The Korean Medical System; Or, How I Continually Ended Up In The Hospital Abroad

I just so happen to get sick frequently. I am a life-long sufferer of gastro-intestinal issues. I also suffer from nomadic inflammation, the likes of which would move from my neck to my shoulder to my chest and ribs, back, and various joints. I’ve had knee injuries on both knees, as well as carpel tunnel issues in both wrists and gout in both feet. As a kid, I ended up with strep throat a handful of times and seasonal allergies yearly for as long as I can remember.

While all of those things are very real, I also have a rough case of hypochondria. This typically means that whatever common symptoms I might have, my anxiety pushes my thoughts to worse things. It’s mostly irrational health-based anxiety. Any issue could later lead to panic attacks based around the smallest of symptoms, like strained breathing. I no longer allow myself on WebMD, for instance, and it’s hard for me to watch movies or read stories where characters are sick or dying due to various cancers or illnesses (though I did get through The Fault in Our Stars while in Korea, which was a wonderful book). It begins to twist my brain and cause me to panic, and I constantly need to reaffirm myself that I am and will be okay, and that, almost assuredly, it was nothing serious.

~ 7.3.13 ~

I had been getting progressively sicker over the last 4 months I had lived in Korea and was desperately trying not to. I had only been to the hospital once at this point in Korea—on my first day of work for a general check-up that would give the okay for me to stay and work in the country. It was nothing major, though it did stress me out a little as I hadn’t been sure what was going to happen. Alas, my symptoms got worse. Not only did I have a sore throat and sinus problems, but I ended up with an ear infection which hurt bad in and of itself. The previous night, I had experienced one of the most physically painful moments in my life thus far (another would come later while still in Korea). My earache had reached its worst, driving me nearly to tears. On top of that, the infection began spreading to my eye. I did not want to end up with pink eye as well as horrid pain in my ear. I decided it was finally time to go to the hospital.

I went to work and did my morning classes for the day while SangMyung, the teacher in charge of the foreign teachers, tried to figure out whether or not I needed to make an appointment to see the doctor at the Sanbon hospital. I didn’t, so another one of my co-teachers, Yun-June, called a taxi for me to take me to the hospital from the school.

I ended up on the third floor where the ENT (ear/nose/throat) doctor was. Luckily the receptionist guy spoke some English, so he was able to check me in, help me pay, and tell me where to wait. And I only had to wait about 3 minutes before the staff came back from lunch and took me right in. The doctor spoke a little English, so he asked me what was wrong. I told him. He proceeded to put a camera scope in my ear and tell me, in more medical terms, that I have an ear infection. Imagine that. But then he ended up spraying something up both my nostrils, which was awkwardly uncomfortable. He put some cream in my ear and sprayed something in my throat. The nurse printed the prescription papers and took me back to the receptionist, who told me I just needed to go to fill it at the pharmacy. I was in and out in 5 minutes. Incredible. And I was worried! (It’s what I do.)

I take a bus back to my officetel, as there’s a pharmacy on the first floor of the building. The guy looks at the prescription and goes to look for the stuff, but then he comes back and tells me he can’t fill it here–I have to go a pharmacy right next to the hospital. I had a suspicion that was going to be the case, knowing my luck. So I hopped in a taxi and went all the way back to Sanbon. I had to ask a cashier in a little convenience store attached to the hospital where the pharmacy was, and he pointed me in the right direction. I find it, hand over the papers, and they have it ready in about another 5 minutes.

Unfortunately, the lady who gave it to me spoke limited English, so the most she was able to tell me (at least that I could understand) was “Three times a day. Something something something. Do you understand?” Yeah, sure. But I was able to figure it out. I had 7 days’ worth of medicine that I needed to take three times a day. The hospital visit plus prescriptions came out to roughly $14.

~ 7.22.13 ~

While I was quite appreciative of the medicine the hospital had given me, an issue quickly arose. Halfway through those meds, I realized the right side of my tongue had gone numb. At first I thought it was just a reaction to the medicine, so I didn’t think too much of it. Then, 3-4 days later, I woke up to the sensation that something wasn’t quite right with the right side of my face. It didn’t seem to have the strength it once had, but there didn’t seem to be anything too noticeable, at least visually. I was having a stroke; I just knew I was having a slow, anxiety-ridden stroke.

I talked to my sister, who worked nights as an ER nurse, so I was able to talk to her during the day due to the major time difference.

She assured me I wasn’t having a stroke.

So I went through the rest of the day just feeling a little… off. And I felt, as the day went on, it was getting worse. By the time I was walking home from school, I knew something was wrong besides just a reaction to medication.

“Does my face look weird to you?” I asked Naomi, my Australian co-worker and neighbor, as we walked home.

She shook her head. “No.”

“I’ve just felt so off today, like something isn’t right. Half my tongue has been numb this week. The side of face feels weak.”

