An expat’s hospital stay: lots of rice and suction cupsWhen the hospital cashier rated me a flight risk by insisting on a 1 million won ($800) cash deposit ― on the double ― I knew I was a long way from home.
Bundled in a down coat thick enough to summit Mount Everest, I trudged outdoors to face the harsh February winds to withdraw cash from the nearest ATM.
Most expatriates in Korea absorb foreign culture in small doses: a Seoul city bus tour, a nibble of some strange food, or perhaps visiting a Buddhist temple. Then it’s back to the cozy confines of processed cheese and Jay Leno on AFN.
An extended hospital stay overseas, which I experienced last month for a throat infection, is a whole different affair. At a hospital, you’re weak, vulnerable, feeling isolated and homesick, plus there’s no escape. Never mind trying to figure out your actual condition or prognosis for recovery.
I must admit, the kindly nurses and doctors at Gangnam Sacred Heart Hospital in the Yeongdeungpo district strived to accommodate me. For starters, they found the largest white smock in the closet for their 178 centimeter (5 foot, 8-inch), slightly paunchy patient from the United States.
It turned out to be so big, I couldn’t cinch the drawstring tight enough to keep the thing from slipping.
Just after I had changed and settled in with my four Korean roommates, a nurse cruised in to hook up my IV and administer my first round of injections. This was one cheerful young woman who, along with most of the white-shirted squadron, looked not a day over 22.
After firing antibiotics through the IV tube, she rattled off some Korean that included the word eongdeongi, which means rear end. Cracking a weak smile, I hesitantly pointed to my hindquarters and she nodded her approval.
Bam!. So much for a language barrier.
The arrival of my first meal, on a tray with seven or eight capped metal bowls arranged in a circle, perked me up. Surely there’s something tasty under there, I thought.
Alas, my hopes were short-lived, as I could not stomach any of them (don’t tell the kitchen staff, but aside from rice, I obtained much of my nourishment for the next 72 hours from close friends.)
In line with Koreans’ privacy-poor society, no strict visiting rules applied, and all but one of my roommates benefited from an unchecked flow of friends, co-workers in uniform and parents, many toting the ever-popular gift: an 8-pack bottle of fruit juice.
Visiting “rules” also gave Christian missionary-types license to saunter in. Invited to the bedside of my laptop-tapping roommate and his mother, one pastor led a brief, intense worship service.
An itinerant barber, slinging a black box over his shoulder, also poked his head in. “Cut your hair?” he asked me (in English!). Though tempted to prim myself for my next pass by the nurse station, I took a rain check.
When boredom set in, I grabbed my IV pole and shuffled down the dimly-lighted hallway, where I was disturbed to find ajeossi, or married Korean men, spurning basic hygiene. Just like on the streets, one guy hacked a wad of spit on an otherwise clean hall floor, while in the bathroom a young punk puffed away next to the “No Smoking” sign.
Since insured hospital patients in Korea pay a pittance compared to their Western counterparts― one health care expert estimates costs at one-tenth of the United States ― staff regularly lean on family to help with chores. Even so, I was touched to observe a mother-daughter pair take turns caring for a gaunt, bedridden man across from me. His teenage daughter never so much as grimaced or groused as she attended to unpleasantries like changing his bedpans.
In some ways, my arrival also provided the hospital staff with a cultural caffeine buzz.
Sent downstairs for an electrocardiogram, I was ushered behind a curtain, where a rookie nurse set to hooking the machine’s suction cups on my hirsute chest. Like a child fiddling with a puzzle, she persisted but failed time and again to connect the two.
She motioned to an older female technician, who followed the same strategy, again with no success. At a loss, they turned to a tall male co-worker with a stern look on his face.
It quickly became apparent he had no patience for hairy chests, which are almost never seen among Korean men.
Wham! Wham! Wham! as he hammered the cups onto my chest. Sensing my discomfort, one nurse whispered, “Apayo?” or “Does it hurt?” I nodded, and they decided to slather the cups with gel instead.
I don’t know if they ever got an EKG reading off my chest. But after three nights, and an ungodly amount of antibiotics pumped into my system from two angles, the good doctors told me I was in good health.
The cost of all this lovey-dovey care? Just a sliver shy of the 1 million won security deposit I had given them, leaving my bank account in poor health. For that price, they could’ve at least given me a gown that fit.
by Joel Levin