Saturday, July 31, 2010

Road Trip to the Olympic Peninsula

As I mentioned in the last post, the monetary gifts we got from Chinese friends at church gave us enough money to take Ma and Pa on a short road trip to the Olympic Peninsula before they left to return to Taiwan. Yuni was not really better, but he wanted to show his parents something in America that they hadn’t seen before. So we all piled into our huge station wagon. We had to put up the seats in the back cargo area, but there was still a little room for our overnight bags. Pa and one of the twins sat in the rear seats. Ma sat in the regular back seat with the other twin and Peace. Yuni and I were in front.

Yuni drove at the beginning. We went down to the Seattle waterfront and caught a ferry to Port Angeles. From there we went into the Olympic Mountains and took a short hike along an alpine meadow. The kids fed their snacks to the chipmunks. We could not go far because of my bad knee, Yuni’s health, and the kids’ young age, but we did have a lot of fun. When we came down from the mountains, we went to a wild animal park. It was similar to the one in Taiwan. You drove your car through, and the animals were just roaming. But all these animals were North American animals. There were bison, elk, and deer. The cougars and pumas were in cages that you walked past like a regular zoo. When you drove into the compound with the deer and bison, you were given a loaf of whole wheat bread to feed the animals. Pa and Love were in the back, and they kept throwing bits of bread out as we drove, until we were surrounded by a whole herd of bison, elk, and deer. One bison even stuck his head in the front window looking for more food. I quickly tried to put the window up, and I almost caught his black tongue as he was trying to lick the loaf of bread out of my lap. It was quite exciting. We were glad to have such a large, sturdy car.

We stayed in a motel along the Pacific Ocean. It was one of those old hotels from the forties or fifties. Each unit was a little cabin overlooking the beach. After unloading the car, we went and played on the beach for awhile. The next day we drove into the rain forest and took another short hike. Yuni had been doing all the driving, and of course, he had been walking along like nothing was wrong. After a day and a half of steady activity, pain hit. He could no longer drive, and we had to get back because Pa and Ma were leaving the next afternoon. Yuni slumped in the passenger side of the front seat, and I drove home down around the end of Puget Sound so that we could just keep moving. It was a two or three hour drive, and we made it home fine. But by the time we got everything upstairs from the car, my right knee (the one with bone scraping bone) was three times its usual size. I couldn’t put any weight on it. I had to sit on the living room couch with an ice bag, while Ma tried to figure out how to cook with an electric frying pan instead of a wok. I couldn’t walk for another two days. I missed seeing Pa and Ma off at the airport. Yuni took them, since it was late at night, and I stayed home with the girls. My knees were considered pre-existing conditions when we got our insurance, and so they would not be covered for another 21 months. We did not have enough money for me to see a doctor, so I just sat with my leg elevated, alternating hot and cold packs.

Later, a friend from church, who was mainland Chinese and doing post-doctoral studies at the University of Washington’s medical school, found me another mainland Chinese friend who was an orthopedist. I bartered editing services on the orthopedist’s research paper in return for a knee examination, but we couldn’t afford an x-ray. The doctor said that my bones must have scraped each other as I was pressing the accelerator and the brake, and after several hours, the nerves inside the bones had become inflamed. He offered me pain killers that he had brought from China. I did not take him up on that, but I did take a supply of sulfa antibiotics that I could use to self-medicate when my post-Peace infections flared up. I kept myself supplied with antibiotics from mainland China for several years as word went around among the mainland Chinese students that I would edit their papers for a combination of cash and barter, depending on our needs and their resources. It seemed like a good idea at the time because we didn’t need to worry about having Yuni miss work to get me to the doctor. We didn’t have to scrape together cash for the deductible, either. Later, I had a physical with a blood test, and the doctor told me that my liver function was low for a woman of my age. We went through the list of things I might have done to damage my liver, and I learned to my chagrin that there is a limit to how much sulfa you can take in your life time. Fortunately, my Chinese connections were able to recommend a good herbalist, who was also open to barter, so I began taking herbs for those complaints.

This is a very common pattern among working-class Chinese families. The husband and children go to the doctor whenever they get sick, but the mother is expected to make do with home remedies, especially when the children are small. Mothers are also expected to eat mainly leftovers and even partially spoiled food. Yet, the women work hard from dawn to well past dark doing both work for income and all the housework. My sisters-in-law and several of my friends all ruined their health this way. It didn’t work out too well for me, either.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Breadwinner Down

Yuni had what we thought was a problem with kidney stones. He had had it in Taiwan; some mornings he would wake up with excruciating pain in his kidneys. He would roll around in agony, but then he would get up and walk downstairs, go to work, and by evening when he went to a clinic, the pain would be gone. He had scores of x-rays taken, but the doctors found nothing. They told him that he had probably formed and passed a kidney stone.

