Archive for November, 2010


Adventures of a Medical Tourist – part 2 (Surgery)

Kwon was on the phone, waiting to be my interpreter while the nurse was tending business on the hospital line. I had taken myself to the hospital, thinking an interpreter wouldn’t be necessary: They’d check me in, put me in a gown, read my vitals and wheel me to the surgery room. Not much English required, but the nurse insisted. While waiting Kwon asked me if I was nervous. I said no, which was true. The nurses however were nervous and giggly; their first foreigner apparently. I’m still struck by how many Koreans I meet in Ulsan that haven’t had any contact with foreigners, my otherness like snow fall on a sunny day.

Kwon interpreted pretty much what I thought they were going to say: Follow me to this room. Change into this hideous floral hospital gown, thick flannel and of course way too short, and wait. In the changing room I wanted to ask the nurse if the gown came in pastel sky blue for men, just to break the ice. Instead I helped her pronounce medical terms like white blood cells, hemoglobin, cardiovascular. In Korea, an English teacher is never off duty. Continue reading ‘Adventures of a Medical Tourist – part 2 (Surgery)’


Adventures of a Medical Tourist — part 1

I’m in Korea again, this time not to teach but to visit and to get a hernia surgery that will cost me a fraction of what it would cost in the US, even considering the airfare and other expenses. Medical tourism is a burgeoning business. Let’s hope my foray into it is a successful one.

Traveling here was of course exhausting. It’s no fun being on a cramped plane for ten hours at a stretch; doubly so when you’ve got a cold and there’s an infant behind you trying out the screech mode of his vocal chords every thirty minutes or so. I think there should be a special compartment on airplanes for children . . . like in the baggage hold.

Okay, just kidding.

I arrived at both Narita and Seoul earlier than scheduled. In Narita it meant I had more time to kill before my connecting flight, which meant that I could make more visits to the smoker’s lounge. Interesting place, the international smoker’s lounge. You really get to see what it looks like to have this addiction: all these people entering the smoky domain like pilgrims entering a holy temple after days on their hands and knees in the blistering sun.

Ahhh, salvation! (Cough-cough)

As in an elevator, nobody talks, nobody looks at each other. You hear the gentle hum of exhaust fans keeping the room from becoming a noxious cloud. You hear eager fingers opening fresh packs of duty-free Parliaments. The clicking of lighters. Deep inhalations . . . sighing exhalations. Curious, momentary glances at the tall white guy smoking something that he takes out of an old, beat up gum tin. It has no filter. He unconsciously blows smoke rings. Occasionally a woman enters. All eyes will be on her for a while, for some because she’s a woman and Asian women shouldn’t’ smoke; for others because she’s a woman in a hazy room full of men.

Every time I visualize myself in that lounge, I can’t help but wish that I didn’t smoke. There’s something rather desperate and even pathetic about the whole scene. It’s a lot less seedy than an opium den of course, but there’s an aura about the smoker’s lounge that seems somehow similar to that of an opium den. There is no escaping the fact and full force of your addiction. It’s written on every face around you, as if you’re in a hall of mirrors, minus the distortion. I look around and ask, “Is that me; is that really me?”

I guess so.

Knowing that I’ll be spending three days in a hospital where a smoking lounge may be hard to find, it occurs to me that this would be a good time to give the quitting business the old college try – again. Even if there was a place to smoke, I’d feel a little pathetic asking a nurse to plop me in a wheelchair and roll me someplace where I could suck down an Esse Gold or two. I’m sure there’s some drug I could ask for instead, one that would keep me in bed, where I’ll belong, oblivious of nicotine withdrawal and whatever post-op pain I’m bound to be in.

Morphine comes to mind. So does opium . . .


Anyway, back to airports: Despite the extra security for the G20 summit, I got through customs in Seoul quite quickly. My bags even arrived in the first 20 percentile of luggage, which is unusual. Seems like my bags always come toward the end – like Charlie Brown always getting a rock in his Halloween satchel instead of candy.

I found the limousine bus my Korean friend Sean told me to take to his neighborhood with no problems, and an hour later found myself at 11 pm. on a bustling street in Seoul watching a skirmish between a (presumably) drunk guy brandishing an invisible stick and a taxi driver. For the Summit – which is a really big deal here – there are small troupes of riot police stationed here and there to keep the peace. They look like they’d rather be just about anywhere else, like they had been plucked out of college algebra class for civic duty. The skirmish taking place 50 meters from their police bus was of no interest to them, nor to me, as all I wanted to do was locate my friend and get some rest.