Naomi assured me I wasn’t having a stroke.

So I did some research. The most likely culprit was a virus-based affliction called Bell’s Palsy. I had the majority of the symptoms down, starting with the early indicator of numb tongue. Bell’s Palsy is basically muscle weakness and/or paralysis on one side of the face (you can have it for the entire face, but that’s supposedly rare). It shares visual symptoms with that of a stroke, but the difference is Bell’s Palsy is almost entirely temporary and non-lethal. In the worst cases, the whole side of your face will just not function. You can’t move anything, including your eyelid, which stays open unless you tape it down. This is where the worst problems can arise, as you can get eye infections from dry eyes and irritation. Cases have been known to be cured in as little as 3 weeks, while others have gone on for over a year with lasting effects, depending on the severity.

I seemed to have ended up with a very mild version. I never had much trouble with my eye outside of mild weakness, but I could always close it enough to where it didn’t cause worry or trouble. My biggest issues really came from eating and drinking. Eating became a pain because I would get food trapped between my lower lip and gum. Drinking (or brushing my teeth/swishing water) was annoying, as well, because my lips wouldn’t tighten all the way and water could either come dribbling out or shooting out the side of my mouth.

During this time, I started to wonder what could have caused all this. I decided to clean my air conditioning unit, as I realized I had started to get sick when I began turning it on. The aircon unit blew right down onto my bed, where I spent a lot of time—particularly, as you might guess, in sleeping hours. Turned out, the inside panels were filled with black mold due to excessive humidity, and said mold was blowing right down onto me and flowing through my apartment. This caused me to get sick with my sore throat and ear infection. My ear infection then got bad enough to where it affected the nerves, causing my Bell’s Palsy. So I cleaned out all the mold and began feeling better soon thereafter.

So back to the narrative here, I thought about stopping by the hospital Friday night, but I ended up seeing a movie and, by then, it was too late. The palsy wasn’t too bad at that point. By Saturday and Sunday, however, things became quite noticeable, and I knew I needed to see a doctor as soon as I could. I tried going Saturday, but quickly came to the realization that the doctors and clinics I needed to go to were closed for the weekend.

Come Monday, I explained my situation to SangMyung, who then helped me figure out where to go in the hospital and then sent me on my way. (I decided to take the train this time rather than a taxi, as I’d be saving like 5 bucks whole trip, even if it took longer.) I was nervous going to the hospital alone, yet again, due to the language barrier and having no idea where to go. Fortunately, SangMyung wrote out a note for me to show someone who could help. She also offered to let me to call her so she could talk to a receptionist, but it never came to that. I ended up in the large waiting room on the second floor, just outside neurology. This wait wasn’t over as quickly, as I waited for at least 45 minutes to an hour before it was my turn.

The doctor was nice and spoke minimal English, but enough to communicate. After a chat, we came to the conclusion that I did, indeed, have Bell’s Palsy. He made a prescription of meds, and we set up an appointment for me to return the next Monday for a check-up and… some kind of “operation.” At one point, acupuncture came into the conversation, which worried me. I don’t do well with needles. It was all a little confusing.

I went back to work, walking from the train station in the humidity of mid-day. All the gates were closed and locked, forcing me to walk the entire circumference of the building, ending up entirely drenched in sweat just in time to sit down for lunch. SangMyung checked out my meds, instructed me on proper use, and told me that I did, indeed, seem to have an acupuncture appointment the next Monday.


As the week went on, my face only got better, and by the end of the next weekend, I appeared to be at least 95% cured. All the difficulties and symptoms were almost entirely gone, including the numb tongue.

Yet I still had that appointment.

So Monday came, and the time had come. I made my way back to the hospital that afternoon for my appointment, though I had no idea where to go. At first I went to the neurology area where I had gone before. But they ended up taking me up a floor to a little room off to the side. There, they had me take off my shoes and glasses and lie down on a little bed. Then the nurse came in and tried to communicate with me in Korean, which was embarrassing for both of us. But then she just suddenly started talking some English, and she was actually pretty good at it. She was able to communicate in English just fine, and even do a little small talk. I guess she was just embarrassed about speaking English like a lot of Koreans are (and as someone who tried to speak Korean to Koreans, I kneww exactly how they felt).

So it turned out that it wasn’t actually acupuncture. Instead, it was some kind of electroshock therapy! She had to keep wiping my face down because I was so sweaty from the humidity, but she’d stick these little pads on different areas on my face (including a bigger one on my neck). She’d occasionally move those around. Then she took a small handheld device that had these two metal poles sticking out the top. And she would put those little poles against different areas of my face, though mostly behind my ears (towards the end, she moved to the forehead and eye area, but the majority was right behind my earlobes).

