A Family Adventure Gone Wrong (And Our First Trip to a Beijing Emergency Room)

In my last post, I said that my husband and I came up with the brilliant idea of foregoing weekend extracurricular activities for the kids so that we could use Saturday as our “Family Adventure Day” and get out of the expat bubble here in Beijing suburbia and explore China.

Our first attempt to actually follow through with our plan led us to the discovery of Taoyuan Valley—an excellent place to hike and get away from the crowds.

Our second Family Adventure Day didn’t go so well.

When we woke up that morning I suggested we take a drive out of Beijing—finally go to the Great Wall as a family. But Hubby had a different idea. Another family here had told us their favorite place to go in Beijing was the Summer Palace. On the previous Saturday, the Summer Palace had 25,000 people go through its gates. We knew there would be crowds there. But the family who recommended it to us had said it was gorgeous and worth the trip. And so we went.

A drive to the subway station, over an hour of subway trains (and four transfers and lots of walking) later, we bought our tickets, entered the park, and even rented one of those little audio guides. We elbowed our way through the masses at the entrance, but Hubby was certain that once we got deeper into the park, the crowds would dissipate and I’d get the peaceful hike I had wanted.

But about ten minutes into shimmying through the crowds, Hubby told me that something was wrong.

At first it was, “I’ll be okay. Let’s just take it slow.”

A few minutes later it was, “I’m not doing so well. Let’s find a bathroom and take a rest.”

When he got out of the bathroom it was, “Something’s really wrong. We need to leave now and get in a taxi.”


Since coming to Beijing, I’ve often wondered and worried about what to do in an emergency. In Seoul, where we lived previously, there was a highly regarded university hospital practically next door to us.

Here in Beijing, during orientation our sponsors showed us the medical clinic just around the corner from where we live. But this is a clinic, not a hospital. When I asked about a hospital, I was given a list of hospitals that are recommended to foreigners. All of them are downtown. Even having just arrived, I knew that getting to one of these hospitals from where we live would be a potential nightmare.

United Family Shunyi Clinic

The hospital affiliated with the clinic that’s around the corner from us—if traffic is excellent (if it’s—say—3:00 in the morning when everyone is sleeping), it takes about thirty minutes to get there. If it’s rush hour (say—8:00 in the morning), the drive takes an hour and a half.

One and a half hours in a taxi to get to a hospital? What do you do here for emergencies?

The informational sessions for orientation taught that the US embassy advises its citizens to NOT call an ambulance in a medical emergency—that it is safer and faster to get a taxi to the hospital.

Fortunately, my family was blessed with good health during our first year in China. We never needed to go to a doctor. In May, after we had been here for close to a year, I decided that I was balancing on a tight rope that I didn’t really want to be on, so I went to the nearest clinic and made well-child appointments for my kids so that we could at least have a  relationship with a pediatrician and their records on file somewhere. I also completed paperwork and started files for my husband and myself and did our dental appointments here in China.

During my kids’ pediatric visit, I talked to the pediatrician about emergency protocols in China, and I asked her if it was true that you shouldn’t use ambulances here.

She answered my question by telling me two horror stories about what happened both times she or a colleague tried to use an ambulance for patient transfer to the hospital. They were two very different scenarios, but each one equally as horrifying as the other. The doctor ended her account with, “So, yes. It’s true. Just take a taxi or drive there yourself. And hope that traffic isn’t too bad when it happens.”


We finally made our way back to the gate of the Summer Palace. I returned my audio-guide and left my husband on the concrete step to rest while I took Daughter to the bathroom. And when we got back, he handed me a card from his wallet that had the address for the hospital affiliated with the clinic where we had done our checkups.

Beijing United Family Hospital--Emergency Card

At this point, he knew what was wrong. He had had kidney stones before and was confident this was the same thing he had experienced before, but it was more severe and he needed an emergency room for pain management.

When he was ready, I donned our daypack and grabbed a hand of both of our children and let him lead the way, setting his own pace to a street where we could find a taxi. I followed him, trying to maneuver the kids through the crowds without getting them stepped on or pushed over into the road. (No, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the massive crowds in Beijing.)

It was the longest taxi ride ever.

Actually, I think it was only about forty-five minutes, but forty-five minutes can seem like an eternity when you spend it rummaging through your daypack trying to find a puke-bowl or -bag or something, anything that could catch vomit. When, in your haste, you dump greasy pancakes into the daypack and hand over a bowl the size of a mason jar and then scramble to find something else that’ll work that’s not so small and then wonder what to do with the full one when it’s passed back to you.

Time moves slowly when, though you know that every time you read or text or focus on anything in a moving vehicle you get notoriously carsick, you can’t help but to read the emergency cards and medical insurance cards and dial numbers and try to get through to the right people.

It doesn’t seem like much fun when (since it’s lunch time) your son keeps telling you he’s hungry and all you have are the pancakes that you dumped out into the filthy daypack that has mysterious, unrecognizable snack crumbs from whatever we were eating a year ago when we last used that bag. (I let him eat the pancakes anyway.)

