A Harrowing Ordeal in China
Never take your love for granted as it can be yanked from your life in a heartbeat. ~Kay Bratt
As the mammoth creature swayed its back to and fro, I looked down from our perch on its back to shiver at the sight of the steep drop off only inches from the path our elephant was taking us down. It terrified me that if it stumbled even a bit we’d all go careening to our deaths. Between Ben and I, Amanda grinned from ear to ear, enjoying the adventure as the mahout walked alongside us, occasionally touching the elephant with the bull hook he wielded with authority. I clutched the side rail of the bucket we sat in and prayed for it to be over already. Yet our guide made time to pull the elephant over to the side of the path and make us wait as he lit up a tightly-rolled marijuana joint and joyously toked it until it was burnt away and he was ready to resume the tour.
Touching an elephant up close is an enlightening experience. I’d always had an infatuation with elephants, as I believe they are one of the most loyal and intelligent creatures on earth, but their skin is strange! Not only does it feel weird because it is so rough like tree bark, but it has small wiry hairs protruding from it all over—hairs you can’t see until you get up close, but then you can see and feel them. However, they have beautiful, long lashes on dark eyes that are pools of wisdom and memories.
This wasn’t our first visit to an elephant camp, but it was the scariest. We were on our second trip to beautiful country of Thailand and as my stomach heaved from the motion of our ride, I swore it’d be our last. In previous trips to elephant camps, the areas have been clean and neat. But this one was not. The path was littered with piles of elephant dung and the smell that wafted up to our noses was atrocious. As a protective mother and a germ phobic, the experience was more of a nightmare than a fun event for me. But we got through it and we ended our trek then we finally made our way back to the resort we were staying at. Something niggled in the back of my mind telling me that we shouldn’t have gone there, but it would be years before I was educated about the truth of elephants camps. The facts are (I later learned) that many baby elephants are taken from forests in Burma, then starved and abused until their spirits are broken enough to use for the tourist camps in Thailand and other places. Sickening to me, I discovered that elephants are jerked from their tight-knit and protective herds, trekked into Thailand and forced into captivity for the pleasure of humans. To this day I still feel a deep shame to have been a part of the chain of supply and demand of such an atrocity.
But back then I was clueless in Thailand and the next morning I lounged by the pool under the scorching Thai sun and watched Amanda and Ben splashing in front of me. The pool had only just been re-opened because a small tsunami somewhere had caused floating trash from the coastal villages to make its way over the edge of the infinity wall and into the pool water. The resort crew had spent hours cleaning it out and then piled sandbags on the wall to prevent any more spillage until the current slowed down. I refused to get in but Ben had assured me all was fine, that a four star resort wouldn’t subject their patrons to any biohazard danger.
Later that afternoon, he joined me in my sun bake and I noticed a large red sore on his lower leg.
“Did you get stung by something?”
He didn’t even know what I was talking about. It could’ve been the endless glasses of beer numbing the pain for him, or it just wasn’t a big deal. I pointed it out and he shook his head, unable to remember how it had gotten there. Since it didn’t seem to bother him, we let it go and returned to enjoying our last day in Thailand. Our week has been a time of good spicy foods, walking around the markets at night, listening to the Pilipino bands, and many hours spent unwinding and renewing our spirits to get ready for another round of China. I hated to admit it, but flying into the Chinese airport and facing the hordes of people and gray skies was something that this time I dreaded from deep in my gut. I had a love-hate relationship with China; it wasn’t an easy country to live in. This time the hardships were getting to me, making me more fragile as I battled the Chinese bureaucracy for every surgery my volunteer team and I wanted to support, or every child we found in jeopardy. The truth was, the constant conflicts and the wanting faces I left behind each day were breaking me down.
The next morning the sore on Ben’s leg was bothering him a bit but we packed up, made our way back to the airport, and flew back to China. As we kept the pace with other disembarking passengers, we were a quiet trio, all of us deep in thought and resigned to return to what we’d chosen as our home. The only bright spot was that I knew I’d soon see a special little girl who had wormed her way into my heart and made it hard for me to totally leave China behind in my mind. Abandoned because of an accident that had left her crippled, the girl we called Sunshine, and I had an unusually close connection. Out of all the children, it was her face that beckoned me reluctantly back to my work.
When I awoke the next day I expected for everything to be back to our normal routine but I was surprised to find that Ben was still home, not having left for work before dawn as usual. I found him in the bathroom, soaking in the tub and looking miserable.
“Hey,” I asked, a mental red flag popping up inside my head. Ben never missed work. “What are you still doing here?”
When he looked my way I could tell immediately that he was feverish. I crossed the room and felt his head, confirming my suspicions.
