A spinoff in proper "Rhoda" style of my patented e-mail blastograms, this blog was created with the intention of keeping friends and family updated on and amused by my life.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

In Memorium

I still remember the first day Jean and I met. We were going to a banquet sponsored by the Waiban to introduce all the new foreign teachers to the staff and to each other. Her smile attracted me, and we ended up sitting together on the bus to the restaurant. I found in Jean a kindred soul who understood America’s West, who loved literature, who appreciated nature, and most importantly, who laughed at my stupid jokes.

Working in the same department, we became close friends. In a way, Jean was a mother figure for me. Mother figure, mentor, but ultimately friend, for she was simultaneously young at heart and wise with experience. We challenged each other, and because of that we both grew.

I remember for New Year’s Eve 2005 we took her out to the Speakeasy Bar, easily the grimiest, skuzziest joint in town, but that’s why we love it. She went grudgingly but with an open mind. She sat in the corner and observed: the look of sheer terror on her face as she watched our scandalous dancing remains clear in my memory. I smiled to myself with the knowledge that she was pushing her boundaries, and that, in the end, she was enjoying herself.

Jean was a tenacious, strong-willed woman who fought to the end. Often she found herself in impossible situations, though she never failed to persevere. I have always admired her for this. She told me once of one of her trips to Saudi Arabia. She had gone back to the US to give birth to her second son, Lindsey, but was returning to her husband who was working as a doctor in Riyadh. With her new born in arms, she got stuck in Paris when her passport was lost. With only a few years of high school French under her belt, she managed to live in Paris for a month, alone, taking care of Lindsey, and sorting out her new passport and visa. She always considered that a defining moment in her life, and she always remembered the kindness of the French—strangers sympathetic to her situation who helped her find a place to stay, helped her buy diapers, and helped her with the complicated phone system. Everyday basics we take for granted.

And if there is one lesson that we can take from Jean’s life, from Jean’s most recent struggle especially, it’s an appreciation for the generosity of humanity. Jean was lucky in friends and family, but luckier in strangers. The people who have gathered here today are a testament to this. Kindness and sincerity, but also hate and fear come around. Let us remember that and approach life and those around us with an open mind and an open heart, something Jean did everyday.

Anais Nin once said that, "people living deeply have no fear of death." Though Jean’s life was cut tragically short, she made it clear that she was not afraid of death. Her dedication to constantly learning and opening herself to new situations was her way of living life to its fullest. Through her experiences she blossomed into a beautiful human being and mature soul. Her recent hardships and ultimate passing are but further steps along this path of self-development and enlightenment. A soul whose sagacity has outstripped its mortal constraints must not be held back.

And so, though it is difficult to lose a friend, a mentor, and a mother, we can be comforted in the knowledge that Jean was loved not by a small few, but by a great many. We can be assuaged by the notion that Jean lives today in our memories. And we can rest contented in the beauty of nature and the pursuit of knowledge. And we can celebrate not the end of a mortal life, but a new beginning for our beloved Bonnie Jean McConnell. Thank you.

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Friday, April 21, 2006

Siberia Anyone?

Petropavlovsk in the news...

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Gods Must Be Crazy II

Life is irony. At least that’s what last week taught me.

I arrived back in Kunming early on April 6th after delivering Jean to the US. I was exhausted but tried desperately to sleep on the plane because I knew I had to hit the ground running. I had to teach on Thursday, make up a class on Friday, and there were two fundraisers for Jean that weekend. On Friday there was a “Foreigner’s Ball” at a Chinese bar in town, and on Saturday a Pub Crawl. The Foreigner’s Ball was designed as a show put on by westerners for a Chinese audience, whereas the Pub Crawl was mostly for foreigners at ex-pat bars to go drink.

One of my (and Jean’s) friends Jen was organizing the Foreigner’s Ball, another friend Aaliyah the Pub Crawl. Jen had been running around all week getting acts together for the show, finding people for the date auction, fitting clothes for the fashion show, and drinking with the male strippers until they agreed to the show. It’s a tough life, I know.

Friday night came around, and my roll was selling myself in the date auction, so I decided to go through my standard Friday routine. That meant going to capoeira from 6:30-8:30PM and then to a friend’s house in the neighborhood to shower and change.

The group that I had gone to capoeira with and I arrived late at the actual event, 9:30ish for a performance that was to start at 10. To our surprise, we arrived before the event planner/coordinator, Jen. She did arrive shortly after us, but it was obvious she was in a bad way. We heard from one of her co-workers at the bar that she had been out drinking late the previous night, and we were infuriated at the thought that she was too hung over to run the show.