The sensation was… odd. The sound the machine made wasn’t too dissimilar to a sewing machine. And every time it jolted me, it felt like a mix of a being jabbed in the neck and shocked at the same time. It would start on a low setting where there was almost no discomfort at all, and then slowly it would get stronger until it was just painful bursts. And the whole side of my face would twitch every jolt. The entire process took about 15-20 minutes.

Afterwards, I went back up to the neurologist, only having to wait about 10 minutes this time. He agreed that I was doing much better than I was the previous week. However, he also showed me a reading scan thing from the electroshock stuff. Apparently the left side of my face (the non-palsy side) has normal spikes, while the right side (the palsy side) was almost flat with very, very minimal spikes. He said this did confirm the Bell’s Palsy and not a brain affliction, but that it (the palsy) hasn’t been fully cleared up yet. So he gave me two more weeks’ worth of that same medication, told me to take it easy, and said I should come back for another check-up on August 5.

It was not a fun thing to have, despite it not being too dangerous and only having a mild case of it. I would have hated to have anything more extreme, especially in another country. Though I’m also partially glad this happened in Korea. Both hospital visits, including 2 doctor consultations, electroshock therapy, and 2 sets of medications to last about 3 weeks was only around 110 bucks. It was an interesting experience, that’s for sure. And I was hoping I was done with hospitals, outside of my next appointment.

Hint: I wasn’t.

~ 9.23.13 ~

The day after I got back from a rather annoying trip to Beijing, I needed to buy groceries for my place since I’d been gone. I often walked to a smaller E-Mart nearby—a decent 10-minute walk. In order to get there, I had to cross the street, as if I were going toward the train station, but instead of going down the alley toward the station, I turned and walked along the street. Soon after making it to the other side, there were plenty of other stores, as well as a bus stop. Now, what made this particular bus stop tricky to maneuver was the wooden deck that protruded out from the store behind it. Because of this, there was minimal space to walk if there were a bunch of people waiting for the bus. That being said, as I’m coming back from the grocery store with all my bags in hand, a group of little old ladies were pushing their way through the crowd waiting for the bus. I moved to get out of their way and promptly tripped over the deck (hard enough to have actually broken part of the deck with my foot). I went sprawling, my groceries flew everywhere, and my knee banged into the ground. Every Korean at the stop, between 10-20 people, turned and laughed at me as I collected my bags and hurried off in embarrassment.

Having previous knee injuries didn’t help the situation, and I banged it up pretty bad. It was awfully painful to walk on for quite some time, to the point SangMyung took me to yet another medical specialist where I had to lay on a bed and have them electroshock my leg for half an hour before resting a hot pad on it for another half hour. They gave me hot pads to put on it at home. I did this procedure 2-3 times over the course of a couple weeks. Turned out, my inflammation did not appreciate being further enflamed, so it wasn’t until I switched to cold packs that the swelling and pain actually decided to go down.

It hurt, but it wasn’t even close to my most painful experiences, like the earache from a couple months prior. The most painful medical experience in my life was when I had dry socket (pre-Korea). I remember the entire weekend vividly. My wisdom teeth had to be cut out, and I only had two. They were both on the left side of my face, and I had gone to the oral surgeon. They had trouble putting the IV in—finding a vein wasn’t the easiest. But once they did, I was staring at the ceiling, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up post-surgery. The next day, I realized that my face was hurting quite a bit. It was more than just soreness, too, and the ibuprofen wasn’t doing much anymore.

As it turned out, I had gotten what was called dry socket; dry socket is when the blood clot comes dislodged and the nerves become open to the air. We went back in to get it taken care of. The pain was nearly unbearable. The lady soaked a cotton ball in clove oil to place it in the hole. The clove oil was meant to numb the nerves and thus the pain. She attempted to stab it into the hole multiple, painful times, before going to get somebody else. The second person jabbed it in one painful time, and after a few seconds, the pain went away, though my mouth now tasted like disgusting clove oil and half my mouth was numb.

It was then that I discovered I was at least somewhat allergic to clove. I was hit with an intense migraine within 30 minutes. And then the numbing wore off, and I then had a splitting migraine as well as dry socket. And the oral surgeon was now closed until Monday. I spent the rest of the weekend curled up in immense pain until I was constipated from the amount of ibuprofen I was popping, which no longer worked for the pain anyway.

On Monday, we returned to the oral surgeon, and they removed the cotton ball from my mouth. The migraine dissipated almost instantly, and the dry socket pain only lasted less than a day more. But this was a pain I never wanted to go through again.

~ 11.7.13 ~

Over the last few weeks, the entire school had been preparing for the giant fall festival, which included numerous performances from each grade level and various other groups. Our English department, for example, was putting on a very bizarre version of The Wizard of Oz—including the witch’s big bad wolf, a magic bus portrayed by a hula hoop, a cursed princess, and a rather abrupt ending where everyone loves each other and sings the classic Israel Kamakawiwoʻole mashup of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” with some of our smartest kids. I had the role of the Yen Sid-esque narrator.

