Alternative Medicine

Being Sick… In China

I’ve been home from China for about a month now, but I was actually supposed to come home in just over a week. I had to come home early because I got incredibly ill. Mostly because of some personal stuff but the food wasn’t helping… I took an incredibly strong anti-biotic and my body just couldn’t adjust to the salty, oily and dirty food again. My poor little Canadian stomach just couldn’t handle it. Being sick in China was a horrible experience….

The Food

If you’ve ever done a lot of traveling then you may already be familiar with the discomforts that new food, flying and time change will have on your digestive system. Now… I don’t want to start a “my diarrhea is worse than yours!” competition with you but in China (and perhaps most developing countries) you’re facing a whole new level of discomfort. When we were staying in central Shanghai things weren’t so bad. We were eating at clean and nice restaurants everyday and buying our food from chain bakeries and supermarkets. I survived for over a month in this area. But then we moved to Sijing, about a 40 minute subway ride from the center of Shanghai. When you see pictures of Shanghai, and it looks all modern and pretty, you’re in the center. Where I was… we had to buy our food from one of two places: the market or one of 4-ish restaurants. The market had all their food out on the ground with nothing underneath it, people handling it, animals getting all up on. The food would sit out on the ground all day… Any meat/fish would also sit out unrefrigerated all day. The restaurants didn’t even have the Shanghai health inspection sign on the door with their rating – meaning they either failed it or didn’t bother to even get it done. Every piece of food I put in my mouth made me violently ill.

The Water

Well that market food doesn’t sound so bad if you can wash it, right? Well… You can’t drink tap water in China and it was one hell of a mission to find bottled water around the area we were living. Even if you boil the bad water you can still taste all the hard minerals in it. The WATER made me ill.

The Hospitals

Well, it all started to catch up with me. One day I was at home and I got very very cold. My lips were dark purple, my hands were white and my fingernails were purple. I was in bed shivering for around 20 – 30 minutes. My fiance (Bay) finally convinced me to go to the hospital… just as he was getting our things together I started to get really hot, my breath got short, my vision got blurred and my hearing began to fade. I screamed out for my fiance as my body went limp and fell to the floor and I blacked out. I woke up before the ambulance got there… and since I’m super neurotic and super high-functioning even while in these situations I was able to get all our international insurance together… I even scooted down the stairs on my butt so the skinny little Chinese paramedics wouldn’t have to carry me down three flights of stairs.

One thing I detest about hospitals is that hospital smell, it reminds me of going there when I was young to see my dad. This hospital didn’t have that smell, and for the first time in my life I missed it. It didn’t have the smell because it was filthy. The doors were all wide open everywhere, it was full of mosquitoes, the toilets had crap (literally) all over them, there was no toilet paper, no soap, the guy who took my blood didn’t wear gloves or wash his hands first and the CT scanner looked like it was at least 50 years old.

My temperature was 39.4 (103, for the Americans) and my blood showed some kind of infection. The cure? A needle in my ass.

I hate needles anyway, but it seemed doubly horrible (and archaic) to get a needle in my ass… so I said no and went with an antibiotic. It was VERY difficult to say no because needles in the ass are VERY common in China. Bay’s entire family was calling me cowardly for not doing it and they were all judging me, the doctor was pushing me and making it sound like the antibiotic would be a bad experience… it was horrible, but I stuck to my guns.

The cost of the hospital wasn’t outrageous… the CT scan was around $40 and we got the results within like 10 minutes. Apparently you can go to private hospitals were CT scans will cost around $400, you get clean washrooms, a private room and… I’d imagine… a doctor who washes his hands. These public hospitals are very poor. If you go into their walk-in area with a fever they make you stick a glass thermometer up your butt to take your temperature… (luckily I got mine in the ear).

One cute thing: My fever didn’t break until around 4 am… but Bay sat up beside me from when we got home (around 10) until it broke using a cool damp cloth all over my body and making me sit up ever 20 minutes or so to drink water and go to the washroom. Shit, I love him.

“All Natural” medication

Along with the antibiotic I was given two other medications to take. They were both “all natural” medications to help with some of my symptoms. We haven’t been able to find the English names of them. As far as we can tell one was an electrolyte (that just tasted like salt water) to keep me from getting dehydrated and the other was a clay to “absorb the toxin from your body” (so said the doctor). Despite my skepticism, especially of the second one, I took both… I don’t think the clay did anything.

We were also under constant pressure from my fiances family to take a variation of Chinese medicines and herbs. There was one that was a Japanese herb… on the bottle it said something about being “alternative”, so we think it was the equivalent of alternative medicine. It was meant to stop diarrhea. They were really pushy with this one! So, I finally gave in and took the pills. I was told I needed to take like a handful of them. So I did, and… surprise surprise, no change. Another one they were pushing was also to help alleviate diarrhea… We went to all the pharmacies we could find and none of them had anything similar to diarrhea medication that we take here in North America, so I had no choice but to at least try the all natural one. …Well I don’t know if it was because of the pill or what, but that night I was the absolute worst I had been in my entire time in China. We had to get off the subway three times so I could throw up and go to the toilet.  …Suffice to stay it didn’t work. We do, however, think… that despite this being all natural that it was something that was clinically tested. We found that there was berberine in it.

