The Worst Experience of my Whole Life

May 25, 2016
What a great title for a post, huh? Probably my two biggest fears would be plummeting in a crashing plane and having an excruciating back problem to the point where I could not walk. More on that later.

Last year, I was faced with a tough decision about whether or not I should pursue an opportunity to teach in Shanghai, China. I was gung ho about taking a risk and having new adventures in Asia until I started experiencing some terrible back pain, which caused me to question my decision about whether or not I should actually go. I had a herniated disc, and after taking some oral steroids, going to physical therapy for over a month, and getting a steroid injection in my back, the pain finally became more bearable. After getting advice from two doctors who cleared me and encouraged me to go to China, I took a chance and finally moved to Shanghai.

Up until this point, I was having an amazing year professionally. I've been teaching for six years, and my current class is the best group of kids I've ever had the privilege of working with. We have fun together, they like learning, and their parents are very supportive. I have quite a few students with some dynamic personalities in my class, so there was never a dull moment. I couldn't have asked for more. I felt extremely lucky to find joy in my every day job and  truly grew to love and care about each individual student in my class.

My social life was pretty good, too. By "pretty good," I mean that I had enough time to have one! At our banquet at the beginning of the year, one of the directors said something along the lines of how we should work hard but that we deserve to play hard, too. I can say that I have no regrets and made the most of all of my time.

Living in Shanghai also allowed me to have a better quality of life than I would have had as a teacher in America. With more financial freedom, I found myself going on excursions in and around Shanghai, and spent many weekends exploring locally. I was also fortunate enough to be able to go on many trips within China and visited places such as: Yangshuo and Guilin, Harbin, and Xi'an. For our Chinese New Year break, I traveled outside of China to the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and to Koh Tao, Thailand. On top of everything else, I was able to pay off some more of my student loans. I guess you could say that besides having a good guy in my life, I had everything I ever dreamed of.

So, what about my back pain? Oddly enough, I had minimal pain after arriving in China and starting my new life. Even after six months, I had little to no pain and thought that my back problems were a thing of the past. The first time my back started hurting again was after a really bad Thai massage. Ironically, I thought that I was doing something GOOD for my back, but it's evident to me now that the masseuse really messed me up! Immediately following that massage, I could barely walk and my pal Scott had to assist me and put my shoes on for me. I had to rest in bed for several days afterwards. When I got back to China, I still was in pain, but as soon as I got back into my regular routine, the pain disappeared again. Then, about a month ago, I got out of bed and felt fine, but then I sneezed and that caused my back to go out. By "go out," I mean for that whole day, I could barely stand or walk and every little movement hurt so badly. This worried me, and I thought I was going to have to call of work the next day or go to the hospital. However, when I woke up the following day, I seemed to be much better and was more mobile, so I went to work. My condition improved the rest of the week, so I thought it was "just one of those things." A fluke.

A week after my back went out, I was to fly out to Xinjiang province in Eastern China. A friend of mine contacted me to let me know that he was in China, and the two of us made plans to meet. From now on, I'll just refer to this friend as "C." Anyway, C and I met while we were studying abroad in Besancon, France fourteen years ago, and we hadn't seen each other since! We had been messaging a lot, and we were all excited about finally being able to meet up again after more than a decade had passed. C had a great weekend planned for us, including a getaway to go hiking in the mountains.

After taking a five hour flight from Shanghai to Urumqi, C met me at the airport. I was a bit anxious to see him, but his easygoing nature made me feel comfortable right away. Our first stop was to go to this American football game that C had to be the referee for. It was raining, so the game had to move inside to a smaller space. I'm not someone who is really into football, but it was cool to see how competitive the players on each team got. While C was out on the field, I chatted with some of the Chinese girls who were there watching the game to support their boyfriends. I immediately noticed how friendly everyone was and how eager they were to talk to me.


After the game, we went back to C's place so that I could unpack my stuff, and then we headed out to a Uyghur restaurant to try some of the local food that is so famous throughout all of China. C was friends with the owners, and they just grabbed tons of meat and veggie skewers to grill up for us. After a delicious dinner and a few beers, we went back to C's place and hung out with two of his Chinese friends who were super fun! It's funny because one of his friends swears she learned how to speak English by watching American t.v. shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother. She even named herself Rachel, after Jennifer Aniston's character. The four of us made a plan the next day to drive out to the mountains and to basically have like 5 meals. I guess eating and going for meal after meal is a big part of the local culture.


