July 29, 2010
Today we left for Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet. We had a long drive to reach it from Lhasa, about 7 hours. Nobody was really looking forward to the drive, especially Alisa who was still not 100%.We would have rather spent the time in Lhasa instead but again we don’t have much flexibility because of the restrictions in Tibet. Our guide needs to present the tickets and all receipts as proof that we actually went to each place on the itinerary and each day needs to be full to make sure we don’t have too much free time to investigate.
The first part of the journey was uneventful and we just watched the scenery until we got to Yamdruk Lake. We stopped at the summit of Kamba-la pass (4700m or 15,419 feet) and took some photos of the lake, yaks, baby goats, etc. The elevation was much higher there and I felt too lightheaded to get out and walk much. Alisa was curled up in the back of the van, clearly suffering. Every person was looking at me and gesturing that she needs to drink. I tried unsuccessfully to coax, plead, and force her to drink as she didn’t even feel well enough to do that. We brought 3 canisters of oxygen with us and we started taking some to prepare for the higher pass coming up. The tanks unfortunately didn’t come with masks; just a little tube with a nozzle at the end. We hooked the little tank up for Alisa but she still didn’t seem to improve much.
When we reached the highest pass, we stopped for lunch. Alisa laid down at one of the tables not able to eat or drink. A man approached and offered his help. He is a guide for National Geographic photographers and just came back from a photo shoot at Mount Everest. He got a proper oxygen tank and mask out of his vehicle and began giving her hot sugared water. She began to feel a bit better so I ordered some vegetable soup for her. The rest of us had finished our lunch and her soup still didn’t arrive. She then felt nauseous and unfortunately the toilet was downstairs, which was even difficult for me to get down without getting lightheaded; I can’t imagine what it felt like for her. I helped her down the stairs into the bathroom and she became very ill. I took her soup to pour the broth into a plastic bottle and get got her into the van straight away to try to get to lower elevation.
She only got worse in the car. The highest pass was 5580 meter or 18,307 feet. I tried every tactic to get her to take in liquids. Every now she would take a sip but unfortunately she needed liters of liquids, which just wasn’t going to happen. Ange and Chantal are both medical professionals and there wasn’t even that much that they could do at that point for her if she couldn’t ingest any water. We basically needed to get her to a hospital. Ange and I sat in the backseat with her trying to hold her steady as we wound through the mountain roads. We applied cold compresses, trying to help her control her breathing, and hopefully getting her to drink something. Ange said it reminded him of his time as an army doctor in Vietnam. After a while of holding her legs, I inevitably got motion sickness and spent a while gagging with my head out the window. Finally, we were getting low enough in elevation and closer to Shigatse which is where we were going to spend the night.
Just as we were about 40k from Shigatse, we were pulled over by the police for speeding. Of course, they were Chinese police and were belligerent to our Tibetan driver. They kept us for a long while and we all started panicking because we had to get Alisa down in altitude and to a hospital or at the minimum a pharmacy and Chantal could administer an IV for Alisa. The police still kept us there despite the driver explaining that a passenger was ill and we were trying to get treatment for her.
We ended up first calling the American Embassy and then the Australian Embassy to have them intervene on our behalf and make the police let us pass. The driver was only speeding to try to get help for her and the longer they hold us, the worse she will get. After what seemed like an eternity, they police let us go giving the driver a hefty fine and was ordered to attend driving school. When we arrived in Shigatse we went straight to the hospital. A doctor there spoke some English and examined Alisa. Her oxygen levels were only about 50 when they should be 100 and she was dehydrated. Ange and the doctor agreed on a course of treatment, we went to the pharmacy to purchase new needles and order the medicines and they got started right away.
We were lead to a room upstairs. The hospital wasn’t very big or full. We had the room to ourselves. I stayed behind in the hospital with Alisa while the others went with to register with the local authorities and to bring our things to the hotel. Chantal gave me a brief rundown of what the doctors should be doing and warnings of what to keep an eye out for. I am a person who normally feints in hospitals so I was pretty nervous about having to watch over her treatment. Ange and Chantal told me that they would “piggyback” the iv, antibiotics, and the potassium and estimated the treatment should be done around 11pm. So we had about 6 hours to kill. I climbed in bed with Alisa and got out the laptop to watch a movie. Bobby and the driver came back and brought some fruits and juice for her and she finally drank for the first time in a day. She downed an entire bottle in what seemed a single gulp.
They left again to get some dinner and brought back glorious thukpa noodles. They start with one ball of dough and stretch out the entire thing to make one long continuous noodle. I would have like to see them in action to try to replicate that at home. After a while another patient entered the room and so we needed to give up the bed that Bobby and I had been sitting on while Alisa slept. The nurses simply smoothed out the stained sheets we were sitting on and the patient went right in. At least they laid down a covering for Alisa first. This patient was a middle school English teacher from Chongqing.
After nearly 5 hours Alisa’s IV was finished. I ran downstairs to tell the doctor that she is done and then they came back with two more little glass bottles. So apparently that bottle wasn’t piggybacked after all and now we needed to wait for these next two bottles to be administered intravenously. Bobby and the driver went to the hotel to get some sleep and I stayed to watch over her drips. There was no call button so I had to run down the stairs to the doctor’s area to alert them when anything happened. Around midnight all of the bottles were done and I went down the stairs to get the doctor once more. When they returned, I was sure that they would discharge her but they instead brought a great big bottle of milky white potassium. I was aggravated because here I thought that they kept the IV on the super slow drip was because if they administer potassium too rapidly it can cause a burning sensation. So the regular IV which should have taken any time at all ended up taking 5 hours for no good reason. The English teacher finished her treatment and the staff encouraged me to take a rest in her bed. That basically told me not to expect to get out of here anytime soon.
I straightened out the used hospital sheets and fell asleep for a while until they woke me up to go pay. I stumbled around looking for my shoes, careful to avoid the medical waste on the floor and ran down the stairs once again. The night in the hospital and all of her needles and medications cost 639 yuan, nearly all the money I had (roughly $100 US). I got the bed free of charge. I had no idea where we were staying and had no way of reaching anyone. The doctor fortuitously had gotten the contact information for the driver and he came to get us. It was past 3 am by the time we got to the hotel. And that was the time I spent the night in a Tibetan hospital…