Chinese all natural medicine is incredibly expensive. I bought some medicated cough drops for around $1.50 but the pharmacy tried to push a $64 herb on me to cure my cough, and that was just one herb, meant for about three cups of tea. Also, most malls will have a Chinese traditional medicine store and you’ll be hard pressed to find anything in them that is under $100, and the stores are always swamped with people. Some people say that the medicines have worked for them, but I can firmly say none of them worked for me.

I wish I had the names of everything to link you to but we spent a long time looking for things in English to link to with no luck.

Also, Bay  met a high powered business man while he was traveling around Northern China with his father. The man passionately spoke to Bay about all the natural medications he was taking to help with his aliments. He also avidly spoke out against “big pharma” saying it is corrupt and takes advantage of people. What’s interesting here is that China has always relied heavily on all natural, Chinese medicines. But some of these medicines (like the berberine) are sold by the pharmacies in China after being clinically tested… but now, somewhere along the way, the Western idea that “big pharma” is out to get you and scam you has made its way to China.

Intravenous Drip

The other strange thing about being sick in China is how keen on intravenous drips they are. Bay went in with a very slight fever… he was worried he had what I had, but it ended up just being a little cold/flu. Their cure? They hooked him up to an IV for 2 hours. They take you into this room that has over 200 chairs with little hooks above them. Its an entire room used to give people IVs. They just sit in the chair and get stuff pumped into them. The woman beside us was there because she was “hot”… it was so weird.

Being sick in China was a horrible experience. My doctor thinks the anti-biotic killed a lot of the good bacteria necessary for digestion and so after the hospital incident I wasn’t able to eat anything… literally… I was down to eating around 100 calories a day, if that. That, coupled with a cyst on my ovary that would potentially require surgery – I came home. There was NO freaking way I was getting cut open in China………………

(The picture is actually of a private hospital, so imagine it looks 30 years older and dirtier to understand the one I was in.)

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Katie is a graduate student from Canada studying the environment and systems theory. She also loves dinosaurs and baking cupcakes. Follow her on twitter @katiekish


  1. August 17, 2012 at 3:05 pm —

    My best friend is studying the Chinese language and is going to China in two weeks for a one-year scolarship that she got for Beijing University of Technology. She’s very affraid of the food there, of catching any diseases etc. She has done like 8 different vaccines, and the lady that was responsible for the department of vaccinations of Greek travelers told her that she’s overreacting, but judging by your story she’s not at all overreacting. 😛

    Anyway, good luck with your cyst thing.

    • August 27, 2012 at 1:07 pm —

      The food can be REALLY amazing in China… people just need to be careful to not eat too much of it right away, I think. The first time I ever ate real Chinese food I totally pigged out because it was SO delicious. But then I was incredible sick from the salt and oil. And obviously, avoid dirty restaurants.

  2. August 18, 2012 at 10:43 pm —

    I was just visiting my brother in Mongolia (he’s lived there six years teaching at an international school). I made it through the first day ok, but after a dinner at a fairly nice restaurant with family I spent the second day nauseated, feverish and vomiting. Fortunately I had Imodium available 🙂 and recovered quickly.

    My brother’s description of the state run hospitals in Mongolia sound similar to the Chinese one you described. He said that to get close to proper care you need to bribe various staff members. Particularly if you have surgery you need to bribe the anesthesiologist to get the proper anesthetic and not wake up during your procedure. And a bribe to the recovery nurse is necessary to keep from being sent home while still groggy and without your follow up medications.

  3. August 26, 2012 at 3:23 am —

    I’m not doubting your story but…. (one of my teachers did like to say that everything before the but is b.s. tho..)

    China is a big place and things can vary immensely by walking a few kilometers.. Every step of your journey can be avoided. If you were forty minutes from Shanghai then you were probably twenty minutes from a public level two grade hospital that would have been a lot cleaner and had smarter doctors.

    As far as I can tell the drips and needles are mainly used for economic reasons.. less drug needed to get an effective dose.

    As for not being able to buy bottled water.. really? I have stayed in villages of less than a hundred people that lived on a few hundred rmb a year each and was still able to buy bottled water..

    I’ll assume you just got unlucky but for any reader thinking about coming to China I have to point out that it doesnt have to be this way. i have plenty of local friends here who are health concious, clean, believe in modern medicine over tcm and are just everyday average working class people…

    • August 27, 2012 at 1:05 pm —

      lol the “but” sort of says you are doubting my story, but that’s okay.

      I couldn’t have avoided the hospital I went to. I was in an ambulance and my fiance couldn’t exactly say “hey, instead of taking my half passed out wife to the place 5 mins away can we go to another one 20 mins away?” You don’t always get to control what hospital you’re going to – and people should be aware the if there is an emergency situation they may not end up at a place that is very good.

      I understand the drips economical – but they also seem to be used excessively. There was a news story a few years about about students getting hooked up to them while studying for exams at extremely unhealthy rates. (Will search for link)

      The closest place to get a jug of water was about a 15 – 20 minute walk. I went to a village outside of Xi’an and we went into every possible store and were unable to find bottled water, so perhaps you’ve just been lucky to always have access to clean water.

      You’re right – it doesn’t have to be this way but it certainly can be this way. You know some average working class peple that aren’t into tcm and I know plenty of average working class people who only rely on tcm, my anecdote against yours, really. It seems the ratio of those who are into homeopathic medicine is higher than in North America, but I have no real stat to back that up.

      I do know that at least half of my class (there were 20 of us) struggled for weeks with the food, so those with weak stomachs, or who haven’t traveled a lot, needs to be aware of that.

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