In general, I am an advocate of Chinese hospitals. Some are grimy, some are corrupt and some could be used as the set for the next Saw movie, and, for female teachers, some examinations—and some hospitals for that matter—are downright horrific, bordering on draconian.
I recently accepted a job at The Family Learning House, a kindergarten located in Jianwai SOHO, Beijing which is Canadian founded. The school, however, is licensed as a wholly Chinese company. The school charges around $14,000 per year tuition and has around 200 students and 60 staff members. As with most kindergartens, the majority of the teachers are women and, as with all Chinese schools, all of these women are forced to have a yearly gynecological examination.
A few weeks after I started working at The Family Learning House, I was given the name of the hospital and told to be there at 8am on a Wednesday.
I am Australian and I receive free healthcare back home. Whenever I am in Australia, I go for a full check-up, gynecological exam and complete blood panel. I am also a foreigner who lives in China, so I go to the government Entry-Exit hospital near Xierqi in Haidian District for a comprehensive, working visa medical check almost yearly. Having gone to the visa hospital just a week before, I really wasn’t sure why I was being asked to go to a second hospital. The HR woman at the school told me that it was a government requirement, so I went along, prepared to do the medical check again.
Upon arriving at the hospital, (after the crowd) the smell was the first thing to hit me. The whole place stank of a filthy toilet.
This is not entirely surprising because the available bathroom was conspicuously missing soap—or the soap dispenser.
I was being accompanied by a 25-year-old Chinese girl who had been a teacher at the school for several years. This was not her first time at this hospital but it was time for her yearly check-up; she efficiently guided me to the registration line. After waiting with about sixty or seventy people for a check-in number, we pushed our way upstairs to line up again to have a nurse sign us in and print our forms. The first things I noticed on the form were the words “Gynecological Exam”; my blood froze.
I took note of the filthy floors, the unwashed walls, the hundreds of people in line, the overwhelming stench of urine and realized that they wanted me to open my legs for them in that same hospital.
I was terrified and resolved to refuse the exam when it came time, prepared to do everything else on the list, including the x-ray and blood tests.
After paying the 150RMB fee, we got in line for the blood collection. After waiting in a queue of at least one hundred people, it was our turn at the window.
There were three nurses behind glass as if they were working as bank tellers. Patients walk up, stick their arm through the window and they take two vials of blood.
As we approached I noticed they never changed their gloves. Person after person was stuck with a needle and the nurses used pens, computers and cotton-ball blood swabs without a change. Then I saw that one nurse was not wearing gloves at all and the second had torn hers—hanging from the wrist as she used her bare fingers. I then saw the basket of needles sitting on the counter between the nurses. The needles with their attached tubes for drawing blood were unwrapped and not in sterile condition. In the basket were hundreds of needles and tubes wound together, with only a small rubber tip on the end of each needle. The nurses would reach in without their gloves, grab a needle and untangle it from the mess, then insert it into the next patient.
At this point, I was wondering if the needles were reused; the conditions of the hospital were so bad that I was not willing to put my health at risk. I told the other teacher that I had to leave and walked out of there as fast as I could. I sent an email to the principal of the school and to several other staff explaining what I had seen and why I would not be doing to the medical exam. The following day I was told that I would lose my job if I refused to go back and have the vaginal exam as well as the blood test and x-ray. There was no way around it, and I would not be permitted to have the exam performed at a hospital of my choice.
Population monitoring is common in a country which places restrictions on the birth rate. Women who work at schools as well as civil servants are given blood tests, x-rays and vaginal exams every single year. In Beijing, there is only one hospital in each district where women are allowed to have this exam conducted. The hospital for Chaoyang district is The Chaoyang Maternal and Child Care Health Center (朝阳区妇幼保健院), close to the Panjiayuan Antique Market south of Shuangjing.
I spoke to several foreign women who work at branches of Etonkids, a chain of bilingual and international kindergartens in Beijing. One teacher says that she decided to do the vaginal examination at the Chaoyang district designated hospital because she was told it was her only option. She was not happy to do the exam but was told that she would not be able to work in a classroom without it: “It was explained to me by the principal and nurse of my school that when teachers sit on the same chair as children they can pass any STDs they have to the children.”
The teacher I spoke to was swabbed with a q-tip by a nurse not wearing gloves. Several people were in the room with her waiting for their own examination as well as a long line streaming out of the open door. After the exam was finished the nurse whipped back the curtain before the teacher had time to even put on her pants.
When I asked what disease they were looking which could not be determined by a blood or urine test, the Chinese principal of Family Learning House came to me with the Chinese name for trichomoniasis. This is an STD which can only be passed from the sharing of genital fluids, yet the principal insisted, as with the nurse at Etonkids, that this STD can be given to children if they sit on the same chair.
It was sad and somewhat terrifying. All of those teachers and government workers who are forced to do this every year without any recourse or dignity have no choice. I am able to walk away from a job knowing that I will find something else, but many do not have that freedom. The fact that they will only allow you to go to one, designated hospital hints at corruption (funneling money to specific government hospitals). Their goal is not to ensure health; it is to be able to keep records of who is married, who is sexually active, who is pregnant and other personal information. Even worse, the schools don’t care. They send their teachers to these places to be violated and shrug their shoulders at protests.
Writer’s Note: There is an affordable and convenient middle ground for healthcare in Beijing. Western friendly hospitals such as Peking Union and the Beijing Friendship Hospital offer a level of service and cleanliness which could rival that of any emergency room back home. There are dozens of government hospitals and private clinics where one can receive affordable and reassuring medical care in this city. I have never used medical insurance in China; I have lived here on and off, over twelve years and have used local hospitals for everything from motorcycle accidents to women’s problems.