He had a few attacks after we arrived in the US, but they occurred on work days, and he didn’t feel that we could afford it if he missed the opportunity to make money. Fortunately, he was working in a union shop, and after three months, we had very good health insurance. It included free check-ups and immunizations for the girls, and we only had a $500 deductible. On Memorial Day weekend, Yuni had another attack. It was a Sunday morning, so he did not need to go to work. He just lay in bed screaming. Finally, I called some church friends to see if they would take the kids to Sunday school while I took Yuni to the emergency room. The hospital closest to our home was a teaching hospital called Harborview. As we lived in the poorer section of town, it was full to the bursting with sick babies on a Sunday morning. After Yuni got up and walked a little, his pain subsided. We waited and waited with him lying on a bed, and finally we were seen by a student doctor. At first, he was going to discharge us quickly because the x-ray again showed nothing, but while he was waiting for the supervising instructor to come sign the discharge form, Yuni went into an attack again. The instructor berated the student for wanting to charge a patient in so much pain and ordered Yuni to take an ultrasound.

The line for the ultrasound was not very long, and within a short time, the entire class of ultrasound technologists were crowded around the screen showing Yuni’s kidneys. They could not tell me what they were looking at, but they did say it might be serious. I was freaking out. Back in the emergency room, the supervising teacher saw the film and told me that Yuni’s left kidney was blown up like a balloon. He asked a number of pointed questions as to how long the pains had been occurring. After finding out that this was a ten-year ailment, he said that the left kidney might not have any function left at all. He actually called in the head of the urology department to consult as to whether or not Yuni needed to be hospitalized immediately. The answer was no, but we needed to see the urology team on Tuesday and have some more tests done all that next week.

I was able to find friends to take the girls, but it was a very nerve-wracking time. Tuesday came around, and the urologist with his band of students told us that Yuni would definitely need surgery. He might even need his kidney replaced. We went home to look at the bank account because we did not know what we were going to do. Yuni was not working, so there was no income. I needed to accompany him to the hospital to translate because Mandarin translators were not as common then as they are now. We had fulfilled our deductible, but we still had to reach a threshold of $3000 before we had 100% coverage, and we did not have enough savings to live on AND to pay the medical bills. Yuni called his parents and told them what was going on. They arrived the next week with some money and to take care of the kids.

We did get some good news. The kidney still had 90% of its function, so the urologists said things were hopeful. They thought Yuni had a congenitally small tube that made it difficult for the kidney to drain. They were planning to go in and put in a stint. So plans were made; we called Yuni’s work. They would keep his job, but since he had only been there for 8 months, he did not have enough sick days or paid vacation to cover all the time off he would need to take. Pa and Ma brought a lot of money for them, but they had no idea of the relative costs of living. It was enough to support the family including them for the month Yuni would be off work, but it was not going to be enough to cover the medical bills. Yuni did not want to ask my family because he thought it would be a huge loss of face for him and Pa. I was saying lots of fervent prayers.

The surgery took much longer than the surgeons had expected. Ma and Pa and the kids and I were all sitting in the waiting room outside the operating rooms. Finally, the head of the urology department came out to tell us what had happened. When they got Yuni opened up, they discovered that the problem was not a narrow ureter; instead, Yuni had an extra branch off his aorta that pushed the opening in the kidney shut when he lay in certain positions. When he got up and moved around, things would shift a little, and the kidney would drain. This was why he had so much kidney function left, and it was also why the doctors had never found any traces of crystal when they thought he had kidney stones. If the surgeons had even nicked the branches of the aorta going into his kidney, he could have bled out, so they had taken the time to proceed slowly and carefully. That condition is congenital, and it only occurs in one out of every one hundred thousand patients. Of course, the surgery was too exciting to miss, and all surgical students had been called in to observe the condition that most doctors only get to read about. The surgeon himself had never performed the procedure, so he had taken extra care to do it right in front of all the surgical students. This was a good thing for the medical school, the students, and Yuni, but they forgot to tell us it was going to take an extra hour or so. Ma and I were almost crazy with worry.

To fix the problem, the doctors had to carefully detach the tube from the kidney and reattach it at a lower point away from both branches of his aorta. Then they had to be sure that everything was stitched up tightly so that nothing would leak in his body. They also had to cut around to approach it from behind, so he wound up with a huge 9 inch scar across his mid-section. He remained in the hospital for a whole week while the doctors made sure that everything was healing properly.

Every day that week, I would make breakfast and then leave the kids with Ma and Pa. I drove the car to the hospital and rushed in to get there before the morning rounds. Yuni did not speak enough English to answer the doctors’ questions. Every day, he had the largest contingent of doctors looking at him. He was quite the celebrity. The hospital was a mile and a half from our house, so Ma and Pa would walk the kids down for visiting hours at 4 pm. They would stay and watch Yuni eat his dinner at 5, and then I would drive everyone home about 6:30 or 7 when visiting hours were over. When we got home, I made dinner and went to bed pretty early. That week went by very swiftly.

