in. It was such a novelty to see a Westerner, especially one naked, having a fit for hour after hour. Every medical student came for a look and so did every patient in the hospital and those visiting those already in hospital. In fact, I feel sorry for all the other patients who lost the doctors and visitors just to see Greg. The Chinese had no shame: they stared with impunity at someone close to death because he is Western.
Greg’s father, with the help of me on the phone, managed to organise a medical evacuation but it was so hard to do. I think the fact that his Greg’s father is a wealthy state representative must have helped. I took call after call from his parents and made calls to speed things up.
All of a sudden, the situation got worse. He stopped breathing. There was 15 doctors around his bed trying to save him from an illness that they have only seen six times before and they all died. Liz, who was wailing, was taken to another room to be interrogated by another 15 doctors using a local business man who spoke quite good English. I remained with Greg, threatening law suits to International SOS, whilst crying at the same time. I was put onto an English doctor who reassured me that the Chinese would intubate him but they hadnt. Muppets. Eventually he was intubated and his life saved for the time being. Maybe I should mention that this is the place where SARS started and the Chinese’s botched response to it began.
Greg stabilised and he was eventually intubated. International SOS got their act together (once a massive cheque had cleared) and called the hospital. All was not over. The doctors had a meeting where THEY were going to decide what to do. My mission was to stop them touching him again until the plane from Beijing arrived. Are doctors the world around so condescending?? Just as China seemed like hell, Wang Wei ordered us the equivalent of a KFC and paid for it. This single gesture was magic. The only time that Liz smiled. She is the strongest of women at 23.
The plane was now fours away with English-speaking, English trained doctors, onboard. I granted myself a smile. When things get good over here something always happens that reminds you that sometimes this place is so backward. The police arrived. Three menacing brutes in uniform and two pretty female undercover agents who wanted to know why were at the gorge and how the accident happened. Liz had to sign yet another form – all in Chinese – but what did it say? Who knows.
At 6pm, 26 hours after the accident there was a commotion at the door and the crowd pulled back from the door. It was the SOS team!!!!! YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS. They spoke English and they knew what they were doing. The equipment that is standard in the West fascinated the Chinese doctors. It took two hours to move him onto the trolly with crowd now at standing at 40.
I will never forget two things. First one, English-trained doctor and one English trained nurse could do what 30 Chinese doctors and 10 Chinese nurses could do. The second was a Chinese doctor saying to the English trained doctors that the patient’s salt levels were low and the better doctor retorting ‘It’s irrelevant’. The Chinese doctors looked on with disbelief. We could trust these two angels from the sky. Liz’s credit card had maxed so I paid half of the 700$ so he could be discharged.
The crowd and I waived the ambulance off, shattered. According to the insurance company, Greg is still alive and is in Hong Kong. My prayers are with this man that I have cried over but have never spoken to. If he recovers, both Wang Wei and I have been invited to the wedding.
Dont reply. I had to write it.
on a lighter note, never tell a Chinese hairdresser that you only want a little bit off your hair and show them a small space between your fingers to show them a small amount as they will cut it to that size. I now have a number three all over and wear a hat to cover my shame.