After much argument, my husband and I decided not to give in to mother-in-law’s antics this particular weekend. So we started off the day by heading over to the local Costco to load up on some food for my family. We were almost there when my husband’s cell phone rang.

Me: Let me guess who it is.

My husband glances at his phone and confirms that it’s his mom. He proceeds to pick up the phone as I roll my eyes, wondering what kind of excuse she’s going to give today to force us to waste the day in her most unpleasant company. I listen hard to try to understand the little snippets of Chinese that I’ve learned, but I cannot make out what the conversation was about, except for that something was wrong. My husband finally hung up the phone and told me what had happened: the mother-in-law had hurt her ankle while hiking and was now at the ER with her friend.

Me: Well, she’ll have to wait forever there and there’s someone with her, so there’s no point in us being there too. We should just finish this up before heading over since we’re already almost here.
Husband: Okay. Besides, she probably just sprained her ankle.
Me: Yep.

Well, we didn’t even make it to Costco before she called us again and demanded to talk to me. And I couldn’t understand much of what she said through her hysterics besides “get over here now.” After finally getting off the phone with her, I exasperatedly told my husband that she had won yet again and that we needed to head over to the ER now.

When we got there, we found her lying in a gurney in the hallway waiting for an X-ray. I actually felt sorry for her for a whole two seconds as I saw her looking so small and helpless lying there. And then she was moved into a room and started up with her hysterics. I truly felt sorry for the other patient sharing the room with her.

Mother-in-law: Where’s the doctor? I want to see the doctor. It hurts. It hurts. It hurts.
Me: The doctor is busy. He can’t see you right away. You have to wait.
Mother-in-law: But I’m in pain. Oh, I’m going to die. It hurts. If you love me, you’ll get me the doctor.
Me: I can’t get the doctor for you. The doctors are busy with dying patients.
Mother-in-law: It hurts. Why are you torturing me?

This went on for oh, two hours or so, long enough to drive me more than crazy before the nurses finally came in to set up her IV and give her some morphine. Just as I was thanking my lucky stars for this reprieve, mother-in-law tells the nurse that she wasn’t hurting anymore and didn’t want the morphine.

Me (after picking my jaw up off from the floor where it had dropped): No. You need the morphine. It will start hurting again.
Nurse: We’re really busy out there. You should take it when you can get it. When you need it, we might not be around.

Thankfully that worked. But she calmed down for only about half an hour or so before she started up with the whole, “get me the doctor now” routine again. The orthopedic surgeon finally came (and not a moment too soon) and told us that he recommended surgery to place plates on the bones to stabilize and hold them in place for the best chance of her making a full recovery. He even drew a cute little diagram for us (I never revealed that I was a med student) to help explain what he wanted to do. Lowly med student that I am who fell asleep more times than I care to admit during her musculoskeletal class two years ago, I completely agreed with his recommendation based on the little that I remembered about tib/fib fractures (and the cute little diagram sure helped seal the deal for me). She, however, was not convinced and was terrified at the idea of surgery, which was understandable.

Mother-in-law: Do you agree with the doctor? Should I get the surgery?
Me: Yes. It will help you be able to walk again sooner.
Mother-in-law: But I don’t want surgery.
Me (trying my best to be empathetic, which is definitely not my forte): I know you’re scared, but it’s what the doctor thinks is best.

Mother-in-law looks away from me in disgust because I was siding with the gwai lo doctor. She then asks to call her sister to ask her opinion. Her sister is an elementary school teacher, by the way. The orthopedic surgeon, who has made it clear that he has a very busy schedule, is trying hard to hide his impatience with her indecision. My husband and I tell her that there is not enough time to call her sister and that her sister doesn’t know the answer anyway. She reluctantly agrees to the surgery and signs the forms and complains all the way until she is knocked out by the anesthesiologist.

The surgery was a success, but mother-in-law’s recovery was not because she now believed that she had a heart problem and that she was still going to die. She refused to be discharged, but was anyway, only to return to the ER the very same night, complaining of a racing heartbeat and difficulty breathing. There was nothing wrong with her heart. It was probably a panic attack. Once at home, she refused to follow simple directions, such as elevating her leg above the level of her heart and rather focused on using her injury to control and manipulate people into feeling sorry for her and serving her. As a consequence, her healing was delayed significantly.

What I interpreted as manipulation for sympathy at the time was probably at least partly due to an inherent Chinese distrust for Western medicine. Where this distrust comes from, I am not sure, except for that immigrants tend to instinctively be distrustful of those who are not the same nationality as them and that my mother-in-law has not adapted very well to American life at all (she understands and speaks very little English), which includes a great distrust for American doctors, who she believes do not understand her culture and therefore do not have her best interests in mind. This distrust manifests itself in many ways, the most common being Asian patients’ refusal to see the doctor until something is really (and often irreversibly) wrong. In my mother-in-law’s case, when she did need the doctor, she expected that the doctor would treat her immediately, not understanding that doctors (especially ER doctors) are very busy. The fact that she was not seen right away probably only served to further fuel her distrust for the gwai lo doctor. Her distrust for the gwai lo doctor also led to a desire to show the gwai lo doctor that she was strong and didn’t actually need him as was shown by her illogical refusal of the morphine she was so wanting when it was finally provided to her—she did not want to show any weakness, maybe in the hopes that the gwai lo doctor would not poke her or suggest treatment that she would rather not have (in this case, surgery). In my mother-in-law’s case, her distrust of American doctors also extended to after the procedure as she was convinced that there was still something wrong with her even though there was not. She could not or would not believe that the gwai lo doctor had not somehow screwed things up.

Just my luck, right when we were finally exhaustedly walking out of the ER late that night, we ran into my husband’s aunt and uncle who were bringing his cousin to the ER because he had also injured his ankle. See Part 2 of this post for his story.

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