When my parents had come to visit the previous week, I had begun to get a cold around the tail-end of their trip with the weather changes and the colder and colder weather. So this week, I had been dealing with plenty of coughing, sneezing, and other cold-related symptoms. What I was not expecting, however, was what came next.

It started around 9:30 PM on Thursday, the night before the fall festival. I sat at my desk on my laptop when, suddenly, I started to get a sharp pain in my lower left back. I shifted around, attempting to work out whatever kink had worked its way into my back from sitting at my desk. I thought, perhaps, I had pulled a muscle. I twisted, turned, stretched, bent, laid down—anything to try and ease the pain. Except nothing helped. This sudden uncomfortableness turned to an even sharper pain. There was no gradual increase. One moment I was fine, and the next I was in copious amounts of pain. It was to the point of crippling. I didn’t know if I wanted to cry or throw up. Possibly both. The pain then caused my adrenaline to kick in so hard, I was having a full-body Earthquake. I tried a hot shower, which thankfully worked… until the shower stopped. As soon as the water was off my back, the pain came back full force. My hypochondria had now kicked into gear, and mixed with my surge of adrenaline and the crippling pain, I had no idea what to do and was relatively freaked out.

I tried contacting my mom and my sister for at least some level of comfort, for any knowledge that might help relieve my onset of high anxiety and pain. They were not much help, so around 10:20, I decided I needed to go to the hospital. I would not be able to sleep off the pain, nor would I have even been able to fall asleep to begin with.

I make it, somehow, to Sanbon and find the Emergency Clinic. Of course there was very minimal, if any, English speaking, but I had zero cares at this point. I needed help. They put me down on a small hospital bed in the middle of the clinic. There were at least 10 other beds in the room, one of which included a man who seemed to be in even more pain than myself. With all the pain and screaming and crying, I had definitely found my people. I didn’t even care at this point, however, about feeling embarrassed or uncomfortable (outside of how I was already). The clinic proceeded to run a couple tests before hooking me up to what I could only assume to be a glorious IV of morphine. So I lay there, writhing in pain as my backside periodically spasms throughout whatever the morphine cannot dull—though it dulled a lot… enough to calm me down and get to a functional state again, anyway.

After about an hour of this, they finally tell me I have a kidney stone. The pain had gone down considerably, and they were going to give me one more injection of something (I really trusted these people) and send me on my way. But then it all came back full force again, so they increased the drip, and I hung around for another 45 minutes or so. They gave me a few meds, and I eventually went on my way (where I had to take a taxi home, since it was after 1 AM and nothing else was running at that point). And I had an appointment with a urologist the next morning.

I sent messages to both Naomi and SangMyung to let them know I wouldn’t be able to come in the next day, which I felt awful about considering it was the big festival day. I really felt like I had let them down. I finally was able to fall asleep for about 5 hours of restlessness before getting back up. My back had been fine in bed, though the pain started to return the more I moved around.

I made my way back to the hospital for my appointment, which I was rather accustomed to by this point. I was, at the very least, at a friendly facial recognition basis with the hospital staff. The doctor had me do a whole bunch of tests, which had me wandering around the hospital to different areas so I could get all of these done, including 4 blood samples, 2 urine samples, an x-ray, and a CT scan. Then I got to go back to the doctor, who eventually told me I did, indeed, have a kidney stone. Thankfully, it was only about 2mm in size, so no surgery would be needed to get it out. I’d just have to wait for it to come out the natural way.

I ended up bringing in an insane amount of pills (as usual) with a check-up the next week. The entire process, including the Emergency Clinic, only cost me roughly $250. Have I mentioned how grateful I was for the Korean healthcare system?

It was, however, a rather exhausting experience where the pain continued in waves for a few days and about a week of a sore back before I got rid of that sucker. I was told my uric acid levels had been awfully high, which I assumed to have been caused by the large amount of seafood I was eating and hadn’t been used to at that point, as well as the sugary cereals I consumed, too. He tried to tell me it was my red meat consumption, though that was hard to come by in Korea (particularly beef) on a regular basis. I still couldn’t find a good hamburger in this country!

This would, thankfully, be the end of my health crises abroad, which felt endless up to that point. I would still get allergy issues, of course, but nothing that a little over-the-counter medicine couldn’t help. I will say this, though: after this year, I understood why all my contracts and forms I had to fill out focused so heavily on my health. Many people used teaching abroad as an excuse to take advantages of their healthcare system before skipping out on the job and heading back home once the issues were solved cheaply and effectively. It was cheap. It was effective. And I’m so glad that, if all these issues were to arise in my life, they happened in Korea.

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