(Note: This is the first of two parts. The first will describe events leading up to my daughter’s hospital stay. The second will examine more details of problems with Japanese pediatrics and public hospital care system. At least from my personal experience.)
At close to 2 in the morning on April 19th, our daughter woke up crying loudly. It was a diaper change, a really big one at that, as if her intestinal tract had decided to eject all the detritus from her entire body. But all in all it didn’t seem all that unusual at the time. We changed her diaper and went back to bed.
At 2:30, she woke up again, this time with a loud gurgling noise. I sprang over my wife’s futon to find a flood of food flowing out of her mouth onto the sheets, clothing, futon, floor. All the formula milk and solid food from the 6:00 p.m. dinner. The flood continued as I grabbed her and threw open the sliding door to the dining area. All over my shirt, pajama pants, hands, floor. She finally cried, and we set about cleaning up the entire area. We changed her clothing and prepared some formula. Our clothes, her clothes, the bedspread, the sheets, all went into the bathtub. Around 3:30 we went back to bed.
This scene repeated twice before we woke up for good. She continued to be unable to keep food down all day. My wife had to go to work Tuesday morning, but of course I was home to take care of the baby. The diarrhea started some time later that same morning. Once it was so violent and sudden that it went through the diaper, her clothing, then my lap, then to the floor.
I called my parents for advice, twice, and both times my daughter got sick during the phone call. Beware of dehydration, they told me. Keep up the liquids. And welcome to the parenting club, you’ve been shat on and puked on. It wasn’t all that reassuring a feeling.
When my wife got back from work towards evening, we took our daughter to a local sho-ni-ka. Of course it was too early to tell if she had caught a specific virus, but we provided a stool sample (used diaper) that the pediatrician said he could analyze in a day or so. Then he prescribed some powdery medicine for controlling her bowels and recommended keeping her fluids up. Which is what both our parents had already told us for free earlier. Great.
The next day, the diarrhea intensified. The vomiting continued. I was home alone from 7:30 a.m. to close to 6 p.m. I changed her clothing five times and changed her diaper 9 to 10 times, almost running out of clothing. Only the sunny weather saved me from having to resort to summer clothes, since without a dryer I had to rely on the clothes line on our balcony (typical for Japan, where most people don’t own a clothes dryer).
I tried to give her formula, which only made her vomit (more clothes to clean). I tried to give her “Aqualyte,” which is an electrolyte drink for babies, first via straw-cup then one spoonful at a time. The vomiting slowed down in pace, but she still continued to lose weight and energy. Not even sure whether the medicine had done any good whatsoever. We went back to the doctor, and he gave us more medicine for her bowels, saying that she wasn’t serious enough for an IV. He also told us that based on a stool sample she had contracted rotavirus, which is more serious and longer-lasting than the more common norovirus, or common stomach flu bug.
It was at that time that my wife asked me if I could take our daughter to the hospital by myself on Thursday morning. I hesitated. I didn’t really want to go by myself. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I could explain much in Japanese, or understand what the doctor said. The paperwork worried me. I told her I preferred to go together later that afternoon when she got back from work.
Thursday, while my wife was at work, my daughter vomited again and had terrible diarrhea twice. The second time happened while she was taking a nap. I’ll never forget the look on her face, or the sight of her tiny body when I changed her diaper. Her eyes looked abnormally large, as if they were protruding from her face. Her cheeks had sunk and were colored a shade of light gray. She didn’t resist as I undid her one-piece and took her soggy diaper off. Her belly…no longer existed. Not only could I see her ribs clearly, but her abdomen had reversed and become an indentation nearly to her backbone. She looked up at me, eyes pleading for me to do something. Daddy…
My daughter was dying. Daddy…
I had to do something. My fears about Japanese language evaporated. I quickly put another diaper on, held her, and continued to try to get her to slurp down spoonfuls of Aqualyte as I thumbed the phone book for the nearest hospital with a sho-ni-ka pediatrics department. Not trusting myself on the phone, I bundled up my daughter, grabbed the day care over the shoulder bag and a bottle of more ion-water-lyte stuff and took off out the door for the train station.
I was lucky. So lucky. The nearest private hospital was only two train stops and fifteen minutes away. No English-speaking staff of course, but on the train I was able to quickly look up a few key words. Dassui. Rotauirusu ni kakatta. Hakidasu. When the hospital front desk staff gave me a clipboard with paperwork to fill out, I wrote down my daughter’s name as best I could in Chinese characters and then handed it back to them, saying, “My daughter is very sick. She has rotavirus, throws up all the time and is extremely dehydrated. She needs a doctor right now. Can the paperwork please wait?”
I’m not sure even now whether the staff understood everything I said. They took a quick look at my daughter, who even in her weakened state was still trying to look around at her new surroundings out of curiosity, and immediately picked up a phone and called another department. We were led to the pediatrics department area, and ushered into a small preparatory room.
After only a few minutes, we went through a door to the adjoining room. The sole pediatrician at the hospital, an older doctor in his late 50s with slightly shaking hands, asked a few quick questions, briefly examined my daughter, and said, “This child needs an IV right now. Nurse!”
He took four tries to get the IV into her little hand. Not her arm. Her hand. After the first bag of 250 cc, her face returned to normal and she slept peacefully for the first time in three days. After four bags of 250 cc, she finally peed enough for a urine sample. My wife had arrived at that point, and we were both given copies of the blood sample analysis. The nursing staff and the doctor himself paid very close attention to our daughter, and we were very much impressed by the professionalism and kindness they showed.
But we had to leave at 5 p.m. The private hospital did not have any overnight rooms for children. The doctor wrote a recommendation letter and called a nearby prefectural hospital, telling them to expect us. Why? Because the entire prefecture had only one hospital that accepted new in-patients after 5 p.m.
The night continued… (in part 2)