“I think I’ve come down with something,” he said, sounding even worse than he looked.
I told him he was staying home and I went downstairs, then outside to talk to the driver that still waited patiently. Minutes later, the driver was on his way back to the factory with an empty back seat and I was on my way back up to see about Ben.
Hours later, things took a turn for the worse. Not only was Ben feverish, but his leg was throbbing. He called me into the bedroom and showed me the sore we’d seen in Thailand. It had now opened up and was oozing pus, making an ugly stomach-rolling sight.
I cringed. “Eww..what is that?”
He said he thought it was an infected boil or possibly an ingrown hair and asked for more Ibuprofen from our dwindling stash. I was still concerned but he assured me that a day at home and he’d be good as new. We’d soon find out how very wrong he was.
By evening Ben was in agony, writhing in pain and astonished because not only was the open sore getting bigger by the minute, but now he had two more show up on his leg. The new ones hadn’t opened but were red and swollen. Even so, I knew something was very wrong and I begged him to let me get him to the doctor.
Going to the doctor in China wasn’t a simple thing. In the town that we lived in, there were only Chinese hospitals and to say they were lacking is putting it mildly. Ben had already survived the health systems once after a bout with Ecoli poisoning that had him bedridden for a week. He’d visited two of our local hospitals and even had to hold his IV pole while holding his pajama pant legs up to avoid the piles of feces around the squatter hole that served as a patient toilet. Back then he’d weakly hovered over the putrid hole during his vicious diarrhea and vomiting marathon. In that circumstance, we’d indignantly moved him to another hospital and there he’d found the same inadequate services and the same lack of a bilingual staff to tell us what was happening. We were clueless and at the mercy of a staff who wouldn’t take a blood test, therefore couldn’t diagnose his infection for days. They’d finally gotten him transferred to a hospital in a bigger city and treated him correctly, but not before he’d felt mishandled. He swore he’d never go back—that he’d rather die. I told him that might be the case if we didn’t get his butt to a doctor.
His argument was also that he couldn’t make it all the way to the big city hospital. It would take hours to get there by car and Ben didn’t want to suffer through the logistics of the transport, the sure car sickness he’d experience, or the stress of the kamikaze highway driving it would require. He refused. I insisted. He refused. It was one of those husband and wife stand-offs when he was being ridiculous and I couldn’t convince him otherwise.
By the next day the decision was out of his hands.
I’ll have to say that in the ten years of marriage we’d had at that point, and really in all my life, I’d never witnessed such a normally tough man cry so hard from agony. Ben laid awake all night, clutching his leg. We’d called a translator who called a doctor and they’d said for him to coat the open sore in Vaseline and wrap it tightly in saran wrap. Neither of us held medical backgrounds and their idea sounded like the best one at hand. But it didn’t help. Ben described the pain as feeling like his leg was eating itself from the inside out. As I stood helplessly wringing my hands, all six foot two and two hundred something pounds of my husband was curled up in a helpless ball in our bed, begging for mercy and any drugs I could find to knock him out. He was out of luck, though, because our medicine cabinet was slim pickings.
By morning we’d called our corporate office in the states and they’d gotten us in touch with a medical doctor, who advised Ben get to a hospital—stat. They wanted us to call an ambulance but flashbacks from our first year in China when we’d witnessed a man struck by a car, and the ambulance team screeching to a stop beside him filled my head. They’d not even checked to see if he had vitals or even broken bones. They’d picked him up by his limbs and slung him like a bag of potatoes onto the stretcher, then whisked him away.
I wasn’t letting a Chinese ambulance crew come for my man.
I called our driver and he came quickly, and the two of us struggled to get Ben down the three flights of stairs from the bedroom, out of the house, and to the car. At that point, Ben couldn’t put any weight on his leg without shooting darts of venom throughout it.
I set Amanda up to stay with her best friend across the way and we headed to Shanghai. The trip was as usual, a nauseating one full of near misses, horn-blowing, and white knuckles. With each jolt, Ben screamed with agony. The ride felt like it took days. However, the hospital was prepared for us and our driver, James, did a great job of translating to get Ben hurried onto a stretcher and a shot of morphine injected into his system.
That calmed him down for about thirty minutes. Then the agony returned and he writhed on the stretcher, begging for something else—anything else to knock him out.
Unfortunately, the hospital we were directed to go to wasn’t used to dealing with foreigners and Ben became something of a side show and complicated case. Physicians, nurses, and even students gathered around and discussed my husband as if he were a cadaver on display. As I struggled to understand their rapid Mandarin, I felt more and more helpless. At one point, a nurse came in and administered another injection of morphine. Not seven or so minutes later, another nurse came in and started to give another injection.
