My Cold War In China

It started on day 3 of my 2 ½ week trip to China: that scratchy feeling at the back of the throat which always heralds a cold. Great.

I had packed a suitcase that looked like a pop-up Shoppers Drug Mart, but never thought to include cold medicine. And while the hotel staff were very kind and accommodating, sending lemon and honey to my kettle-equipped room and a driver to fetch me throat lozenges, by day 5 I was hacking like a trooper and suffering from laryngitis too.

It was probably a combination of world-class jetlag, lack of sleep and, as my husband kindly pointed out, advancing age.

So I was intrigued and pleased to see that on my Yangtze River Cruise there was a staff doctor who specialized in both Chinese traditional and western medicine. Educated in the U.S., he gave our group of English-speaking passengers a very entertaining and informative talk on acupuncture, acupressure and more. Doctor, I thought, I am your new best friend.

I went to his well-equipped treatment area – the ship also offered massages and a variety of spa treatments – and after an examination involving much chest tapping and listening, he diagnosed acute bronchitis and prescribed, to my surprise, that most Western of medicines: antibiotics. Intravenous antibiotics.

The entire process comprised 3 visits with him and the 2 hr. treatment, and to be honest I never thought about asking the price. After all, this is China, right? A communist (OK, by now quasi-communist) country. How much could it cost?

$895 is how much it could cost. Yes, CAD 895. My wracking cough was almost replaced by a fainting spell when I received the bill. (Another passenger was very satisfied with a fee of $340 for acupuncture treatment for a sprained ankle: within 24 hr. he was walking as though there had never been a problem)

As you might imagine, I crossed my fingers when I sent the claim, comprising a wad of papers in a combination of English and Chinese, to the insurance company. I mentally prepared myself to go to battle.

Two weeks later, what plopped through my mailbox? A cheque for $895, no questions asked.

So: when counselling clients about travel to China – and despite this episode I do highly recommend it – suggest the pop-up Shoppers Drug Mart style of packing. Advise them that Western-style drug stores are few and far between (in fact I never saw one, even in Shanghai). And tell them, from me, that travel insurance isn’t just a nice-to-have. It might just be worth every penny.

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