As she lay on the couch, little sympathy was sent in her direction, as we were too worried about getting through the show, and saw her as dropping the ball. Not having much else to do, I tried to coordinate the behind-the-scenes work as best I could with absolutely no preparation to do so.

We muddled through the show, and all in all, things went ok. The worst part was a horribly long break in the middle as the Italian band took forever to set up (whoops!). We ended up going much longer than we had hoped for, and the date auction, which had been scheduled for the end wasn’t exactly the success we had been hoping for.

The next morning, my anger and frustration at Jen melted to guilt as I got a call from Aaliyah saying she had helped Jen to the hospital, and she was currently in the ER. Aaliyah needed to go finish prepping the Pub Crawl, so I volunteered to take over for her as Jen’s advocate at the hospital. I dragged my friend Matt (who works at an AIDS-prevention NGO and was thus more conversant in medical Chinese than I) along with, and thank the gods I did!

We arrived to chaos in the ER. Jen was writhing in pain, hand clutched on her stomach. They had performed an ultrasound, but still weren’t sure what was going on. Aaliyah was still convinced that it was just Jen being hung over, so she didn’t seem to be treating it too seriously. Also, her Chinese is not bad, but medical Chinese is a whole new realm, and Chinese hospitals are hell. Aaliyah was alone and overwhelmed. We weren’t much better, but we were reinforcements, and we knew who to call.

After Aaliyah left, Matt and I took over. I called Ben (Jean’s boyfriend who is also a Chinese doctor who was at work in Eastern China), who called his “friends” in the ICU to come take a look at Jen. Matt called a Chinese co-worker who could help us translate and work the system.

The fact of the matter, though, is that Chinese hospitals are infuriating (and I’m being generous). It is set up so that you MUST have at least one other person with you (if not two) in order to get anything done. Treatment is withheld until payment is received, damned if procedure is an actual emergency! That means that if they want to do a blood test, for example, they give you a piece of paper, you run to the rows of cashiers on the other side of the building, and bring back the receipt before they ever stick the patient with the needle. Matt became the designated receipt runner.

I was there to try to comfort Jen as best I could while Ms. Yu became our quasi-guide. Next to Jen was a man who obviously had a broken neck and was hurting profusely. Ever couple of minutes he would let out a long, loud, ghostly moan that made me shutter every time. By Jen’s feet was a young child with the skin scraped or burned off his belly. When the nurse would go to given him a shot he would start shrieking. His mother spanked him to shut him up. That was the first time I almost lost it that day.

Jen’s pain became more intense but the doctors refused to give her any pain medicine. It is vaguely logical to not give someone pain medication until s/he has been diagnosed, but it’s hard to watch. Each new doctor (including the “friends” from the ICU who I recognized immediately…you know something is wrong when you recognize your local ICU staff) would ask her what hurt, then press her stomach just to make sure. We took her for a CT scan and once they heard she had been drinking the night before, they were convinced that Jen had pancreatitis (an inflammation of the pancreas caused almost only by heavy drinking where the amylase and lipase, digestive proteins produced in the pancreas, are activated before they leave the pancreas). The CT showed liquid around the pancreas that supported such a conclusion, but they did not find increased levels of amylase in her blood samples. A disconnect.

Since there is no real cure for pancreatits they decided to move her from the ER to the In-Patient Building for further treatment. Matt and I scoped out our two In-Patient options, and decided that the “old one” for 30 yuan per night (US$3.75) was just too shoddy compared to the new one at 40 yuan per night (US$5). They still refused to give her pain killers until she was moved there (so that doctor could poke her in the stomach three times…). Of course, they said it would take about half an hour since there weren’t any free beds (never mind we had just seen them), and when that time did finally roll around they decided that it was shift change and that we had to wait another half an hour. The volume of Jen’s screams only increased.

We finally got the go ahead, and wheeled her away, heading to the In-Patient Building. We went in the door to the gods-forsaken ICU that I knew too well because of Jean, and I assumed we were going up the back elevator that I had used once before to the In-Patient Building. When they wheeled her into the same spot in the ICU as Jean had been in, I was simultaneously furious at the doctors for moving her to the over-expensive ICU (I still hold they just wanted the foreigner’s money) and just about lost it for the second time that day. It had been bad enough the night before when Matt, our emcee for the evening, kept on confusing Jean and Jen’s names on stage.

