Saturday, June 14, 2003

Recovery from SARS

It has been a busy week. I went to visit a man in prison. While doing such is not new, there were aspects to the visit which had been hitherto untried.

The prisoner had asked some time ago for a hymnal so that he could sing some during his confinement. I saw that he got one. Then when I went on Monday to visit, he brought the church hymnal to the visiting room. We sat on either side of a thick glass barrier. He had a microphone and speakers on his side. On mine was a receiver. During our time there, I would switch the phone receiver from ear to ear so as not to weary myself into an asymmetrical state. About 15 minutes into the allotted half hour, he said that there were several hymns, the pages of which he had marked, that he did not know. At this juncture, he held the open book to the thick glass and asked me to sing to him. I looked up at the video monitor camera and thought of the Candid Camera program that I thought had died. And the song service/special music began. There were about 15 other visitors around me at different windows, but who were not giving the poor prisoners their full attention, wondering ...

Some rather grand days have passed this week. Two of those who take Bible studies from me have decided to be baptized. It is to be on June 21. This posed a bit of a problem. I had brought a baptismal robe with me from the US which I wear when I baptize people. But I have been a bit uncomfortable wearing white while those to be baptized wear black. Not only that, but the black robes which have been here for a long time (even though they are not as bad as the poor man at Port Augusta in Australia, who came out of the dressing room wearing someone's dress which I shall never know how he got his hands on it) are not attractive in the least. And so, I decided this Friday the 13th, to order 2 new robes. I took mine as a pattern and headed off. It was pouring down rain, so I wore my yellow rubber rain coat. It is an hour train ride, so I took a good book to read, and SARS isn't gone completely from the horizon, so I wore my face mask.

When I arrived at Lohwu, the border town, I left the train and went to the immigration counter. The Hong Kong agent checked my passport. I lowered my face mask and he compared my younger photograph with my older face and decided that they were still related. My passport was stamped appropriately and I headed across the foot bridge into China and the Chinese immigration desks.

I have been impressed over the last few months with the apparati that have been attached to the ceilings at the border crossings for the purpose of taking the traveler's temperature while he stands in line. The last thing that happens to the border-crosser before he hands his passport to the immigration officer is that this wonder of modern science that moves up and down scanning for hot necks takes the temperature through the medium of infrared light. I stood there in the long line, wondering if I had chosen the wrong line because mine seemed to move so slowly. Finally I would be next and I stood in the spot where one's temp is taken. I looked up at this piece of equipment and it's green and red light. The green flashes to signify that the person being assessed is not so hot after all. I wondered what happens if the mechanism determines that the person below is fevered.

To my horror, this metal box that beams the infrared not only takes temperatures, but also reads minds. It immediately began to beep loudly resentful of my questioning attitude, while a red light flashed directly over my head. Within moments I stood alone in line. In my back pack was my baptismal robe and in my hand my passport and necessary papers to cross the border into China where I would purchase material and secure the services of cheap labor to tailor two robes. A guard appeared from nowhere. Pointing towards Hong Kong, he motioned for me walk. I was making a hasty retreat when he pointed to a door at the side of the immigration hall. I was to enter. Dirty chairs lined the dirty walls of this dirty room where a dirty man sat looking across a cluttered desk at 3 nurses and a doctor. They had little glass holders full of glass thermometers. And they told me to take a seat. I declined. My Friday afternoon was ebbing away, and I needed to order robes and hurry back to Hong Kong. I told them I had decided not to go to China and if they would excuse me, I was just going to be moving along. I was stopped as if I were a suicide bomber heading out for my last job. I was obviously going nowhere.

The dirty man who sat on the dirty chair over by the dirty wall looked quite ill. He coughed and snorted germs about and answered their questions. Again they told me to sit. I suggested to them that this was all a mistake, I was fine and really needed to be going. And, since there were four of them and two of us, maybe they could split up and one or two of them could take my temperature. They thought this might not be a bad idea and sent one of the nurses to gather a glass thermometer from the antique glass holder. She walked towards me and told me to put it in my arm pit. Considering the options, I was somewhat relieved. For 10 minutes I stood there trying to be cool.

Finally, they escorted the dirty man out and asked me to sit down. I said I felt so healthy that I just wanted to stand. The thermometer was removed, revealing a temperature of 37.4, which is about as normal as it gets. "Can I go?" No, of course not, the paper work had to be done, and I must explain things like how long I had been suffering from my cough and the many other symptoms of SARS, none of which I have.. I danced a little jig, showing them that not only was everything cool, but that I also felt pretty good. OK. Just give them my passport. Before thinking, I did so. Then I looked at their hands. They wore the same kind of gloves that food handlers wear at places like Subway Sandwich shops in the US. And their worn gloves looked like they'd been doing a lot of work for a long time without changing gloves. Maybe even making sandwiches. But obviously not a lot of cleaning. I complained bitterly to them of their contaminated gloves and my thusly contaminated passport. I suggested that these were substandard and unsafe medical procedures which needed attention. They looked with total bewilderment at their filthy gloves. I assured them that their appearance was not in the least reassuring, and that neither did I appreciate being held in the room where those suspected of being infected with deadly SARS were also interviewed and spent time in practicing spitting and hacking, leaving fever-produced droplets of death on every surface. Especially in light of the fact that they had determined that I did not have a fever.

Convinced of the infallibility of their temperature-taking/mind-reading machine, they asked me how I had gotten my temperature to fall so rapidly. So, to save them face I told them that I had lowered my mask for identity purposes and at that time, the hot air escaping from my lungs had set off the machine. This seemed to please them and they escorted me back to the immigration point.

The robes are ordered and I am rejoicing this evening in such a quick recovery. Only 20 minutes of my life were spent in the sick room, giving me a glimpse of the workings of Chinese medicine and a story. I am also wondering what time spent in that dirty room will reveal in the next 2 weeks about my immune system.