I was late for my date at the hospital, so I folded up my umbrella and started trotting through the rain. A beggar saw me coming and ran alongside me, riding my shirt like a cornerback and thwacking my gut with a crock pot full of damp, crumpled bills. As I juked past him and sprinted for the endzone, I slipped on one of Nanchong's randomly placed patches of Teflon-slick sidewalk and only narrowly averted arriving at the hospital by other means.
The lovely Dr. Gao was waiting for me on the doorstep of the emergency ward, and I was happy to see that Jacob had tagged along. I held out my hand and he extended his fist, then we switched, then switched again before we finally agreed on a lackluster fistpound. "Smooth," said Jacob. Then we noticed the gurney behind us, and the man thereupon, and the two blood-spattered EMTs waiting for us to move. We jumped out of the way and they hustled past. Smooth.
Every so often, the Peace Corps sends us on a mission, and they like to keep us guessing as to what excitement it will entail. Over the weekend, I learned that Dr. Gao was coming to visit. I knew that I was to meet her at the Nanchong City Hospital, and sensed that I should probably clean my apartment, which I managed to render livable by 5 AM on the morning of Dr. Gao's arrival. But I didn't know what I was getting into. I didn't anticipate a tour of the rheumatology wing, or a visit to the Intensive Care Unit, or that we'd be taken backstage into a room full of lab technicians squinting into ominous-looking vials of infectious disease.
The hallways had that salty ketchup smell that I've come to associate with hospitals of the developing world. I guess blood smells like salty ketchup - or at least blood was the most obvious culprit, because there was a lot of it everywhere: red splotches on the walls, patients lying around with open wounds, vials of blood flying all over the place. The halls were jammed with people in various states of surgical disrepair - bandaged eyes, wrapped limbs, an old man smoking a Shuangxi through the slit in his facemask and wheeling his IV around in circles. Everyone was standing, except for those confined to wheelchairs, and the babies, who were being held. Bumping my way down the hall, I was reminded of Radiohead's Knives Out video - flurries of doctors waving around charts and x-ray film, ghastly operations being performed in plain view, bizarre Michel Gondryesque gadgetry whirring and whizzing, projecting monochrome displays of the inner workings of body and mind. I followed Dr. Gao, rotating in a slow circle as I went, taking it all in.
The hospital director dropped whatever trifles he was busy with (a kidney transplant, a triple bypass, whatever) to show us around. He rushed us through several operating rooms so he could show us the good stuff.
"This is a Toshiba, from Japan. Very high quality," he said. "This blood scanner is Architect brand. Made in USA. Top of the line, second to none. Bar none."
The machines were impressive, whatever it was they did. But every time we left a fluorescent-lit room full of humming electronics, we found ourselves back in the grotto of the convalescents. All was dull gray, children screaming, the smell of salty ketchup. There were hordes of people lined up to get their prescriptions filled, jostling each other and shouting at the girl behind the Plexiglas screen - for a moment it felt like we were back at the Nanchong train station. We entered a room full of oxygen tanks and little plastic boxes with black accordions inside and clear plastic tubes coming out of them.
"This is sucking machine," said Dr. Gao. "It is for ... suck ... suck out the sputum."
The people we passed in the halls were surprised to find a couple of foreigners in their midst, but they didn't HAH-LOO us or stare for very long. The mood of the place was too somber even for laowai ogling. In the rheumatatology wing, a dashing young Indian resident came running over and grabbed Jacob by the arm.
"What's wrong? Can I help you?" he asked.
It was one of Jacob's students.
"Naw, I'm aight, Sanjay," said Jacob. "We're just on a tour."
Sanjay let out a high-pitched giggle, the wonderful sort of laugh you seldom hear in this country, and returned to his patient. But you got the impression that he'd have lopped off Jacob's arm in a heartbeat.
We waited for the elevator to take us up to the 13th floor, where the Intensive Care Unit was hidden.
"So, remind me, Jake," I said. "What does an Intensive Care Unit do?"
"They care," he said, "intensively."
"This is going to be unpleasant, isn't it?"
Jacob shrugged. "It's a Chinese hospital, man."
The crowd pushed Jacob and Dr. Gao onto the elevator, along with thirty other people. One of the doctors urged me to get in, but the elevator was sagging too much for my comfort and I watched the doors close in front of me. Then I waited for the next elevator. Though I was the first person in line, I was one of the last to get in. The elevator started sagging a bit, then dropped a full inch when a doctor rolled his patient in. The patient was unconscious and his face was covered in blood, plastic tubes snaking out from his nose and arms. With each stop, people jostled each other to get in and jostled each other to get off. At one point, someone shoved me so hard that I very nearly toppled over on top of the patient. I was happy to get out of the elevator, but less than enthused to find myself in the ICU, where the doctors had us slip on little plastic booties.
There were twenty beds and all of them were occupied. Most of the patients were elderly and all of them appeared to be unconscious. The sleeping faces reminded me of all the grouchy old Chinese shopkeepers I've grown to know, but they were devoid of all the loogey-hawking, profanity-muttering animation I've grown to love. Family visitation hours were from 4:00 PM to 4:30 PM, said Dr. Gao. A college kid - part of Jacob's entourage - started snapping pictures of us. I can't imagine that the photographs turned out very flattering. I must have been shielding my eyes from the flash in the first photo, and staring glumly at the floor in all the others. I wanted to leave. I wasn't comfortable being privy to such a private moment. Who could imagine what all these old timers had lived through, only to wind up here, in this sterile room full of bleeping state-of-the-art Japanese life-extending devices. A secretary from my school tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to one of the beds, in which a badly burned child was curled up in the fetal position. "It's a child," he said, and I nodded, saying nothing. A nurse stood beside the child, patting his back to the rhythm of the pulse meter. The director cleared his throat and pointed to a blanketed object in the corner.
"New medical ventilator," he said. "Bird VIP. Top of the line. Bar none."