The seconds linger when you pretend to be happy and relaxed—excited even—while you tell your kids, “Hey, you guys! We wanted an adventure today. We can go see what the hospital looks like. That’ll be fun, right? That’s an adventure, too, right?”

The drive may have taken only forty-five minutes, but when all this is happening while you’re in miserable stop-and-go traffic on a Beijing highway, while your husband is sitting next to the driver vomiting because he’s in so much pain, it feels like two hours.


It did turn out okay in the end. I’ll talk about the aftermath in a minute for those who really want to know, but first let me tell you the five things I learned from this whole experience:

1. Make sure you carry hospital numbers and directions with you.

Those silly little cards that the international clinic gives out that are the size of a credit card—put them in your wallet, not on your refrigerator. And take a picture of it so you have the information stored in your phone as well.

I was given this same card, but I put mine on my refrigerator with a magnet because I thought that would be the best place for it. Hubby put his in his wallet. This card saved us. Unable to speak any Chinese myself, this gave me a way to tell the driver where to take us. It provided me with the numbers I needed to call. And it assured me that we were really going to the right place.

I called the numbers on the card provided by Beijing Family United and had the lady at the hospital talk to the driver in Chinese to ensure he knew how to get there. Also, having the phone numbers allowed me to talk to the people I needed to in order to let them know we were coming and what the problem was.

2. Know your preferred hospital ahead of time and have your information on file with them.

When we arrived at the emergency room and the lady handed me a stack of papers to fill out, it was so nice to be able to say, “These are exactly the same papers we already filled out at the clinic. You should already have these on file.”

3. Have all the helpful information and paperwork stored in your phone, not just in your wallet.

I don’t always carry my purse or wallet with me. But I do usually have my phone with me no matter where I go. Take a photo of any useful information or paperwork you might need in an emergency. I have a picture of my passport as well as my husband’s and my kids’ passports. Take a photo of your medical insurance cards. We didn’t expect to need our passports that day, so we weren’t carrying them with us. I was glad to have a picture of it when the lady behind the registration desk said she needed to see his passport.

4. Talk to some friends ahead of time to know you could call them in a pinch.

Plan ahead in other ways as well. I don’t have a Chinese drivers license and can’t drive in Beijing. Hubby talked to a colleague he works with who happens to live down the street from us. He asked, “Hey, if I ever have a medical emergency and need a ride to the hospital at 3:00 a.m., can I call you?” It seems like a funny thing, but it’s nice to have someone tell you that they are there for you if you find yourself in a pinch. And return the same favor for someone else. Once you have some ideas of individuals you could call on for help, keep them in your phone contacts. Keep your contacts up to date. Don’t just keep the list on your phone, but also make a list and put it on your refrigerator. It’s always good to have information in more than one place.

5. Learn some language basics that can help you navigate your host country.

A little bit of language can go a long way. Studying Chinese by myself from books, audio CDs, Rossetta Stone, and language apps on my phone when I happen to have the time—that’s not enough language instruction to learn anything of significance. I need to just admit it’s time for more serious language study. Not only would this allow me to more fully experience China and all it has to offer, but it would help me through those frustrating moments—the ones that don’t really matter all that much (like trying to return something to the store) and also for the ones that do (like a trip to the hospital).


In case you’re curious how things played out in the end, here’s the aftermath of our Family Adventure Day Gone Wrong:

The pain subsided on its own shortly after we arrived at the hospital, before they even gave him anything for the pain.

They ran a number of tests, including a CT Scan that showed he did, indeed, have a kidney stone that was measuring about nine millimeters. The doctor said the stone probably began to move (that was the intense pain he was feeling) but then stopped and settled again (which is why the pain stopped, too).

They made an appointment with a specialist for early the next week. At this appointment, the doctor recommended surgery to remove the stone—he said it was big enough that he probably wouldn’t be able to pass it on his own and if left there, it could cause potential damage to the kidney.

Beijing United Family Hospital room

The surgery was scheduled at the earliest opening they had, which wasn’t for another week. He accepted the suggested procedure and scheduled it and hoped that he wouldn’t have another episode while waiting for his appointment. The doctor told him to “take it easy” while he waited.

The surgery went smoothly and it turned out that it was even bigger than they thought. (It was twelve millimeters.) He felt pretty miserable for about a week afterward, but now is back to normal again. We’ll be resuming our Family Adventure Day probably next week.


Whenever I start to get a little grumbly, I can’t help but to switch things up and remember all the things to be grateful for. It’s become my mantra—“Okay, Lonna. Put your perspectacles on.” As annoying as it probably was to Hubby (since he was, after all, the one laying in the hospital bed), I had to remind myself how fortunate we were.

“You know, things could be so much worse,” I said, “I’m so thankful that this is a kidney stone and not a heart attack. I’m thankful that we have worldwide medical insurance; that we had decided to go into the city rather than drive away from it. I’m thankful that our kids are being so amazingly understanding and well-behaved throughout the whole ordeal, even though they’re hungry, and I haven’t been able to find anything they are willing to eat besides bread. Everything is going to be okay,” I said, “We are so blessed.”

