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Shujinwa Byoki Des

Lucy Moore

I don’t speak Japanese, but I can say “Shujinwa byoki des” (my husband is sick). 

After spending a month in Bali studying art, sweating profusely and slapping mosquitoes, we were heading home to New Mexico, with a stop in Hiroshima on the way. Our first morning there, my husband, Roberto, woke with a fever of 103 and a full body rash. 

The hotel had a thermometer, but no doctor. As Roberto’s fever neared 104, we hailed a cab for Hiroshima City Hospital. (That was when I pieced together shujinwa byoki des from my pocket dictionary.)

In the large, orderly waiting room, we were the only Caucasians. Roberto was a sight–lobster-red and wild-eyed. Staff and patients politely averted their eyes. 

A nurse led us to the lab for blood work, and after filling several tubes, she withdrew the needle and pressed a gauze pad onto the site. She bent Roberto’s arm to stop the bleeding, but when he opened it up, the gauze pad, red and soggy, fell onto the floor, and a little fountain of blood squirted from his arm. 

I laughed. To me it was comical, but one look at the nurse’s face told me otherwise. Her eyes widened, her lips pursed, and she fumbled for a dozen or more gauze pads. As she refolded Roberto’s arm, she indicated to me that he should keep it in that position indefinitely. 

The emergency room doctor, having examined Roberto, sent him for an abdominal CT scan and other tests, then admitted him. We were whisked upstairs, where a bed and IV waited.

When a physician came to report Roberto’s test results, he began by saying in broken English that he was sorry we’d had to come to the hospital, and that he was sure we would be able to go home soon. I now think that this was a lie, but it did us a world of good. 

He sat by the bed and unfolded the paper with Roberto’s test results. With a lovely combination of confidence and humility, he explained that Roberto’s CT and stool sample had showed nothing unusual, but that his platelet level was very, very low–20,000, when it should be 200,000. Some cells had become confused and were doing bad things, the doctor said. They were eating up the platelets, which help the blood to coagulate. He didn’t know why, but he suspected a virus. He explained that Roberto would receive IV fluids and medication for fever and diarrhea, and that tomorrow they would draw blood again. 

Patients were expected to provide their own pajamas, towels, toiletries, tissues, drinking cups and utensils. To our Western minds, this seemed surprising but sensible. Understanding that expecting Roberto to use chopsticks would be asking too much, a nurse went to some trouble to find him a spoon with a wooden handle and a cafeteria-style plastic mug. The spoon and mug were my responsibility to wash and have waiting for the next meal. I grew very attached to them; they seemed somehow emblematic of Roberto’s recovery. 

Everyone treated us with the greatest respect and kindness–and, remarkably, they seemed to have plenty of time to spend with us. At first I thought we were receiving special treatment as foreigners, but I noticed that the caregivers maintained the same leisurely, encouraging and optimistic manner in their dealings with Robert’s Japanese roommates.

The next morning the nurse came in holding an IV bag in each hand. Haltingly, she said, “IV? Do you…want…one? Two?” 

We looked blank, and she tried again: “IV? One? Two? OK?” 

We realized she was asking our permission. “Of course, yes,” we answered. “Please. Dozho, dozho” (thank you). She smiled with relief.

Every time a nurse took Roberto’s temperature and blood pressure, she would show him the readings, waiting patiently while he fumbled for his glasses. When he nodded approval, the nurse would bow and leave with an “Arigato godzaimas” (thank you very much). 

We were struck by this respectful inclusion of the patient in every action. There was a sense of shared responsibility. Doctors and nurses educated the patients about treatment options and then made recommendations. Patients learned, approved treatment decisions, rested and drank tea.

On the second day, Roberto’s platelets dropped to 10,000. Medical friends’ emails told us how critical this was and warned of the risk of internal bleeding. Roberto and I looked silently at each other, afraid to speak those two words for fear it would make them real.

When the doctor suggested a bone-marrow test and a blood transfusion, we agreed. Both procedures, done with Roberto lying in bed, were carried out with minimum fuss and maximum calm; he called the bone marrow procedure “not bad at all.” The doctor had explained each step carefully, the techs had performed deftly, and with Roberto they’d gotten the job done together, as partners. 

The next morning Roberto’s platelet count had climbed back up to 20,000, but there was no guarantee that it would continue to rise. A dermatologist surrounded by a flock of medical students came for a visit and took pictures of Roberto’s lobster rash. We suspected dengue fever, which can become hemorrhagic and was epidemic at the time in Bali; but the doctors seemed less interested in pursuing this theory than in restoring Roberto’s platelets.

By the fifth day, Roberto’s platelets had risen to 80,000, and he was approved for discharge from the hospital. His doctor gave us a letter explaining the condition and the treatment. At the bottom of the typed page, he’d written by hand, “I think your health will be good in future. I wish you safe travel to your home.”

Roberto and I wrote a card expressing our deep gratitude to the entire staff and left it, with the cup and spoon, on the bedside table. Then we headed down the hall to the elevator and pushed the down button. 

Standing there waiting, we turned to take a last look at the nurses’ station opposite the elevators. There in front of the station stood a semicircle of doctors, nurses and aides, all bowing to us. 

I gasped, and tears rushed to my eyes. We bowed clumsy, Caucasian bows, murmuring, “Domo arigato godzaimas” (thank you so much–the most superlative thanks that a foreigner can voice). 

The elevator bell dinged. We stepped in, then turned for one more look. The last thing we saw as the doors closed was the bowed heads of the whole staff, wishing us well. 

The cost of this care? US$3,500. (Compassion: priceless.)

About the author:

Lucy Moore lives in Santa Fe with her artist husband. She is author of an award-winning memoir, Into the Canyon: Seven Years in Navajo Country, as well as professional articles and one-act plays. She is also a regular contributor to Back Roads Radio, a forum for writers, storytellers and musicians. In her spare time she is studying Japanese so that next time she can say more than “Shujinwa byoki des.” Lucy’s day job is mediating multi-party, multi-issue environmental disputes.

Story editor:

Diane Guernsey


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