When in China
I walked onto the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) for my first night shift and was immediately struck by the peace. It was so calm and quiet, quite unlike the hustle and bustle that I was used to in the UK. I was shown into the cardiac section and introduced to the team there, a group of very young women and men, so happy and smiley and I immediately I felt welcomed despite knowing that out of 5 people in the room, only one spoke English.
I simply asked their names, and it took 10 whole minutes for me to learn them! The Chinese languages are unique, you can say a word and in English, despite an accent, you can normally work out what someone is saying to you, in Chinese it’s about the rhythm and intonation, so get that wrong and there are several blank expressions looking back at you. It was going to be a long night, but luckily the team took my incompetence as amusing and they spent the majority of the night giggling at my attempts to ask for water.
Once I’d been shown around, settled in, heard about the cardiac cases for the day and reviewed them, we sat down for a cup of tea and that was when it hit me…. where were the parents? I asked Elvis, the trainee medic (yes, he’d given himself the Western name, and yes purely based on his love of the King!), his response was simple, they wait outside, and they aren’t allowed in. I tried not to show my surprise, inside my heart was breaking, these poor kids. I had an operation when I was 3 years old and it is one of my first memories, being pulled from my Mother’s arms screaming, then waking in horrendous pain flat on my back, trying not to cry. All I wanted was my Mum.
In the stark hospital room in China, there were 4 children lying in beds, attached to ventilators, chest drains, infusions, catheters and not one parent in the room. Well, that was to be my mission for the week, if we couldn’t persuade the Chinese medical team to let them in, I’d hold their hands, stroke foreheads and sing songs. You see, we were there in a teaching capacity, to educate the team from surgeon, to nurse, to perfusionist, to anaesthetist, we all taught and they worked under our guidance for the 10 days we were there. My friend Matt, who’d done previous trips gave me great advice, pick and choose your battles. So I did, the education to save these little people’s lives had to come first before teaching about the psychological impact.
That night we removed the breathing tube of a little 4 month girl who’d had a relatively simple procedure done. I watched as the local team did as we’d taught them, numbers good, safety checks complete and everyone knew what to do. The baby was then swaddled and a dummy taped into her mouth. ‘Pick and choose your battles’ was screaming through my head. How could this be normal practice to tape a dummy in?? Once the team had walked away I went and carefully un-taped the dummy, the baby spat it out and of course cried, I went to put it back in and she turned her head – of course she was telling me something. So I grabbed Elvis and explained that we should assess the baby, he was surprised, this wasn’t normal practice for them. I suggested the normal things that baby’s cry for, hunger, wet nappy and wanting to be held. So, we gave her a bottle and I asked if we could let the parents in, just to have a quick hold, see their baby and then they can leave again?
Elvis’s response floored me – she was an orphan. So was the little boy in the next-door bed space. They were given up for adoption anonymously, left on the doorstep of the orphanage – the parents had to. Not only was she a girl, but she also had a heart defect that meant money they couldn’t afford. Elvis explained they probably needed a fit and healthy male to help work on their farm; the children were from an orphanage out in the countryside.
That night, I had the honour of holding that little girl all night. She snuggled in close, laid her head on my shoulder and went to sleep. I couldn’t and didn’t want to put her down; I needed her to feel loved, not knowing if she’d ever experience that again as a child. Her name was Chen, her name stuck with me.