Yuni was not allowed to work for three weeks. He stayed home resting and chatting with Ma and Pa for about ten days before he was totally bored out of his skull. We did have lots of visitors from church, and even though I had not spoken with them about our need, their generosity was an answer to all my prayers. We were short $2000 for the medical bills plus the expenses we would have for the two weeks after Yuni went back to work and before he got his first check. People from church kept giving us gift cards with cash inside. One person gave us an envelope with $2000, just enough to pay off all the outstanding medical bills. The rest of the money added up to enough for our living and enough to take Pa and Ma on a weekend trip to the Olympic Peninsula and rain forest.

As I watch the news these days, I sometimes wonder what some of our lawmakers are thinking when they accuse the unemployed of laziness or when people get so upset about unions. I am so thankful Yuni had the union job with the union health insurance. We still didn’t have enough money by ourselves, but it was much easier to come up with just a few thousand dollars for medical expenses and groceries and rent than it would have been to have come up with the $100,000 that the surgery alone had cost, much less the tests. We were not extravagant; we were working class poor. We still needed help from the food bank most weeks, and with that help we were able to save a few hundred dollars here and there, but we had not had time to build up much savings. I was very disappointed this year when the health care bill was passed without a public option for low-income people. We were so lucky to have had that health insurance because later in the calendar year of Yuni’s surgery, Truth stepped on a wasp and her foot swelled up to the size of a football. Then Peace got an intestinal flu and needed to go to the emergency room three times for IVs to prevent dehydration. Because we had good health insurance, our family was able to get through those small emergencies without any problem. The union used economies of scale to negotiate directly with the insurance company to get good coverage that was great for its members and cheaper for the employers. A public option could do the same thing on a national level.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Favorite Field Trip #1: Woodland Park Zoo

The girls were loaded down with loot that holiday season. They got cute designer dresses and toys and books and everything children could want and then some. My dad even bought them a tree-house slide for the playroom so they wouldn’t get bored on rainy days. That winter my family, Yuni and I began a running argument about the American tradition of giving presents. Chinese give gifts of money or solid gold jewelry to close relatives; the only non-valuable items they give are food items to more distant relatives and friends. My family wanted Christmas wish lists from all of us, and Yuni just asked for money. My family members wanted to give us something more “personal.” I kept trying to explain the cultural differences, but I was the daughter on one side and the wife on the other, so I was expected to whole-heartedly agree with both sides and convert the others. In the end, my family compromised by buying jigsaw puzzles or work shirts for Yuni to unwrap and then giving him gift certificates to hardware stores so he could purchase tools for his weekend jobs. After many years, my family understood the Chinese culture better and started giving us checks. By then, Yuni kind of liked opening presents and became nostalgic for having something to open. But that first year, he came home fuming that we had not gotten cash or anything to eat. I guess he felt that my family did not think him a close family member. I got sweatshirts and family passes to the zoo, the science center, the aquarium, and the children’s museum. The girls and I were all ready for spring.

Our apartment was right on the bus line. We went downstairs and walked a few yards to the bus stop. One adult fare took us all over. Ma Liu had made me an extra-long cloth carrier for the girls. When they were little, I took more wraps at the bottom; as they grew, they had less cloth holding them to me. The carrier was just a strip of checkered cloth that was several yards long. I looped it under the girl’s arms, swung her up on my back, crossed the ends in front with one short and one long, then I wrapped the long end around and around my waist under the girl’s rear making a sling for her to sit in. I tied off the ends in a knot, and she was secure. My grandma had given me a backpack for Christmas to take on our excursions. The carrier was always in the bottom of my pack, and whenever a girl got too tired to walk, I would put her on my back for a short nap. I couldn’t carry any one of them for too long because of my bad knee, but we managed.

One of our favorite places was the Woodland Park Zoo. It has natural-like habitats for its animals, and we would stand for hours in front of the cages watching the animals engaged in normal behaviors. The keepers there did their best to give the animals their food in ways that required them to forage like they would in the wild. The elephants had to walk through their pen to find bales of hay in the outside yard. The gorillas had to pick food off tree branches. On Thursdays, the keepers poured live fish in for the penguins, and they had to catch them. One of the perks of having membership cards was access to members-only classes. We got to go behind the scenes at the reptile house and the feline house. We learned about the elephants and different eco-zones. We also learned about raptors and alligators and many other exotic species.

The bus ride itself was an adventure. We would take the bus down into the International District and then transfer at Pioneer Square. Sometimes on the way back, if we had just missed the bus up the hill, we would walk around old town Seattle and visit the Klondike Gold Rush National Park Museum. (I think it’s the country’s smallest national park.) There is a trough in the museum where you can pan for gold and then put it back when you are done. The girls loved to play with it.

Many of Seattle’s homeless would congregate at the gazebo in Pioneer Square right near our bus stop. There I was with my three little racially mixed children, all of whom were under the age of three. A couple of times the panhandlers gave each of the kids money and said: “Listen to your mama. Stay in school. Don’t wind up on the streets like us.” They were all very nice to us. It was an interesting experience.

In general, our life was really fun. We didn’t have much money, but with the annual passes, we could go to interesting places several times a week for the cost of one adult bus fare. On the Saturdays that Yuni did not have work, he would drive us to one of our haunts, and the whole family would play.