Time passes one drip at a time when you’re the only gweilo pinned to an IV bottle in a Cantonese cardiac care ward.
My five geriatric heart-attack ward buddies in Hong Kong's ageing, somewhat dingy United Christian Hospital are stoic. Though we can only communicate through smiles, grimaces and occasional farts and belches, I assume that, like me, questionable lifestyle and dietary choices - a steady parade of cigarettes, booze, oily foods, stress and perhaps genetics - have thrown us together here in Ward 5B for a few days and nights.
It takes about 12 hours to figure out the rhythms and customs of 5-B, including the distressing news that, unlike hospitals I've been unfortunate enough to be in in the United States, the visiting hours (5:30-8 p.m.) are strictly enforced. It's also helpful if you packed your own toilet paper and some other sundries such as soap, shampoo, shaving gear and snacks. Fortunately, my first visitor, a Chinese coworker and angel of mercy named Olivia, has shown up and cunningly talked her way into the ward outside of visiting hours with some of what I need.
Authorized visitors armed with books arrive a few hours later. The books are especially welcome as a steady diet of Hong Kong TV squawking from the ceiling rack is unintelligible and unendurable, (though there was a Cantonese language JonBenet Ramsey murder update that seems to report that once again the Boulder district attorney has muffed the case). I am briefly rejuvenated when a bottled water ad featuring a Cantopop singer who goes by the name "Justin" is broadcast. "JUSTIN! JUSTIN! JUSTIN!" fans scream. "I hear you," I mutter. "I'll be better. I promise."
After pain began shooting through my left arm and shoulder a day before, coupled with heavy sweats and a chest that felt like the late John Candy was sitting on it and daring me to join him, it was all I could do to hail a cab. Sweating and cursing while fumbling for my fare, it was clear that the cabbie couldn't wait to eject me at the emergency ward entrance. I imagine that the thought of a foreign ghost haunting his taxi for eternity was a cause of considerable distress.
Inside, I went through a battery of questions, forms and tests before being wheeled up to bed 11 and my home away from home for three days. I am introduced to my doctor, a third year resident who looks all of 13 years old. The meals arrive on schedule at 9 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. and while my wardmates slurp theirs down with chopsticks from bowls, I am pointedly served a chopstick-free tray with a fork and fare piled on a plate.
Breakfast marks the biggest difference, though. The other guys consume a pretty nutritious bowl of congee and eggs along with a slice of toast. But I am given somebody’s idea of a traditional American cardio care morning repast–a sandwich of lunch meat and ersatz Velveeta cheese on white bread with a room-temperature box of irradiated milk: expiration date December 13, 2017. The "milk" will be around longer than I will, I fear. I also wonder what constitutes a heart-healthy diet in Hong Kong. And why do all the medical workers and most of the visitors wear surgical masks? What disease can you contract from a heart attack patient?
(There are other cross-cultural medical puzzlements. At one point following an angiogram for which a very small incision was made in my right groin, I am told that I absolutely must lie still and flat on my back for 15 or so hours so as not to open "the wound." Nature, boredom and my digestive system take their course after 8 hours when I tell a male nurse that I must leave the bed to use the toilet.
"It is not permitted!" Hong Kong's male version of Nurse Ratched informs me sternly. "Do your business in the bed." He hands me a bed pan. Hostility ensues on my part and I insist that there are certain bodily functions I am not comfortable performing with a bed pan. An English speaking doctor is summoned who shouts that straining my bowels on a toilet rather than in a bed pan could "open wide wound, break artery and kill you so fast!" I reply that Lenny Bruce and Elvis both died on the toilet and that I am willing to take a chance. He is clearly not impressed but finally relents. Score one for the patient. I have risked death by toilet and lived to write about it.)
Diagnosis: no damage to the heart muscles, though the angiogram to explore my arteries for clogs, wreckage and the fabled ruins of the Temple of Ancient Cheeseburgers is strongly advised. Afterward, I find myself recuperating for an hour along with a masked nurse named Maggie in what appears to be a combination storage room and MASH unit. She asks me if I want to listen to some music.
"English songs?" I ask.
"I will see," she says in that robotic English delivery used by people not normally accustomed to speaking the language. She sorts through some discs and shows me one labeled "TV Music" which contains an, uh, eclectic mix that ranges from drek to almost delightful. "Disc 2, please," I say largely because Ben E King, The Temptations and even Doris Day are less likely to give me another heart attack than Air Supply, Lobo and Toto.
As King croons “Stand By Me” my eyes begin unaccountably welling up. I am suddenly, unbearably homesick and overwhelmed with self-pity. I want my dead mother. I want my second ex-wife. I want my son, my father, my sister and my Stateside friends. I think of a picture in a New Yorker I had seen a few hours ago of a new addition to the Denver Art Museum and want at that moment more than anything to be walking outside it by the Red Grooms cowboy and Indian sculpture on a hard, clear, crisp sunny autumn afternoon.
I want to kick my way through crackling leaves.
"You are sad?" Maggie asks through her mask.
"I am homesick," I say. "Sorry."
Ben E. King is still singing. Maggie walks closer to the gurney, hands me a folded tissue, stands almost at attention and looks down at me, eyes wide and sincere above the mask.
"I will stand by you," she says.