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Medical adventure takes local to China

John Colson
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times
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An Aspen man last year traveled to the other side of the Earth for an operation that in the United States would have cost him roughly eight times what he spent.And that includes the cost of airfare to Beijing, China, and incidentals for himself and a Chinese-born health-care practitioner who went along as a guide, interpreter and helper.Just the cost of the medical procedure would amount to nearly 20 times more in the U.S. than it did in Beijing. But it’s not just the money that has the man singing the praises of China these days. It’s his treatment, both by the medical establishment and his hosts, that has him thinking he wants to return someday.James March, 54, is a self-employed musician in Aspen (he plays stand-up bass with a jazz trio that performs regularly at the St. Regis Hotel) with a part-time day job (he works at the Stars sports memorabilia shop). He has no medical insurance, and when he was diagnosed with a severe bout of kidney stones last summer, he knew he was in trouble.”I drove to the Aspen Valley Hospital emergency room and back three times,” he recalled, before, on his fourth trip, he forced himself to go through the door as his only chance of alleviating the “severe pain” he was feeling.”I didn’t have insurance,” he said, “and I knew I was walking into the jaws of the medical beast,” which is how he characterized the U.S. health-care industry.”But I had to … the pain was so bad,” he continued.

Over the course of the next few days, through examinations and CAT scans, he was diagnosed as having large kidney stones that the doctors gave only a 30 percent chance of “passing” on their own.He paid a second visit to the emergency room, after two of the kidney stones blocked his ureter, the duct that carries urine from the kidney to the bladder. The blockage caused a severe case of hydronephrosis (“That’s when you’re … being poisoned by your own urine,” he said), which brought on convulsions and a high fever.The doctors installed a tube in his ureter to bypass the stones, so his flow of urine was no longer blocked, and then “They woke me up and said, ‘You need to raise $30,000-$50,000″ to pay for an operation to remove the seven kidney stones.So far the ailment had already stretched his budget to the breaking point, with bills of several thousand dollars for the emergency room visits to undergo the CAT scan and to pay for the stent. The idea of coming up with that much more money was daunting.”I thought to myself, as a 54-year old self-employed musician, that ain’t gonna happen,” he said.So he called a friend, Shao-nian Bates, a 55-year old alternative health-care practitioner who had treated March’s 92-year-old mother and “literally brought her back from the dead,” he said.Bates, trained in her native China in acupuncture and in England in “electro-gem therapy,” had come to the U.S. in 1991 and is now a nationalized citizen here. She was running a health food store in Sewanee, Tenn., with a therapy clinic attached, and March credited her with alleviating a broad range of ailments for his mother, who was living with March’s sister in Sewanee.

Bates called a doctor she knew in Beijing, who said removing kidney stones is a common procedure in China that would cost March “maybe $500,” she said.”That got my attention,” March added, and when he discovered that he could get no help even from hospitals supposedly established to help poorer Americans get health care, he decided his only option was to go to China.Round-trip airfare on United Airlines from Chicago to Beijing, a 12-hour flight covering 6,600 miles, cost just in excess of $1,000 per ticket, and the pair arrived on Nov. 7. The two stayed at Bates’ sister’s house, within walking distance of the hospital – a complex for retired military personnel that had never before treated an American.The Chinese doctors removed several of the stones using ultrasound treatments, which March said would have cost between $5,000 and $7,000 in the U.S. but cost $225 apiece in China. But two of the larger stones “would not budge,” March said. So the physicians scheduled laser surgery, which included a six-day hospital stay and a three-hour surgical session involving the use of lasers and micropliers to break up the stones and remove them.The hospital stay and extra procedures brought the total cost of the trip to “about $6,000,” March said, rather than the estimated $40,000 to $50,000 he said he was told, “on good authority,” that the same treatment would have cost in the U.S.”So I figure I saved about $34,000-$44,000 and had a hell of an adventure to boot,” he reported to a friend in an e-mail.While in Beijing, he did as many tourist activities as he could, including visits to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, a soak in a local hot spring and the chance to see a Mongolian dance company and a Chinese acrobatics show.

“Beijing is quite a place,” he related in the e-mail. “Busy, busy people. China will end up ruling the world and probably deserves to …””They treated me like a king,” March said this week, “and there was a palpable sense of them doing some kind of service for you,” contrasted with what he termed “my experience with the American medical system” which he said “involved quite a bit of arrogance and a feeling that they were doing me some kind of favor by treating me.”Back in the States, March and Bates have talked about the idea of her starting a business escorting Americans to China for treatments.”This has really captured the imaginations of people who hear the story,” March said, adding that in his opinion, “medical tourism is a coming thing.”For now, however, Bates is planning to head to the city of Doha, Qatar, a nation in the Middle East that served as a launching point for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, where she is thinking of establishing an acupuncture clinic.March, meanwhile, will continue playing at the St. Regis and working at Stars, although he hopes to use his contacts here to get a gig playing music at the St. Regis in Beijing someday.John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com.


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