Travelling in China is difficult at the best of times, but factor in an eight-day layover in a rundown hospital in the backwoods of Hunan Province and things get a whole lot worse.
I was heading north from Laos through the jungles of Yunnan, where mosquitoes the size of pterodactyls gorged on my blood and turned my legs to bubble-wrap.
As the days rolled by, two bites on my shin turned to pimples, then to molehills, till by the time my train shunted into Shaoshan, hometown of Mao Zedong, it looked like a grenade had been pressed to my leg and exploded. Not savouring a trip to a Chinese doctor, I ignored it and soldiered on, but when the skin changed colour, and my shin swelled wider than my thigh, I limped reluctantly to the hospital.
It was a grim and gloomy place with archaic apparatus, dirty floors and doctors in flip-flops smoking cigarettes. A doctor approached speaking Chinglish: “Staying five night, room 300 Yuan.” I hadn’t paid more than 10 Yuan since I’d been in China so declined; “Okay, four night, 200 Yuan.” A doctor haggling prices in a hospital? I tried to leave but being on a drip I couldn’t escape. Instead, I stared blankly as he made slashing motions around my knee. His gesticulations suggested a full removal of my leg, so I promptly signed the papers and was dumped on a straw mat in a dark room and left to ferment overnight.
Next morning I was wheeled to a room in a chair that steered like a supermarket trolley. It was a sobering and macabre place with at least 90 people, mostly victims of motorbike accidents, packed tightly together as they glumly held their own body parts. I became the centre of attention as cheroot-smoking yokels came to tamper with my tubes, so I was rushed into surgery ahead of the other, more desperate, patients.
The operating theatre was a collection of weird and wonderful machines from the 1950s, with an alien-eyed lamp above a rickety camp bed, and a grizzly tableau of sharp instruments and probes against the unpainted back wall.
I was placed on the camp bed as the surgeons discussed how to carve me up. Although I felt like a turkey at Christmas, my mood was buoyant as I pictured myself telling this tale in the pub back home, and I stoically waited for the anesthetic. The gloves were on, the masks were on, and the scalpel was raised aloft, but still no needle. The scalpel started to descend. Surely they were missing a rather huge and fundamental step. The scalpel was inches above the wound. They couldn’t possibly forget the anesthetic could they? The scalpel was plunged deep into my knee.
It wasn’t so much key-hole surgery as cat-flap surgery. I thought having my ear pierced without anesthetic was painful. I’ve heard childbirth is painful. Frankly, they’re nothing compared to surgery in China without anesthetic. It was already the most painful thing I’d ever experienced by far, then they stuck a knife in it and squeezed. I stuffed my sleeve into my mouth to stifle my screams and grasped the bed tight to stop me thrashing. It took over an hour to remove the infection, and so deep was the wound they needed a metre of gauze to fill the hole. The surgeon wheeled me back to my room and steered my throbbing, outstretched leg into the doorframe.
The wound had to be cleaned and the gauze changed daily. The squeak and rattle of the instrument trolley down the corridor had me scrambling for the window. The doctors would chase floating detritus around my wound with the care of a fairground crane grasping for a teddy. To make things worse, the toilet was a squatter and I could not bend my knees, so after several days of putting it off, I devised a technique that I called “ballet”; aptly named as it turned out I nearly got my Bolshois caught around the U-bend. And I was to discover that it’s not just NHS food that’s bad. As I wallowed in my misery and boredom for eight long days, I feasted on chicken heads, pigs ears and sheep stomach. But now the wounds have healed I can laugh about it. And chicks dig scars, right?