Why self-medicating is an essential China expat skill

Maybe everyone should take an interest in what pills and pokes their doctor is giving them, despite how frowned upon it is by House. But in China, figuring out what’s really wrong with you, on your own – armed only with Google and Wikipedia – is a tragic, but essential, fact of expat life.

Over the years I’ve been here I’ve avoided the hospital at every turn. I hate hospitals in a sterile “True North” kinda country, but the dirty, muddled mess of a space that passes as medical facilities in China is a sick, sick joke.

Which is why I prefer to roll the dice with the Internet. Either option, Chinese hospital or Google search, is likely to result in mis-diagnosis; but I rarely leave Web sites with viruses I didn’t enter with. Never mind an inflated bill because the doctor has more interest in his pharmaceutical commissions than my health.

Not sure if you should go to a Chinese hospital? Read David’s excellent post at Silk Road International, and contemplate no further.

And so it was that I spent much of the morning tracking down cures (holistic and medicinal) for gout. Yeah, I’ve got gout. I take little, but some, comfort in the fact that it was once referred to as the “Disease of Kings”.

Gout, for anyone that doesn’t know, is a right pain in the … foot. Well, really it can affect any joint, and is caused because uric acid crystals get stuck in your joints/tissues and make them to hurt like hell.

Turns out I’ve had gout for a while, but just didn’t know it. Back in ’05 I was hit with it and was certain it was a soft tissue infection, and then in ’07 I decided to get an expert opinion, and he agreed (as did a doctor the night prior) it was a soft tissue infection, and forced me to endure a week of IVs.

I had it one time since then, but can’t seem to find mention of it in my archives. It would have been around that last time that I mentioned my love of foot infections to a friend, also a suffer of the Royal Pain, and he said, “Hey, sounds like you’ve got gout.”

Not sounding at all like something I wanted to have, I got home and read up on the causes and symptoms: excessive drinking of alcoholic and caffeinated beverages [check], poor diet [check], overweight [check], lack of exercise [check], male [check], excruciating pain in a joint (often your toe or ankle) [check]. Gout seemed like a pretty obvious diagnosis.

In the many months since, I’ve changed my diet, watched what I eat and drink, etc. and I’ve not had a single problem. Until last night. It’s amazing the memory-wiping ability comfort brings. The lack of problems recently left me feeling gout-free — but the five cups of coffee and four beers yesterday was enough to give me a painful lesson in memory retention.

But now, having consumed my body weight in water (and lemon juice) and also ingested some OTC NAIDs (yeah, that’s right… look it up), I’m feeling decent. So what have I learned.

Well, that first diagnosis I made back in ’05, where I tied the pain in my foot to the fact that I had strep throat (instead of the late night at the bar) was wrong. That’s one for the hospitals. But then I went to two different doctors, at two different hospitals, and neither of them labeled it as gout either. Both just suggested antibiotic IVs. That’s two for Google searches.

Sadly, none of this leaves me with any level of comfort. Not having a reliable medical safety net to fall upon is easily one of the toughest and scariest parts of living in China long-term. All I can say is – just as the Silk Road Intl. post linked to above ends – good luck, and don’t get sick.

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