Cultural impressions can occur in a range of different ways. You can walk up the back streets of Beijing and watch a man have his ablutions on a tin tray at one o’clock in the morning. Or drive the escarpments of Eastern Tibet and take an English class in a village which cannot ever recall a Caucasian visitor. Or you can spend five hours in the middle of the night in a post check Accident and Emergency ward in Hong Kong with a friend awaiting test results taken by an attentive doctor.
She had collapsed on the bus and was in and out of consciousness until finally dropping off altogether. Our fellow passengers were concerned and helpful and assisted by translating the situation to our driver. He had pulled off the freeway (where he initially wanted to drop us) until we settled a course of immediate action – which involved an ambulance and which inferred he put his foot down. He did so.
She was out cold when we got to our stop. The ambulance, to meet us there was running late. We lifted her onto the sidewalk where she briefly lay until the ambulance arrived and whisked us off to the nearest hospital with, well, Singapore style efficiency.
Skip all the medical investigation and poking and prodding to a point where she is sitting up on the gurney and looking around. It is a spartan place and a little care worn. The signs are all in Mandarin and the regular announcements are in that language as well – imperious and unsympathetic. The room it seems, anticipates death but it takes awhile for me to realise that is partly its purpose. Directly opposite, in a darkened room a healthy, robust looking man in his late 20s or 30s is hooked to monitors and is lashed to his bed. Now he is quiet but occasionally he escapes his demons and screams “Doctor Doctor”. No one comes. A distracted yet pretty young girl makes frequent return trips to the water cooler and keeps pouring small cups of water into or at him. He started the evening, arriving after us, shouting and yelling and thrashing around. He is being treated for a drug overdose perhaps?
In our room there are a number of gurneys similar to the ones my friend is on. On the opposite wall one is occupied by an emaciated skeleton of a woman, on her back, with her feet drawn up. She is leathery and thin and scarred black with welts. It is hard to believe someone that thin could be alive. She looks as if she has escaped from the Egypt section of the British Museum. Occasionally her knees would sway from sway from side to side. There is no flesh to speak of. Just bone and ligaments scribing hard up against her skin. Filthy rags keep her hands and torso tied down. Some unseen demon torments her and she cries out loud and then mews like a kitten at which point a hard faced relative gives the old girl’s face a sharp slap and she cries out anew. It’s a cycle that repeats itself over and over. We wonder at her story.
Beside her a woman sleeps peacefully on her back, and under a grey blanket, not at all perturbed by the lights, shouts or noisy PA. It is a handsome face and framed by dark hair. To her side is a slightly less dramatic scenario of a disturbed patient thrashing about. Between that bed and our own guttural sounds come from a man in a wheelchair. He is collapsed forward and has a beanie pulled low. I watch him carefully – he has eyes for my young friend and this place is Dante-esque enough for anything to happen. Oh, I nearly forgot – the wheelchair partly obscures another gurney on which lies an elderly gent. He is awake but quiet.
We sit and chat for a while, amid the noise and bedlam (used in the true sense of that word) before a young man comes and lies down on the only spare gurney in the place and on which I have been sitting. He does not last long. The mewing and cries of the animated mummy drive him crazy and he flees, glaring and muttering at her. Then he crawls back and lies down. Only to flee, again muttering threats as he goes. He repeats himself three or four times in this way. I watch him carefully as well, until he finally disappears in the mid hours of the early morning.
Clearly this room is a battle ground of all sorts of unseen and tormenting demons (be they drugs, ailments or relatives) so I smile to myself as my young friend sits unwittingly in the lotus position and projects an air of dishevelled, weary calm. We keep chatting.
Suddenly the PA disrupts everything – and in English! A resuscitation emergency is underway. Our progress “…through the hospital may be delayed. We are sorry.” Resuscitation just so happens through the curtain and we hear a flurry of activity, electronic beeps, flesh slapping flesh, the bang of metal and low pitched but urgent instructions and responses. We keep chatting and the sounds from the other side of the curtain subside and come to a stop.
A long silent pause before the sound of metal curtain rings on metal rails and the mild squeak of gurney wheels on vinyl flooring as someone is wheeled past. We cannot see the result. There is a long moment of silence through the heart monitor plugged into the addict across the way keeps up its steady ping. Even the face slapping relative misses the mewing cue and watches the gurney out of sight. The sleeping lady misses the drama and slumbers on. We pick up the chat.
Twice more the clarion sounded and twice more we paused to learn our own treatment would be delayed again. So sorry. Again. The flurry happens behind the curtain then silence descends as before. The silence is terminated by the squeak of the wheels, a hypnotic sound we all have to follow. The hand above the mummy’s face is stayed again, ever so briefly. Only the third episode gives us the satisfaction of seeing the result – an old man with a sunken face, bald pate and stubbled chin on parchment skin is wheeled past. He did not resuscitate and his serene face glides past us. Who was he? What were his hopes and dreams? We keep chatting.
I step out for a moment to get some water when the ward sister settled behind his desk. My young friend asks a scurrying nurse about the handsome and sound sleeper parked next to us who seems to be able to sleep through everything. The nurse is startled, as if we did not know something obvious. In her limited capacity to communicate to us she abruptly says “over”. “Over” and then marches out. The sound sleeping and peaceful face now makes sense. She was dead to the world. Literally and absolutely.
Doctor cleared my friend out twenty minutes later, via the pharmacy and with all pathology results (try getting that level of responsiveness in Sydney?!). We cut out into the clear morning air at the end of the middle watch (0400) and caught a cab home,wondering at all that we have just seen and heard. It is good to be alive and we chat all the way home.
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