An American doctor friend who had been helping with Jean came after Jen arrived in the ICU. He talked with the doctors, who were still firmly convinced it was pancreatitis, and pointed out that without increased levels of amylase, it simply could not be. The diagnosis changed to pancreatitis or appendicitis, with blood tests to be done through the night.

The next morning we were back, and they discovered that she had an increased white blood cell count, so they suspected it was appendicitis. She was thus scheduled for an appendectomy that afternoon. We came back for the surgery, and waited for several hours without hearing anything until finally the surgeon came out with her appendix in a ziplock bag and gave it to us (weird!!!). We just stood there wondering where in the heck Jen was…

Jen came out eventually, and we helped her settle in as an in patient in the Digestive Problems Ward. Under heavy medication she threatened to “kick you ni**as” as I tried to get her to breathe with me and take deeper, longer breaths. I just rolled my eyes and backed off a bit.

As opposed to Jean, Jen has been recovering slowly. The hospital, which is a teaching hospital, was torture in that the doctors kept on trying to show off the laowai in a very degrading manner. Besides one doctor first asking Jen if she still hurt the day after the surgery and then announcing that it was because he had had to cut so deep because she was so fat (talk about bedside manner), she had another doctor who tried to show off her privates to his students on several occasions. God damn China! I’ve seen foreigners treated as animals before, but that just crossed the line in my mind.

Her condition continued to improve, but on Sunday we found out that Jean had passed away in the US earlier that morning. Jen was alone in the hospital when she found out. Her reaction was something like: “I can’t believe it. It can’t fucking be true! What makes ME so fucking special that I survived this death-trap and not her? What is this, just fucking LUCK? Chinese roulette? I AM SO ANGRY! What a waste of a beautiful, sweet, loving life!”

I couldn’t agree with her last statement more.

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Saturday, April 15, 2006

My Life in Texto

The following are text messages I've saved on my cell phone inbox. I would have included more messages from my new cell phone stalker, but I've had to delete those 20 messages a day so I have room for anything else! China, or at least Kunming, is F*CKED up! I'm not going to attribute the various authors here, as they might not appreciate that, but some are more obvious than others.

My life in texto:

"Why life is so cruel? I feel so painful now? When can I see my sweetheart again? When will the fucking God get me?"

"Do I have ALL your keys?"

"Good night, huh? Where r u?"

"No, today it was "look at the fat lazy foreigner's shaved pussy, everyone!" I swear I will rape and murder that doctor as soon as I can get out of here."

"Thanks everyone for helping Jean and me. We will miss all of u!"

"Hey, being violated has become part of my morning routine here. Kindof like breakfast. Don't worry, I screamed "fuck you" at him in front of all his precious proteges when he tried to take my hand away from covering myself. "class" was over at that point. I think some of his students understood."

"You rudeness makes me attract!"

"They will take off the respirator the last time tomorrow morning. Please pary for her with me. PLEASE!"

"Can u help me to find someone who can take care of Boris and patty or put them down? Can u pack Jean's staff and deliver to US? Just throw my staff away. Thanks!"

"I don't know. I don't want to know! I won't go back Kunming so please help us!"

"I love life! That is all."

[Professor Kang (that's me). I have returned. But I am going to get married. I have had trouble accepting this emotionally. I need to think about many things. I cannot come anymore. Sorry, Professor Kang.]

And finally a rough translation from memory of a recent text from my stalker:
"We're walking along the beach at sunset. The waves are lapping at the shore. A breeze is blowing, and we walk up to the highest rock. And you fall into the ocean!"

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The Gods Must Be Crazy

I haven't been posting to my blog of late because I've frankly been very busy pissing off the gods. I don't know what I've done to anger them, but apparently something really bad, otherwise how does one explain how shit my last two months have been?

Since I haven't posted it a while, let me first update y'all as to my friend Jean's condition. After she slipped back into a coma towards the beginning of February, some of her other friends and I worked hard to get her transferred out of her horrible hospital here in Kunming. We originally were trying to get her to Thailand as the medical facilities there are close, cheap, and on par with US standards. I will remind you that Jean had no medical or evacuation insurance which made this a tricky situation. We got a bid from SOS to get her to Thailand that was over US$50,000. Luckily we started talking with a Bangkok hospital directly who does their own medical evacuations--their quoted price was only about US$34,000. We tried desperately to scrape the money together. I spent a day with the head of the Foreign Affairs Office at our university trying to convince them to loan us the money and to negotiate terms of the loan. Of course, that whole plan came crashing down when the university came back saying they would only loan us about US$20,000—not an insignificant amount, but not enough for us to get her out of here.