You're probably thinking that this sounds like a fun weekend so far and not at all like the worst experience of my life, but here's where things start to go awry. I woke up the next morning with a sore back and decided to take a shower and have some breakfast. C and I were talking, but then my back started to feel worse. I told him that I wanted to postpone climbing up a mountain for a few hours and to just rest a bit more to see if it got any better. Not only did my back NOT feel better, but it started feeling a million times worse. It got to the point where I couldn't even stand or walk. It was SO embarrassing to be at C's place and have to crawl to the bathroom. After a few more hours passed,   I knew there was no way I could go hiking, so I canceled that. I started considering going to the hospital at that point, but didn't even think I could walk out of C's apartment complex to get a taxi to take me there. Rachel ended up dialing 120, which is for emergencies in China. An ambulance arrived and the medics came up with a stretcher, but we realized that the stretcher couldn't fit in certain areas of C's apartment building, so that wasn't going to work. They had to go back to the hospital and bring a wheelchair.

You would think that they would've wheeled me into the ambulance, but instead C was in the ambulance and two nurses pushed me all the way to the Second Affiliated Hospital of Xinjiang. I don't even know how they managed since I probably weigh double what they did, and we were going over speed bumps and stuff.

When we got to the hospital, they told me that they were going to do a scan of my back and that I should plan on spending the night because they were going to administer two bags of medicine through an IV. The doctor was pretty confident that I would be feeling much better in the AM after receiving steroids. I was also hopeful that after I received the treatment that I would be on my merry way and could laugh about this story. Much to my dismay, my condition had not improved the following morning, as I still couldn't stand or walk. At that point, I had to contact the liaison at my school and let her know that I was probably not going to be back to work on Tuesday. The doctors then told me that they wanted me to check into the hospital because the problem was much more serious than they originally thought since the medicine they gave me did nothing. At that point, I was very concerned and physically exhausted. I couldn't sleep at all because the man next to me was screaming bloody murder all night. Later, I found out why and I can't say that I blame him. He had gotten stabbed in a nightclub!


I got placed into a room with eight other Chinese women in it already. Eight Chinese patients really means that no less than thirty people will be in your room because everyone has their family there taking care of them. There were also kids running in and out all day long, so it's very noisy. That's just how it is here. I also couldn't help but notice a large hole in the ceiling directly above my bed... It was really hard being in that hospital at first. My Chinese is limited, and none of the nurses could speak English.  Communication was a big problem and gestures could only get me so far. Another terrible aspect of my stay there was the lack of privacy. I think I'm a bit extreme when it comes to privacy, so to have to have none whatsoever was a big obstacle for me. I have a shy bladder and can't even go to the bathroom sometimes right away when a friend is in a stall next to me, and in my room, I had to use a bedpan in front of a room full of people. Also, it was terrible because there were a bunch of husbands in there visiting their wives. It's not like they were trying to look at me, but I just felt HIGHLY uncomfortable.



For the first three days in the hospital, I was exceptionally busy, and just felt really alone and frustrated. C had to go on a trip out of town for three days, which he felt bad about, but it just couldn't be avoided. Have I mentioned that C is fluent in Chinese? Having him there initially put me at ease, and I felt like he was kind of my advocate! He did send a few of his friends who spoke English and Chinese to look after me. Thank goodness they were nice enough to spend a day with me or I would have just been lost and would have starved. They didn't provide any food at the hospital I was at! If I didn't have C's friends to bring me food and toilet paper, I seriously would have gone crazy. Anyway, I had to have so many tests done when I first arrived. I was either being whisked away for a scan, an x-ray, and MRI, an EKG, or a sonogram or else I was getting poked and prodded. Have you ever had blood drawn from your artery from a girl who didn't seem to know what she was doing? After thirty minutes of pain, she gave up and then tried for the next day with no luck. Finally, after her third time trying, she got the sample.

