Emergency gives a new take on KoreaA few months ago, I had to be rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night. In the ambulance, the driver asked me which hospital I wanted to go to.
“Anywhere,” I said, “as long as you can find English speaking doctors.”
As he drove away, I could hear the driver complaining, “But you are in Korea!”
I ended up in the emergency room at Seoul National University Hospital, perhaps the most overcrowded in all Korea. A doctor with a good command of English welcomed me and, after conferring with the ER nurses in Korean, recommended various tests. A nurse pointed out a place for me to rest. I could not believe it when I realized that she actually expected me to lie down on a dusty desk. Could this really be a hospital bed?
My friends, who accompanied me to the hospital, ran after the nurse to get new sheets to cover the desk. Later they hailed the nurses to get a fresh I.V. Because I was barely able to stand up, they carried me or pushed me in a wheel chair when I had to move from one room to another for tests.
I was shocked to see that my friends had to do that. What were the nurses doing?
I really felt that I was trapped in some parallel universe, or some earlier time where knowledge about medicine was primitive. Since arriving in Korea, I had never wanted so badly to be back in France. At least there, if I got sick, I knew I would be treated in an ultramodern and clean hospital, with a whole team of nurses and orderlies taking care of me and doctors treating me efficiently.
I remember something one of my friends told me that night: She said I was experiencing too much of Korea. I think she was right. That night I saw a new side of Korean society.
From my dusty desk, I noticed why the hospital staff seemed unable to keep up: Koreans rush to the emergency room for even the most minor illnesses. Many of the patients seemed to have nothing more serious than a cold. And all of them were surrounded by friends or family. Adults were joking and chatting, while kids ran around, obviously enjoying this curious new playground. People watched TV dramas and ate dumplings in the middle of the emergency room.
The ER was understaffed. One of the young interns watched over me two hours after his shift ended, because there was no one to take his place. Looking back, the experience taught me something about the feeling of camaraderie Koreans share everywhere.
by Anne Lajoye
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