Day 1 of my Social Studies class tour to China I planned to explore Beijing – shopping and eating scorpions and snakes on sticks at the night market. Instead, I’m asking for water and toilet paper through thick double-layered glass in a Beijing hospital quarantine ward.
My unexpected detour began when my temperature registered 99.1 degrees. Sure, with the swine flu scare and news of recent student groups being detained we were all told to take Motrin® or Tylenol® before landing, but I forgot – my first travel mistake. Really embarrassing because my mother was the medical chaperone for the tour!
In the airport clinic, Mom nearly caused an international incident and insisted I wasn’t being taken anywhere without her. The nurses and guards were annoyed and eventually quarantined her too. I expected to be taken to a hotel with American TV and given pizza and water guns like other students quarantined before us. Instead, we were led out to an ambulance on the tarmac and escorted out of the airport by two vans of armed guards. For once, I was glad to have mom tagging along!
The ambulance was old and hot and the vents were sealed off with clear tape. I opened the windows to cool off and the ambulance staff looked back at us as if we were infecting the whole city. It’s important to understand that the “rights” we so often take for granted don’t extend beyond the US borders. Just then we realized we didn’t have contact information for the US Embassy. I felt so helpless.
Even though my temperature was normal at the hospital, I was taken to the infectious disease ward and locked up in an isolation room. The halls and rooms smelled like bleach and reminded me of psychiatric wards in old movies. Four people came in, introduced themselves as “Chinese CDC”, examined us, and took specimens. They were covered from head to toe in protective suits, hoods, masks, and boots. They didn’t talk much and I learned asking questions in English was useless. I wish I had packed a Chinese-English language translation guide!
Lunch arrived. I quickly decided to stick with Chinese food because “western” food tastes nothing like any food back home – even really bad hospital food. I ate a banana and wished I’d packed snacks in my carry-on backpack. Travel tip – always pack your carry-on to survive for a few days if you’re separated from checked luggage!
Boredom set in – the TV stations were all broadcast in Chinese and again, my backpack was ill-equipped to keep me entertained. Mom shared her netbook computer, but there was no Internet connection. The Internet isn’t really everywhere.
Day 2 – more tests. Just before dinner, our release papers were delivered through the pass-through window. Nurses escorted us out past three sets of guarded doors. Six taxi drivers refused to let us in their cabs but number seven was OK taking us to meet our tour group – only after a “special” fee was arranged with our Chinese tour guide. Money talks in any language.
My career goal is to become an ER nurse and eventually a nurse anesthetist. I quickly learned that being quarantine is very dehumanizing. The staff had a limited English vocabulary and couldn’t answer questions, but they were kind and attempted to make us comfortable. I believe they could sense our fear and frustration. I was glad I hadn’t become nasty or disrespectful – it would not have helped and might have made the situation more difficult. My travel misadventure taught me lessons in caring and countless travel tips for the future.
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