James and Charity dropped by that evening to tell me June was not feeling well. James looked despondent and asked me if I would pray for her. I promised I would, and that I would visit her too.
Charity met me at the library the next day and guided me through the sprawling, city-like complex of the university’s dormitories. June lived on the ground floor. Entering her dorm room was like walking into an empty closet. Four skinny loft beds were propped against the walls and there were four old wooden stools in the center. June was on one of the stools, hunched over, her knees scrunched up to her head. I was about to say “Hey, girl!” when I saw her face.
There is something indescribable about misery. It may be what Spurgeon had in mind when he said that “some things break the backs of words; they are too heavy for any human language to carry.” Misery was in June’s pretty face. For three days she had been like this, balled into a tight, excruciating knot, unable to eat or drink.
“Charity,” I choked, “has she seen a doctor?”
“I think so,” she replied, “a few days ago, but the doctor did not help.”
I looked into June’s gaunt eyes and saw white streaks in her lips. “Charity,” I whispered, “we need to try again.”
Charity made a call and within ten minutes James was outside, hovering at the window. When he saw me, his anxious features relaxed. Charity and I took June’s elbows and helped her to the door, pausing as she threw up the contents of her stomach—a thin stream of red acid—into a grocery bag. James was at the door, and carefully lifted her into his arms.
We trudged back through the maze of buildings, through throngs of students who did not notice us or our petite burden. James deposited her gently in a plastic chair on the tiled porch outside the campus clinic. June moaned softly. James stood over her, his hand hiding hers. I sat on a stool beside her and braced her huddled shoulders. We waited a long time.
Finally a nurse, who had been staring at me in the intervals between examining patients, looked at June, poked at her with a stethoscope, and gave her an injection. Three beds were crammed in a tiny room at the back of the clinic. One of them was empty. We settled June there, and hoped fervently that the medication would stop the pain. Again we waited a long time.
Finally the nurse returned. Staring hard at me, she reached to feel June’s pulse. I wondered what she was thinking. Perhaps the deferential treatment often given to foreigners could help me to help June. I smiled professionally. “What is your diagnosis?” I asked. “This young lady is my friend and I will do whatever it takes to help her.”
The nurse straightened up, looked straight at me, and said, “She really needs to go to the hospital. I suspect it is appendicitis.” Charity was out the door in a heartbeat to hail a cab. James lifted June carefully out of the bed and the three of us settled in the back seat. A crumpled sweatshirt on my lap served as a pillow. June buried her face in my lap and trembled.
The hospital was the finest one in our part of Lanzhou. It’s cracked tile floors were dirty, there were scraps of trash littering the floors, and the stench of illness was embedded in its old concrete walls. We had to wait again, in office after office, while men in white coats scribbled on pieces of paper and only occasionally glanced at June. No one seemed aware that I was an important foreign expert. No one offered us extra deference or special privileges. No one even noticed me, except one doctor who stared at me with challenge in his eyes. I wondered if he thought that I, with my wealthy western habits, was criticizing their best efforts at healthcare.
Even when June continued to retch and heave into her grocery bag, no one in the facility offered help. The doctors continued to scrawl on scraps of paper and not look up. Finally one of the doctors told us to carry June to the second floor, where most of the rooms along a plain concrete hallway were closed and the lights were off for the night. We roused a nurse, who took a blood sample by gouging a hole in June’s finger collecting the oozing stream in a sterile tube.
Then we went back downstairs to the offices, to wait. While I sat on a bench, noticing the chill emanating from the bare floor, a young man shuffled in, dwarfed by worn-out clothes that were several sizes too large for him. Barely lifting his feet from the floor, he stooped towards the doctor’s desk and began to mumble. The doctor looked up, matter-of-factly and, without emotion, said something, clearly and firmly. The young man slumped still further, but continued his mumbled argument. The doctor responded as he had at first, and the young man shuffled back out, passing within inches of me. His thin sandals were caked in mud. He must not be from the city.
Charity had been staring at her hands clasped in her lap. She turned to me and said faintly “That man is a farmer. He is very sick. His white blood is…not good. But he has no more money, so he has to leave the hospital.”
Something inside me began to ache.
Finally, at about one o’clock in the morning, we moved June to a bed. It was the only empty bed in a cold room full of beds where old men and women, and a young boy with a neck brace were staring at the ceiling. There were dark brown blood stains and dirty streaks on the sheets. For a while June continued to heave stomach acid into the plastic bag, but finally her body relaxed. She stretched out a little, and was getting a little nutrition from the slow drip of the IV that a nurse thrust into her. We tucked heavy blankets around her, pushed the limp hair back from her face, and quietly praised God.
“You should go home now,” Charity whispered, “there is nothing more you can do tonight. I will call you in the morning.” I walked slowly into the dark streets and took a cab back to campus. My head ached and I was hungry. But I did not feel like eating.
As I climbed into my wide, cozy bed with its soft sheets smelling like laundry soap, I found myself wondering what happened to that farmer. What would happen to him next week when I had forgotten all about him? I stared at my nicely painted walls and the touches of wealth all around my room. It took a long time to fall asleep.
The next day Charity called to tell me June’s father was coming to Lanzhou. The doctors had diagnosed June with appendicitis, and would operate before the day was over. The underground church was moving, bringing supplies and visitors and flowers and fruit, and providing June’s father with a place to stay while he was in town. I praised God for the Body of Christ and His helping, healing hands. But I was still haunted by the stench of that hospital.