Meanwhile, Jean festered in the ICU. Her condition remained stable, but it was obvious she was in a deeper coma this time than before. Jean's boyfriend, Ben, works for the Clinton Foundation, and they agreed to send some of their doctors to take a look at Jean. I stood there in the room as they performed the reaction tests to see how deep of a coma she was in. Watching them scrape a q-tip across her eye and seeing absolutely no reaction was one of the hardest things I've witnessed in these last months. Given her incredibly limited responsiveness, those doctors feared that she had serious brain damage but couldn't be sure without an EEG, a CT scan with contrast, and an MRI. There was also a concern that she was in status epilepticus (a constant state of seizure) without motor response (in other words, she wasn’t shaking). Of course, the hospital couldn't perform a bedside EEG (so they couldn't confirm or deny if she was seizing), the MRI couldn't be done because we didn't have a portable respirator (which meant we had to use a handbag attached to a metal oxygen canister. No metal is allowed in the MRI room because it works based on magnetism.), which meant that we had to try for the CT scan. We had been asking for a CT with contrast for over a month and a half, but the doctors kept refusing because the contrast, which I assume is some sort of radioactive isotope, could potentially cause kidney failure (her kidneys were just starting to recover as it was). But, with lots of pressure we convinced them to do it.

The CT scan found four potential abscesses in her abdomen (something likely caused by her original disease) and a potential thrombosis (blood clot that travelled from somewhere else) in her brain. It was not good news, but at least we couldn't see any structural damage at that point. The severity of the case convinced the Clinton Foundation doctors that she did indeed need to get out of Kunming, and so they started talking with their principle financier to see if he could help with a loan. Meanwhile, the decision was made to have Jean evacuated to the US instead of Thailand. It was a risky move due to the length of transit, but in terms of long-term expenses, we hoped it would be better. Now that she potentially needed brain surgery, going to Thailand, where we would have to pay all medical expenses, was no longer an option. In the US she would qualify for Medicaid, so we decided to take her back to Albuquerque in her home state.

I started contacting medevac companies again and got a quote from SOS of almost US$190k! Luckily we were able to shop around and found a company that would do it for only US$120k (still an enormous sum). We secured funding through the Clinton Foundation (for which we are eternally grateful. Vote Hillary 2008! :o) ), and the evac was set for the 28th of March. I would be accompanying her.

Of course, I got a call that morning saying the plane had technical difficulties, and that they were sending a new plane, but there would be a further delay of about 24 hours. It was a bigger plane though, a Hawker 800 as opposed to a Lear Jet, which meant that Chesa could come along as well. We arrived at the hospital at about 4:30 in the afternoon on the 29th. The medevac team arrived and the Chinese staff jumped to life, there was an energy, an almost grotesque festivity, in the ICU as they wheeled her to the ambulance. Because the Chinese doctors from the hospital wanted to see the plane, there was no room in the ambulance for Chesa or me. We were "banished" to follow behind in a taxi. As we got in the taxi, I stressed the importance of following the ambulance to the airport very closely, as otherwise we wouldn't be able to get in to the airport. Of course, the first instant the ambulance did something "illegal," like driving in the bus lane, the taxi driver stopped following closely. I started to yell at him, but it was too late. He was caught behind another car, and the ambulance ran a red light in front of us. I sat there yelling at the driver as the ambulance siren's blare died away. I apparently put the fear of God in him, as he finally started driving at full speeds with reckless abandon to rush us to the airport. We actually arrived before the ambulance, which amused me to no end, and I tipped the taxi driver well.

At that point, the Chinese doctors were kicked out of the ambulance, and the airport doctors took over. We drove to the side entrance of the airfield only to be stopped short. The guard wouldn't let us in because we needed to pass through security. The airport doctors were trying to assure them that security was waiting for us at the plane. He wouldn't let us pass, so we just sat there for almost twenty minutes as the calls got made and he finally let us through so that we could get to security that was indeed waiting for us by the plane. Ben had to leave us as we entered the airport as he would not be accompanying us on our trip, so Chesa and I became the official translators between the American evacuation crew and the Chinese doctors, security personnel, etc. We lifted Jean on to the plane, loaded supplies...and sat there for another hour waiting for clearance from Japan. Due to the long distance, we needed to make three stops during our journey: Osaka, Japan, Petropavlovsk, Russia, and Anchorage, Alaska. Japan is very strict about its landing policy and we couldn't take off because they hadn't cleared us for landing. We departed about two hours behind schedule, but due to a 215mph tailwind (the fastest our pilot had ever seen) we arrived in Osaka just about on time in a mere 3.5 hours.