They were also trying out other treatments on me. I had a lot of medicine through the IVs, heat therapy, acupuncture, and other types of Chinese medicine. Nothing worked. The doctor told me that judging from my MRI scan he didn't think those types of treatments would be effective, but that he had to follow a certain procedure before the next steps could be considered. I found out soon enough that "the next steps" meant prepping me for surgery. I had three herniated discs and part of the jelly-like substance from inside of the disc was directly pressing on my nerve, which is why I was unable to walk or stand. I also had a shooting pain radiating down my left leg from my back. My leg was extremely weak and numb in most parts. Compared to American hospitals,  in general, Chinese doctors are very stingy with the painkillers. I had to beg for a shot in the leg each night just to be able to sleep. The doctors told me that my spine was unstable so they wanted to fuse it together. This was a surgery that required 6 weeks of healing time. Again, this posed another huge problem for me because I was out in Xinjiang with only C as my main contact. My bosses at my school kept calling me and telling me to come back to Shanghai because I would have more people to take care of me, but they didn't have any plan in place for me. Like...where was I going to go once I arrived? You have to set these types of things up, as there is not always a bed available in the hospital you want to stay at. It's not like I could really have arranged it from a hospital bed in Urumqi without being able to speak Chinese. I also told them that there was no way I could physically fly back to Shanghai to have the surgery because I could not endure the flight. I couldn't even sit up or walk; how could I possibly travel for four hours on a plane? I was getting stressed out from them asking me to return when there was nothing set up for if I were to do so.

C thought that I should get a second opinion about whether or not I needed surgery and asked his doctor friend to help me out. She took my MRI scans and visited three different hospitals to see if the other doctors still said the same thing. Meanwhile, several people told my friend Scott that they had herniated discs and that I shouldn't get surgery. I had people messaging me left and right about how I shouldn't. I know that they were only trying to help, but that also really irritated me because they didn't know my full medical history and they aren't doctors themselves! Yes, not every herniated disc will require surgery. I should know that since last year I had a herniated disc and was able to get it treated without surgery, but this time I knew it was different. I'm not a doctor, but on my MRI scan there was a huge piece of my disc in my nerve! It was clear as day to me that I needed to have it removed in order to be able to walk again. C's doctor friend got back to me, and she said that all three doctors she had spoken with said the same thing--surgery was necessary. I was in really low spirits because of course I didn't want to have an invasive surgery like that away from home and away from the city I currently live in. I just felt like it was my only option, so I ended up saying that I would stay in Urumqi to have the surgery. The chief of staff would operate on me, I knew the price, and I knew the recovery time. I considered just hiring an ayi (caregiver) to help me get food and with daily tasks I would not be able to perform.

Here is what hit me the hardest about this whole thing...I was alone in Urumqi besides for C. I couldn't effectively communicate with the hospital staff. I felt like I was trapped in Urumqi since I wasn't strong enough to fly back to Shanghai. I was worried about the financial aspect of everything. I wasn't even sure whether or not the hospital I was staying at was covered by my school's insurance. The recovery time was no joke and quite lengthy, and there are always risks involved with any surgery. A big risk of back surgery is paralysis, not to mention the pain I would experience after the surgery took place. I didn't have enough RMB to pay for the surgery and the only way I knew how to get USD to RMB was to be physically present at my bank in Shanghai with my passport. I also felt terrible that I wasn't there to teach my students...I know that this is beyond my control, but I was looking forward to finishing out the year with them. Finally, I was gutted to have to cancel my summer trip to Morocco, Spain, and Iceland with Scott. We pre-booked almost everything, so we both lost a lot in cancellation fees. I also found out that I would not be able to fly back home to the States for the summer to see my family. It was going to be the first time that all of us were together again since my grandma passed away years ago. My friends will all leave China this summer to travel and to go home, so I'm going to be here alone and will not be able to fly out of China again until Chinese New Year next year (February 2017.) When I think about that, I get a little sick to my stomach because who wants to be in pain without any friends or family around to help them?

Even though this has been a trying time for me, there was nothing that could be done. It's not like I was out doing something irresponsible and injured my back in that way. It just happened, and as bad as it is for me to go through this, I am keenly aware that it could have been much worse. Although this situation is far from ideal, I'm counting my blessings and hope that this situation will make me stronger. I will never take being able to walk for granted again and am much more compassionate to others with chronic pain. Having this surgery is inevitable, so now it's time to suck it up and heal because that's all I can really do.

Have you ever had a severe injury and how did you cope?

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