He must have been feeling pretty grateful, too, because the day after his surgery, while he was still in the hospital, I got a knock on my door and found a delivery lady who gave me this.

Bouquet of Roses

Yes, that’s right. My hubby was sick in the hospital and he sent flowers to me. Seems a little backwards, I know, but that’s just the kind of man I have.

And when all was said and done, it was kind of comical listening to the kids give their rendition of everything that happened. The next time we skyped with Mamaw and Papa, Daughter told the story about how, “Daddy had a kidney bean . . . or rock . . . or whatever.”

It’s nice to be able to smile about the whole thing when it’s finished.


What about you? What are your strategies and suggestions on how to be ready for a medical emergencies?

15 thoughts on “A Family Adventure Gone Wrong (And Our First Trip to a Beijing Emergency Room)

  1. I am glad it worked out. Your plan sounds good; be very pro-active in your updates. With Michele’s medical records I updated the same day something changed and it proved very useful several times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I totally agree. Medical records are so hard to keep up to date for us because we see so many different providers. My four-year-old has received vaccines in three different countries now. If I didn’t have that little record book they give to parents, I wouldn’t know what to do. I take it with me whenever I need to take her somewhere. I scan a new copy and delete the old scan as soon as a change is made. If I didn’t have that, her records would be incomplete everywhere . . . God knows I can’t remember it all.


  2. Some great tips here for any travelers, particularly those in other countries. Glad everything worked out in the end, with successful removal of the stone. Knowing where to take your family in case of emergency is definitely helpful, particularly in terms of quality and communication.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really was a great hospital, so I’m glad we managed to get there. The care there was excellent . . . We do wish it were located a bit closer to us. It is handy having their little clinic around the corner, though.


  3. Oh my goodness Lonna! What an ‘adventure’! Go glad you are all safe and healthy! Give our love to ___! Love your updates! Love from Suzy and the Wilcox family

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Suzy. Hope you and Wyatt are doing well. I hope our paths cross again soon. It would be so wonderful to get together again and do some catching up.


    • Thanks! It is always good to be prepared, and I intend to be ready next time. The hospital we went to was excellent, but I must say that I do hope that I’ll never have to see it again while we are here.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow. I’m so grateful that you waited to tell this story until the entirety of it was over so we could hear how things were going now. The suspense would kill me! And your poor hubby. And that poor cabby, but perhaps people puking in his car comes standard. I would’ve totally given my kids the pancakes anyway. It’s amazing how food can, dare I say it, shut them up. I can totally feel your stress on that 45 minute car ride. Oh dear, oh dear. So sweet that he sent you flowers! What a man! And I’m curious to know the horror stories of ambulances. Do they get car-jacked, or what? Can you give me just a hint?

    Liked by 1 person

    • lol . . . yes, food does wonders to shut my kids up . . . that’s why I let him eat the pancakes anyway . . . and it worked–it did keep him quiet for a while.

      The stories about the ambulances were fairly long and detailed, but they boiled down to two main points. First, the ambulances here are corrupt. Rather than take you to the hospital that you request, they might take you to the hospital that would give them the biggest cut of money. Bad news, considering that not all hospitals in Beijing are created equal. As a foreigner, if you have health insurance coverage, you want to go to an international hospital where the care providers can speak English and the care is comparable to what you would receive in the US.

      The second main point was that the paramedics here aren’t trained properly in how to take care of patients. Also, in the US (where people follow traffic laws and traffic isn’t usually horrendous), drivers know to get out of the way of an ambulance and then do it. Here it’s different, nobody pulls over or gets out of the way for an ambulance and other drivers will even cut them off just like any other vehicle. If the paramedics aren’t trained and can’t give you medical care . . . and then they can’t drive and a take longer convoluted route to get to the hospital anyway (her experience when she accompanied a patient in an ambulance) . . it kind of defeats the purpose of calling an ambulance in the first place.

      We do have decent hospitals here. The international hospital we went to was really good and everyone spoke English. But in some instances (like a complex surgery) expats choose to go back to the US (or their home country) to receive care. Heath care is expensive in the US, but being here makes me appreciate what we have there.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. It’s nice to have it all behind us. He’s feeling back to normal again. And even though we are thankful it all went as it did, we still hope we never have to see that place again 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow! Glad everything turned out okay in the end. When we travel I like to know where the nearest hospital is located. I learned that the hard one on a vacation in the mountains when one of my kids ended up needing stitches.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I totally agree. When my son was a little over a year old, we were on vacation and ended up making a trip to the emergency room at 3:00 am when his croup got really bad. When it happened, I was so glad we decided to go somewhere English speaking, that we rented a car, and that we remembered seeing the hospital on a map. After that happened, I didn’t think I ever wanted to go anywhere remote where hospitals weren’t available. But I have to admit, now that the kids are both a little older and travel more easily, we are getting more and more daring in our adventures. I still worry about it, though….every single time we go somewhere new.

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