“What are you giving him?” I asked, suspicious already.
“Morphine,” she moved closer to him. She appeared to me all of about nineteen years old and my belly flipped over a bit.
“But another nurse just gave him a dose a few minutes ago,” I stepped between her and Ben.
The nurse grabbed his chart from the wall holder and glanced at the paper.
“No, she didn’t.”
“Yes, she did,” I insisted, in my increasingly irritated worst version of Mandarin yet.
Luckily the other nurse popped her head around the curtain—yes, no room available, only a curtained off area—and agreed with me. I knew then I had to keep a tight vigil on what they were giving my husband and when. He was too far gone with pain and desperation to even know what was happening, and would welcome any amount of morphine if offered.
Hours later they transferred Ben to the third floor and decided they needed to excavate the main lesion to release the pressure that had been building from the tightly woven saran wrap. They took Ben in to their surgery room at the very end of the wing and administered an epidural to block the pain of the impending procedure.
The epidural didn’t take effect.
As they worked, tears ran down my face and I covered my ears against the inhumane howling and screaming coming from the surgery area, an agonized voice I knew to be from my husband. From the escalating sounds of terror and pain, I couldn’t imagine what they were doing to him and I had to hold myself back from rushing down the hall and storming the room to demand they stop. I paced the floor, praying and praying as tears soaked my face and chest.
When Ben was wheeled back in a few hours later, I was a basket case begging him for forgiveness that I’d allowed the medical team to hurt him so badly.
The truth was, I didn’t know what to do or who to listen to! I made calls on Ben’s work phone back and forth to his sister, a nurse in the states, and she was just as confused as I was because no one would give me a diagnosis. That was soon to change when the director visited the room later and explained that it was their analysis that while we lounged around the pool in Thailand, larvae had dropped from the trees and burrowed deep into my husband’s leg, causing a major infection. Therefore they wanted to continue with the Vaseline and saran wrap procedure, to force the larvae up for oxygen. I asked how they knew this to be true, and they told me they had another American that this happened to before. Oh, that’s it! Because we are American, he has to have the same problem as the last American they treated! Sure, that made sense.
By the next day, at least eight inches all around the sore spot was inflamed to a deep scarlet color and becoming more painful by the minute. I paced the floor, unable to eat or sleep as I watched my husband deteriorate.
When the physician finally visited and relayed nothing other than the fact that Ben was expected to stay at least three days, I made a run home for more clothes and money. At each turn they were asking me for cash, and the money flowed through my fingers like water, though I had no idea what I was paying for. In my confusion, I simply handed it over when the driver translated it was for ‘medicine’ repeatedly, but refused to tell me the names of the medicines. Sometimes they gave me receipts, and sometimes they didn’t. I only knew I didn’t want to do anything that would make them walk away and let my husband suffer, and though the morphine wasn’t taking away his pain, I couldn’t imagine what he’d be like without it. So I kept paying.
On my way back to our home, I received a call on Ben’s phone. It was our company’s medical director of international assignments or some such long title. I was so relieved to speak to an English doctor that was involved in Ben’s case. The questions flowed from my mouth faster than he could understand before he stopped me cold with his next words.
“Excuse me—it’s late here and I need to get off the phone, but I wanted to tell you that at midnight your time, there will be a private jet on the tarmac of the Shanghai international airport, waiting to evacuate your husband out of China.”
That shut me up. For a nanosecond.
“Evacuated? To where?” I asked, a feeling of relief flooding every fiber of my being. Thank God they were getting him out of the hell hole he was in.
I sighed. I didn’t know anything about Hong Kong but I had heard their medical facilities were top notch. Still, I would’ve loved to get him back on American soil. The doctor read my mind over the five thousand miles of air between us.
“You were probably hoping to get him home, but it’s too far and too risky. He needs immediate medical attention.”
No shit, Sherlock. What took you so long? That’s what I wanted to say but instead I burst into relieved tears and garbled gasps of gratitude. The doctor discussed with me that tests had been taken and they were awaiting the results but he was fairly sure that Ben had contracted a lethal case of Staphylococcus—a staph infection.
My mind quickly sped back to Thailand and the littered swimming pool, then the stinking elephant camp we’d visited, the hordes of flies and mosquitos. The staph bacteria could’ve come from either place or neither one. It was hard to tell, but I thought of Amanda and my heart sank.
“Is this contagious?”