Getting someone to lend me their cell phone so I could call Sean was a bit of a trick, as most people were impatiently waiting for buses, transfixed by the impending brawl, or just passing by. There were no pay phones about, so I had no choice but to bother someone to use their’s. It took two different calls with two different phones to alert Sean as to my whereabouts (the first call got cut short as the man’s bus arrived 30 seconds into the call) but he did find me in relatively short order.

We then wheeled my luggage to a nearby restaurant for some grilled beef, veggies and kim chi. Yum. I didn’t realize how much I missed Korean food until I found myself sitting cross-legged in front of a low table filled with the delights of Korean cuisine. I was too tired to really enjoy the food fully, and the beer and soju went straight to my head, but I was nevertheless happy to be on solid ground knowing that a flat surface was awaiting my exhausted body and foggy mind.

Too bad I didn’t sleep but a few winks that night. Jet lag is weird – you feel like you can’t possibly keep awake another minute, then you end up staring at the ceiling all night. Of course, a snoring friend doesn’t help. I was doubly as tired as he was, but I lay there envious of the depth of his slumber when I could find none of my own.

The next morning I found some bad expensive coffee and then went about trying to get a prepaid phone so that I could communicate with people. You’d think given how technologically advanced the Koreans are, that it would be easy to find a temporary phone, but you’d be wrong, as I was. Every store I went to directed me to a different store. When I finally found one that would sell me an old phone and prepaid minutes, they decided against it since I didn’t have an alien registration card. My passport simply wouldn’t do. You can’t even get a phone in Korea without having a Korean sponsor you. Some places won’t even let me use my bankcard without also showing them my resident ID card, which of course, I no longer have. I guess I was also supposed to close my bank account when I left the country. I feel a bit subversive, keeping it and even using it, as if I had the right to.

Not being a resident meant that I had to get a friend to get a phone for me, and since Sean was too busy for that I would have to wait until coming to Ulsan on Saturday before getting a phone, which meant of course, borrowing a stranger’s phone again once arriving at a bus stop in order to alert my friend Niki where to find me. I found a woman with a cell phone in each hand, and figured she wouldn’t mind sparing one of them for a minute, which was true. Niki and I located each other, found a motel to drop my bags in and proceeded to look for a place where Niki’s ancient cell phone could be turned into a operable communication device for me during my stay. As in Seoul, so in Ulsan. Every store directed us to another store, except in this case they said we had to go downtown to the big stores, but only during banker’s hours, which meant no phone till Monday, which was of course unacceptable. Learning my lesson from Seoul, I continued dragging Niki to store after store till we found some cool young dude who could set us up. It worked —–

Sort of.

For, once getting the dinosaur of a phone connected, I quickly learned that that battery held a charge for all of five minutes and that there was no English mode, which almost rendered the phone unusable.

I’ve finally gotten the phone business resolved though, as my former employer, River, let me use her extra phone, which was already set up as a prepaid phone. On top of that I also got to teach a couple of River’s classes both on Monday and Tuesday, as she is feeling under the weather. It was a lot of fun to see the kids again and the teaching came easy; as if I’d only gone on a week’s vacation, except of course that there was a certain amount of hullabaloo about my surprise visit.

On Monday, prior to my visit to Boston Prep, I went to the hospital to have a few tests and get scheduled for surgery. It’s a brand new hospital called HM. Their motto is Health, Happiness and Humanity, so I suppose they should be called 3H instead, but they’re not. In any case, if mottoes are to be trusted, I’m surely in good hands. But since I don’t pay heed to mottoes, I was comforted to learn that the hospital was modern and cozy, more than a little less sterile than other hospitals I’ve seen, and the staff was very friendly. As a result, I’ve haven’t the slightest amount of trepidation about this upcoming procedure, which will take place at 11:30 am on Thursday (6:30 pm PST on Wednesday).

That’s tomorrow. Today I’m off to run some errands, maybe get a little pre-op exercise, and then, I hope for a quiet evening at home before going under the knife tomorrow. There’s of course more interesting things to tell, as this is Korea, but other tidbits of weirdness will have to wait till later. I’ll let you all know how the surgery went as soon as I’m coherent enough to write an email.

Till then be well.