China Journal: My 4 Days in Quarantine

Upon Her Arrival in Beijing, CBS News' Asia Bureau Chief Marsha Cooke Discovers the Surreal World of Swine Flu Response:
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My first-hand encounter with flu, fear and the limitations of life as a foreigner in China came at 8:45 pm on June 16. That's when an interminable flight from New York to Beijing, China came to an end, and a long strange chapter in a surreal Chinese quarantine hospital began.

There was little reason to suspect what was coming, when hazmat health teams boarded the plane and pointed mini-temperature guns at our foreheads. My initial reading was fine, but as I passed through the health check inside the airport I realized: Not so fast, Cookie . . .

I am asked to step aside; my temperature is scanned at 37.5. In the Celsius system, normal is 37. Suddenly I was a flag-waving, flu-carrying health threat. I am escorted to a holding pen. Eventually I am told, "You are going to a hospital. We are getting your luggage."

My press credentials, my bureau contacts, my persuasive powers are pointless. I am whisked through an employees' pathway to the tarmac and my carriage — a rather ominous ambulance that more closely resembled a hearse. Inside, two drivers are covered head–to-toe in plastic.

Suddenly I am "Typhoid Marsha."

We reached our destination about 11:30 that night. It was Day Two of my efforts to return from New York, to my comfortable pad in Beijing. That life was so near, but now so very far.

I am told I must stay overnight, or longer, to take the H1N1 test. I'm crushed. I also learn that they'll take a blood sample. I am finally going to experience the Chinese health care system. I am angry, worried and a bit scared, but I did not want to be a crazy, hysterical American, either.

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First, we are taken to our rooms, marched off to a different wing of the hospital – the infectious disease department where I see the first of many people who are fully-outfitted in hazmat garb. As I tried to get a sense of my surroundings, I hear a click as the door onto my floor opens and I am guided in.

The first thing that hits you is the quiet. I hear only the swishing of the hazmat plastic suits against the marble floors. I honestly can't really see where I am by looking out the window. And the fluorescent lights are just awful.

I ask our guide how long I will have to stay, and she says in broken English, "Well, it depends on when the results come back. It could be one day, or possibly two."

NOOOOOOOOOOO!

Even more ominous is my interview with the hazmat-wearing woman who checked me in. Through steamed-up goggles she asks, "You came through New York? Oh, that's a very dangerous place."

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Gripped by fear of a pandemic, China was quarantining foreigners left and right. My righteous New York side half-believed there was a bias against my hometown with her comment, but it was far more serious than that.

I began to seriously consider what many critics had said since the rigorous health checks began — were they simply racially profiling folks, as in targeting foreigners? It IS much easier to do this upon entry to a country than to actually find those with the virus within the country.

To be sure, China's concerns are grounded in healthy reality. The World Health Organization had raised the health threat level to six out of six. And China has a painful history when it comes to infectious disease outbreaks. SARS was devastating to China — and the country was heavily criticized for its handling of the disease.

It is logical for them NOT to want that experience to happen again. So China's quarantining of outsiders is somewhat understandable — the Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, was also detained in Shanghai for a few days.

But it is one thing to dispassionately report such events; it is another to experience them first-hand.

Day Two

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With no air conditioning I am sweating like crazy. My room smells only of the disinfectant the worker pours on my floor then mops up around me.

I am given meals and an endless supply of bottled water. The hospital cafeteria is doing a decent job, but I learned not to ask for anything Western. Stick with Chinese!

Luckily, my friends funnel in food, too. I have a fridge, a toilet sink and small shower. I still cannot seem to wrap my head around how few rights I have here. I've lost all personal liberty here and I can't really explain how I feel to anyone. It's a horrible, horrible feeling.

And ultimately, the most frustrating feeling is the awareness that I should NOT be here. I AM PERFECTLY WELL! There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine. Yet, I'm being treated as an ill patient!

I am appalled at how long the testing is taking — and when I look at my surroundings, I should not be that surprised. Although this is one of Beijing's finest hospitals, everything looks more than 20 years old. My temperature is taken the old-fashioned way: Stick the thermometer under my armpit and wait about 5-10 minutes.

The CBS bureau helps with a supply run. Correspondent Celia Hatton retrieves my flip-flops, a towel and my favorite pillow. My dear friends, Mei and Andrew, send in two bags of food and snacks.

And another friend, the Columbian ambassador, tells me he's sending lunch but he can't help me with my rescue. "Mar-cha," he says, "I have my own people I'm trying to help get out. I am so sorry, my dear."

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Around 8:45 p.m. another mask-wearing, jump-suited health official enters the room and proudly announces that the CDC is triple-checking my results.

But she wants more samples, so she takes a swab of my throat, which causes me to gag. She presents a 10-page questionnaire and happily poses for a photograph. She offers to take mine. I decline.

At one point she rests her gloved hand on my shoulder, actually, surprisingly touching me. In her best heartfelt voice she says, "Don't worry, this is for your own good . . . everything will be fine."

But like all the others, she fails to tell me how long the test results will take.

Day Three

This day starts at the ungodly hour of 5:40 a.m. The nurse checking my temperature bursts in and I'm already awake, suffering the pain of jet leg, bad knee joints, fluorescent lighting, tiny Blackberry print and weak eyes . . . and, worst of all, an uncertain stay in this sterile, stultifying hospital.

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I think I'm beginning to realize how incredibly lonely I am in here. The sea-foam blue of the room is anything but comforting. I can't sleep. I hear the laughter of the attendants, their yelling into old fashion walkie-talkies, the occasional slam of a door which echoes for minutes, it seems.

My friends do what they can, write and call every day. The U.S. embassy has done what it can, which is little (though they DO call me everyday!).

I get another care package with some reading material and a DVD: The movie "Heaven Can Wait." Seems about right.

Day Four

Maybe it's common sense, maybe it's Stockholm syndrome, maybe I'm morphing into Patty Hearst, but I'm making friends with my captors.

Chui Jing is my dayside jumpsuit buddy. She tells me there are 14 others at the moment in my wing. Yet, I see no one except my hazmat crew.

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It's the boredom. I have books and magazines. Yet with boredom comes bad habits. Mindless eating, frequent pacing and occasional peeks down the hall.

I am filled with envy of anyone walking past my room, imagining that they have been released to go home.

The phone rings late Friday afternoon and it's one of my nurses, and I hear those wondrous words: "I have good news for you. You can go home." I start screaming from joy.

My friend at ABC, Beth Loyd, was on the other phone, my cell phone, when I got word and she starts screaming, too. One of my nurses gives me an "A-OK" sign. I immediately gather my belongings, start texting friends and head for the door.

I've learned that there are some 40 other people enduring the same draining wait in Ditan hospital. And as I walk down the corridor I see people like me who can only look out, straight ahead from their glass capsules. They stand and stare at me while waving goodbye. They're strangers, but its heartbreaking nonetheless.

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As I depart the hospital I am given a thank you card and two fancy bottles of hand cleanser. Very nice, a parting gift!

I'd like to offer some advice to future travelers: Think carefully when entering China, because in this land, fever, flu and fear are a prescription for misery.

By CBS News' Marsha Cooke