The rest of the journey was mostly uneventful. Arriving in Petropavlovsk, a city tucked away in far-eastern Siberia, was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. We arrived just around dawn, so the sun cast a rosy hue over the snow covered hills that broke from the barren Siberian plane. As we landed we circled around the city and got a fabulous view of the nearby active volcano puffing steam into the morning haze. Petropavlovsk being next to water, we also caught a glimpse of the jig-saw of ice blocks as they freed themselves from the shore.

The landing itself was a bit bumpy as the airport was originally a military base converted for public use. We taxied past several MIGs and were presented with a most stereotypical picture of Russia. We were greeted with large, beefy military types with shaved heads and large coats shouting at us for oxygen tubes and passports. Our “handler” sauntered over in her fur-lined parka to escort us to a Communist-era bus not unlike some I’ve seen in China which made it’s way carefully over the icy ground to the “terminal,” and toilets without lids/seats (though they were not squat pots) and paper that disintegrated when you touched it. I loved it so much, and can’t wait until I have the opportunity to actually visit Siberia. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in my life.

Then it was on to Anchorage and finally Albuquerque. Again, there was not enough room in the ambulance for either Chesa or me, but luckily there was a wonderful man who worked at the private terminal for the Albuquerque airport who drove us to the hospital. We, again, arrived before the ambulance, and made our way to the ER. Of course, they didn’t know anything about it and were under lock-down due to a security breech, so we waited there for a bit until they told us Jean was being taken up to the ICU.

That is where she has remained ever since. They effectively started from scratch trying to diagnose and treat her. We finally got the much-needed EEG and discovered that she had indeed been in status epilepticus for probably a long period of time. Suffice it to say that this was not really good news, as it indicated massive brain damage again. She got a CT scan, an MRI, a lumbar puncture (to see if she had an infection of the spinal fluid), and a whole battery of tests. We had to wear masks, gloves, and scrubs to go in and see her, which I can understand, but which I thought ridiculous at that point considering I had been in an enclosed space with her for almost 24 hours, and had seen on countless occasions before when she was in the ICU in Kunming without taking such precautions.

They think they discovered an e-coli infection more serious than they had ever seen in the US before, and have been giving her experimental drugs to help control that. But really, that’s not the problem with her. The doctors in the US strongly think that she has diffuse brain damage caused by the hypoglycemic shock that the stupid, incompetent nurses here in Kunming accidentally sent her into when they stopped her food but not her insulin. To think there is basically no likelihood for repercussion for such an abhorrent mistake makes me sick.

In the end, the doctors have decided that there is effectively no chance for a meaningful recovery given the severity of her brain damage. Her family thus made the difficult, but necessary, decision to step her off the respirator last week. She has mostly been breathing by herself, but goes through short periods when she stops breathing. This is likely either caused by a) the brain damage itself, or b) the anti-convulsant medication that she must take to stop her seizures. They spent this week building up her strength for yesterday when they took her off the respirator for the last time. At this point, if she stops breathing, that will be the end. And so, now begins the waiting.

As for me, after we dropped her off in Albuquerque, and assured a smooth transition, got her son to come visit her in the hospital, and whatnot, we left for Colorado. We left Alburquerque around 1:30AM one morning and a friend’s mother (who had also just gotten back from Kunming the weekend prior) insisted that no matter what time we were there, that we must stop at her house in Santa Fe for chili, which we did at 2:30 that morning. It was good chili, and an interesting conversation—I learned for the first time about Germans who think they are Native Americans and spend their lives recreating the Native American way of life there. I mean, after all Sioux are Aryan too…

We made it fairly uneventfully to my hometown of Fort Collins, where I got to see my half-demolished house (we’re in the process of renovating the kitchen and dining room), got to see family and even surprise one of my best friends for her birthday. The next day it was off to the Bay Area to visit my mother who has recently moved there for work. We spent Monday eating sushi and wandering the Union Square area shopping. Yay for H&M! I even found some really good clothes which I was in desperate need of. Then my mom and I met up with Chesa and her mom and family for dinner at a lovely Moroccon restaurant.

I got back to Kunming early Thursday morning, just in time to… take another friend to the hospital (the topic of my next post, considering the length of this one). Seriously, what’d I do to deserve this?!

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