He said it was, and that we should take every precaution. I would’ve liked to have been told that vital piece of information days before and could only hope that we’d not contracted it. The doctor then told me that Ben’s case was one of the most serious he’d heard of, and that the Shanghai medical team wanted to keep him to learn from the case. He said they’d refuse to let him go but I was to ignore them, and a team was on the way to enter the hospital and take him out to a waiting ambulance. He kept dropping the phrase dire prognosis, making me think the company was about to flip out because they thought they might end up with an expat death on their hands and that would really upset their perfect apple cart. The doctor coached me on how to handle the losing face issue in Shanghai.
Oh, I could see he must have skipped the company-wide cultural training mandate.
It all sounded very covert and I almost pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t in another one of my vivid dreams. He then he wrapped up the conversation and I hung up the phone. I relayed everything to the driver, then saw his expression change.
“How long will you be gone?” he asked, looking at me through the rearview mirror.
“I don’t know. It depends on how long it takes for them to get Ben fixed up.”
He then told me that the director of the orphanage had called (she always used him as our translator) and invited me to a banquet and awards ceremony, and that I and my team was up for an award called ‘The Pride of the City’ for our humanitarian work at their institute. He said thousands of people were nominated but I was in the final twenty.
I shrugged. That’s nice but what’s an award when your husband could be dying?
The driver started telling me others who’d received the award, though the only one I could recognize was the famous designer of the Louvre in Paris, a Chinese man named I.M. Pei. Still, it wasn’t like I could just say, “Hey Ben, you go on to Hong Kong without me and I’m sure you’ll be fine—I’ll stay because I’m getting a prestigious award!” At the moment, the award meant nothing to me, though years later I would cherish the article from the paper as well as the glass trophy the driver brought to me after the ceremony.
James and I arrived home and I bellowed orders out to Amanda to get ready (I wasn’t leaving her behind) and I piled things onto the pool table to pack into a suitcase. I ran around getting other items like cash, passports, and bathroom supplies and as I gathered, James packed. It was a huge example at how overturned our world had become, as the drivers almost never came into our homes, and yet here he was handling our underwear. Or so I thought, and would discover later that he left out our underwear, leaving us without a single pair to our names when we arrived in Hong Kong.
The driver, Amanda, and I piled everything into the car and were back on the highway to Shanghai in less than half an hour. With a few hours to waste before we’d arrive, I took the opportunity to stuff my mouth with stale crackers and wash it down with water, the first food I’d had in two days. I was beyond weak, but still nothing would stop me in my resolve to get my husband to where someone could save his life.
We arrived at an empty airport in Hong Kong in the middle of the night. It was a dramatic escape from the Shanghai hospital by a band of what looked like hell bent Ghostbusters who stormed our room and without words, transferred Ben from the hospital bed to their stretcher. They wheeled him down the hall, ignoring the protests of the Shanghainese nurses and doctors. Amanda and I followed behind, carrying our luggage and keeping our eyes on Ben.
The doctor stopped me, pushed me against the wall and begged me not to let them take Ben, that she had everything under control. I almost lost my temper and if I’d had the language skills, I would’ve told her that we’d spent three days under their care and they’d yet to give me one possible diagnosis, tell me what tests they were doing, or even give me the English names of different medicines they were trying. I’d spent thousands of reminbi and they’d kept me in the dark and kept Ben in agonizing pain. I was leaving.
It took six Chinese to lift Ben’s stretcher into the ambulance, and we had a situation where they snapped the security belt over his leg and Amanda had to yell at them to loosen it, but we held on tight as they whisked us through Shanghai and to the airport. When we arrived, they wheeled Ben through long corridors I’d never seen until we ended up on the tarmac facing a Lear jet. (and a very posh one at that!) The team couldn’t lift Ben up the stairs so somehow they shot him up with enough drugs that he was able to hobble up using the shoulders of a few little guys, then he dropped onto another stretcher that was secured on board.
They’d sent a nurse from Hong Kong and she was like a guardian angel. The first thing she’d discovered was the hospital was only giving Ben enough morphine for the average Chinese man, not my big, strapping American guy of two hundred plus pounds. She administered the correct dosage and for the first time in days, Ben quieted down and slept. When his face relaxed into slumber and the painful expression he’d carried diminished (but didn’t quite disappear), I sobbed in relief and didn’t stop until we reached Hong Kong. The stress of the last few days had caught up to me and I was close to breaking. I didn’t know what was ahead, but in that moment, I was glad to leave China behind.
It’s a good thing I was able to use purge my fear and frustrations. For when we landed at the airport in Hong Kong, then arrived at the Happy Valley Hospital and Sanatorium (the latter of which I think I was ready for at that point), a physician awaited us with a fully prepared operating room and team ready to immediately amputate Ben’s leg.
