In early 2011, I had persistent problems with my legs, including falling during my afternoon walk and spraining my ankles, slipping on a mopped floor, and being accused of being drunk by my landlord. The truth was I was suffering from a muscle disorder that caused me to gradually lose the strength to walk. Then in March, I slipped and fell in my bathroom and the pain was unbearable. Even to my untrained eye, I could see that I had broken my ankle in at least two places. My Chinese girlfriend called an ambulance. I was taken to Peking University Hospital in Shenzhen.

I had heard it was the second best hospital in China. Since I had heard good things about the health care in Cuba (a country with a similar system), I expected to receive a reasonably high standard of care in Shenzhen.

Upon arrival I had two main problems, an ankle that had been broken in three places, and the muscle disorder that caused severe pains which shot through my legs like an electrical current. During the first week, two appointments for surgery to fix the ankle were not honored and it was explained to me that the schedule for surgery was necessarily loose. After complaining to a female doctor, I was finally given the operation.

Before the operation, they stopped giving me pain medication at night. I laid awake suffering from the throbbing and electricity in my legs and the broken bone. I asked a nurse if I could have something to ease the pain so I could sleep. She said they only gave heavy medication for a limited time because otherwise addicts would do things like break their own ankles to have access to it.

During my four weeks at the hospital, doctors frequently told me that the pain and weakness in my legs was caused by nutritional deficiency. Their suggestions included eating more food to regain my strength, exercising by by swinging my feet from the side of the bed, and rolling from side to side in bed. The bed was the size of a coffin and on one occasion I fell off. Falling through the air with no legs to help break the impact is a scary experience, and I am not easily scared.

During my stay in the hospital the disease that attacked my legs began to enter my brain. My state of mind deteriorated to the point of delirium. My memory of much of my experience became increasingly fuzzy.

But some things I do remember. I was skeptical about the diagnosis of nutritional deficiency because I am a big man, some 9kg overweight. I checked the symptoms on the Internet, and suggested to my doctors that what I might have Guillain-Barre Syndrome. The head doctor was livid that I would try to diagnose myself when I was not a trained medical professional. He compared my behavior to a guest telling a host how to run their private home. There seemed to be an unwavering dedication to hierarchy but a distinct lack of devotion to genuine medical science or human empathy.

Speaking of being a guest, I felt us patients were at the bottom of the hospital hierarchy. Although my memory of most of the stay is fuzzy, I remember being told upon leaving “good luck,” instead of being given any informed medical advice. The fuzziness of my memory and my delirium must explain the poor judgment I showed in not simply flying back to America at the first sign of illness.

When I returned to America in April, my pain and weakness were found to be caused by arsenic poisoning. After my body was flushed of as much of the poison as possible, I entered physical therapy where my muscles and nerves began to slowly regenerate. And not one doctor ever told me to swing my legs off the side of the bed.

If it weren’t for the saintly patience of my girlfriend, my ordeal in China would have been even worse. As for the doctor who dismissed my suggestion, and the landlord who accused me of being a drunk in exchange for being a flawlessly behaved tenant for two years, humility and open-mindedness are admirable traits in a person, and also in an entire city.

In spite of its vast shopping malls, packed with luxury brands, and the abundance of five star hotels, Shenzhen will not be recognized as a truly great international city until foreign guests are treated like guests in exchange for acting like them.

 

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