“Amputate?” I asked, and felt a sudden swirl of lightheadedness. Beside me Amanda fidgeted with her bag as she looked for a place to stretch out and go to sleep in the room, thankfully not hearing or understanding what was just said. She was moving on fumes alone, completely exhausted from the road trip to Shanghai, the harrowing ambulance ride, then the flight to Hong Kong. She looked up at me with dark-rimmed eyes peeking from a pale face. With that look I marveled at how our steady life had been turned upside-down in a blink of an eye.
The doctor ignored my question as he read through the scribbles of Chinese characters that made up my husband’s medical report. Then he looked up.
“That was the plan, they may not have relayed it to you, but your husband has a lethal strain of Staphylococcus and also Necrotizing fasciitis. But let’s get him settled in and I’ll be back around to talk to you in a few minutes.”
I shuddered. I knew that Necrotizing fasciitis was the fancy name for flesh-eating disease and was horrified. I’d seen Dateline shows of cases that had ate people’s faces off. No wonder what had started out looking like a boil was now a huge volcano-looking pit of destructed flesh and blood. He told me that the Shanghai team had already tried to debride it—basically scrape and cut it away—but were unsuccessful. I realized that the epidural he’d had in Shanghai wasn’t for a procedure to relieve pressure, but instead for the debriding. The lack of sufficient anesthesia for his body weight was the cause of his blood-curdling screams as they’d worked on his leg. The doctor also said the Vaseline and wrapping in saran wrap was the worst thing we could’ve done and probably escalated the infection. I explained to him that the Shanghai doctors told us to do this at home, and also did it again in their hospital.
I wanted to kill them.
But I kept that to myself and withheld judgment while the new doctor talked. He was a specialist in infectious disease and a plastic surgeon. He spoke English! He decided to delay the amputation and try one experimental drug for a few hours. He relayed to us that the amputation was decided between him and the medical director of my husband’s facility earlier that day.
Hmm…you’d think that the man would’ve given me a heads up on his plan. Or that Ben or I—his wife, for God’s sake—would’ve been privy to such a drastic decision? No, but thankfully, the doctor wanted to at least try to save his leg. He drew a circle around the inflamed red area and said if the inflammation traveled outside the line at all over the next few hours, they’d have to take the leg. He had one drug he wanted to try, but he informed me that sometimes it took trying up to a few dozen different drugs to find one that would fight a specific strain of what Ben had. Despite the dire words, I felt a sense of calm come over me because the doctor seemed confident that though Ben might lose a leg, he’d not stand aside and allow him to lose his life. I clung to that hope.
The next morning we were relieved to see the inflammation had not crept over the line. We began to watch it every minute as if it was a separate entity—a creature that had invaded my husband’s leg and upset my steady life in its goal to eat the flesh in its path. The doctor set Ben on an aggressive road of antibiotics as well as daily debriding. The doctor was adamant that he would make it if the infection didn’t get into his lymph glands, and the day that I came in to see a new red stripe down the side of his leg was another hurdle to overcome. It had indeed progressed into his lymph glands, but still the doctor refused to let it win. Determined to keep Ben’s leg, he arrived from his station at the hospital on the other side of the city three times a day to oversee the care and personally attend to the painful debriding of the wounds before repacking them. Each time they shot Ben up with morphine first, but he still clutched my hand and tears squeezed from his eyes as they poked, cleaned, and repaired the damaged tissue.
Happy Valley, Hong Kong wasn’t so happy for the Bratts. Amanda and I camped out at a dorm-type accommodation at night, but spent most every waking hour squeezed into Ben’s tiny room, watching movies with him on his computer as he gradually went from bedridden to a wheelchair, and then weeks later to crutches. We celebrated Ben’s birthday in the room one day and I found him a bag of American Frito chips at a tiny international store. He wasn’t able to eat much but it made him smile and the doctor even allowed us to wheel him out to the decking that overlooked the horse races, his first breath of fresh air in weeks. To see him stand and reach his full height, to look like a man again instead of a bedridden patient, caused me to cry more tears as I thanked God for seeing us to that point.
We left that hospital and Hong Kong an even closer family than when we’d arrived. We’d fought for Ben’s life and won. This one went to us; Bratts one, China zip.
I was taking my husband home.
PS. Since this experience we’ve also survived being on Thailand during the big 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami that killed 227,000 souls, navigating SARS in China, being deathly ill with Covid in the USA (both the first round and then Delta variant), and a handful of other trials and tribulations.
PPS. this story was not included as it was too traumatizing to re-live when I was writing the book, but if you’d like to read more about our time in China, you can grab my memoir here: [DOWNLOAD NOW IN PRINT, KINDLE, OR AUDIO]