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.

They were punctual at HM: Wheeled me into the surgery area precisely at 11:30, gave me the lowdown on my tests from Monday (all normal enough), did a skin check, inserted an IV needle into my arm and walked me into the surgery room. It was a nondescript place, four walls and a window lacking both character and color. The multi-headed surgery light suspended from a heavy gray boom like a blue-eyed sleeping alien; a simple operating table with green sectioned cushions. I didn’t even see the tool tray. I probably didn’t want to. Dull white walls, a few plaster cracks and some shoddy trim work that could have at least used some caulk, stuff only a carpenter would notice, really.

The surgeon was young, perhaps in his mid thirties. Tidy and calm, the proper dose of Korean reserve, handsome and perhaps a bit deferential, as I was to learn later. He asked if he could pray for me before sticking the needle in my spine that would render me oblivious to pain. I said yes. The thought of a long needle up my spinal cord would give me the shivers if I thought about it much. So I accepted his prayer and offered up my own pagan version. He got me in a fetal position and the nurse cradled my body so that I’d stay in that position during the insertion of the needle. That was nice. Too bad they don’t operate on you like that. Once prone again, they tilted the operating table back so my head was below my belly, letting the anesthesia run up my spine. In short order I felt my toes tingle, then I realized I couldn’t move my legs. The freakish sense of paralysis, reluctant abandon – mercy. They re-leveled the table, then the surgeon proceeded to daub my abdomen with a cold liquid to find out if I was numb. He asked me, “Can you feel this?” I kept saying, “Yes,” which confounded him.

Was this the time to get nervous?

Several minutes later, when I still thought I felt a little something when he daubed my abdomen with his freon swab, he proclaimed me ready for surgery. He talked me through the shaving of my pubic hair, the ultrasound, and just before making the incision, told me that I would feel sensations, him working on me, but no pain. I was lying like a horizontal crucified Jesus, right arm splayed on one side table inside an automatic blood pressure monitor, the left splayed on another cold metal table with a heart-rate monitor clipped to my finger. Hardly what I’d call a comfortable position. The ugly green hood went up, a thick course canvas, the kind of material we used to keep baseball bats in. Now I could only see up, to the sides and with effort, behind. Morbidly I wanted to watch, but I suppose there’s a reason they don’t let you. When the incision took place and I felt no pain I did my best to relax into the rest of the procedure, but that was difficult given the radio playing a mish-mash of Korean pop, rap and dull plastic metal with a glut of commercials in between: female voices giggling like sprites inside a coke bottle, effervescent in their lack of sincerity. Far be it for me to tell a surgeon how to work, but it surprised me that he listened to this crap during surgery. If I could have understood the lyrics it might have been distractingly amusing, especially the rap stuff. Korean teenagers who have surely never even met a black person doing rap. Puts those American suburbanites to shame!

The surgery lasted 90 minutes. During the whole procedure I could feel work going on in my abdomen, but that felt strange, since I knew that that wasn’t where the incision was, as my hernia is inguinal, above my right pelvic bone. During the last thirty minutes or so, the sensations began turning to pain, as if some rabid squirrel was inside my gut, foraging for a lost nut. Pain during surgery? I hadn’t bargained for that, cut rate price or no. I was trying to breathe through it, much like I do when my massage therapist digs into my recalcitrant muscles. But she digs through the skin, with massage oil and the promise of gentler rubbing to follow. This guy is literally under my skin, traction tools plying my skin and pulling on my innards. He’s telling me to relax. Yeah Dude, easier said than done. He asks if I’m in pain. I say yes. He says sorry. Involuntarily I grunt, “Gwen-chan-ah-yo,” which means, “That’s alright.” What I really want to say is, “What the fuck!” But I don’t know how to say that in Korean. Besides, my life is in this guys hands and stainless steel tools; thought of course I tend to trust men with tools. He seems calm and collected, so I figure the pain is normal.

Twice during the procedure, the assisting nurse calls for another nurse in that unique Korean sing-song way: “Twee-un-ahhh,” or something like that. “What?” I’m thinking. What’s she doing out there and not in here anyway; and why is the door open (it must be if she’s shouting for her); isn’t this room supposed to be hermetically sealed against germs, shouts and passers-by?

The pitter-patter of earnest little feet. A sneeze. Some rummaging. I can only hear.

I can’t see the surgeon and he can’t see me for the big tent in front of my face. I don’t like this. I want to see his face working. I want him looking at me to see how I’m faring. I want the nurse holding my hand, rubbing my neck or shoulders, helping me relax through the pain. Koreans have beautiful eyes. If I can just look at her eyes instead of the pale white ceiling or my fist clenching and unclenching against the pain and the growing numbness in my fingers. In the States you can go to a dentist where you’ll get a neck rub, ears “soothed” by New Age piano music, mouth rinsed with Chamomile tea, all while getting a root canal.

But this ain’t the States. No sissy nation. Koreans are stoic. They study like computers; work like machines. Drink like wrestlers. I remind myself of this. I remind myself of all the dental work I got done here without anesthesia, let alone George Winston. Teeth, guts, what’s the difference? Well, imagine your guts in traction, being stretched back into place after a slow, two-year migration; the clink of metal, the whine of synthesizers, a milk commercial (“oo-you, oo-you, oo-you!”) and the click of staples, or are those scissors snipping sutures? Are we almost done thoughts every minute or so. The temptation to beat your head against the table. The resistance. Holding back the, “Owwww!”

“Twee-un-ahhh!” and a few perfunctory commands in a language you don’t understand.

Pitter-patter, pitter-patter, clink, clink.

“The operation is almost complete,” the surgeon assures me. I look at the clock. It’s one thing I’ve got to focus on. It moves like a cork on a still lake. Some sixteen year old with too much mascara and plastic hot pants is careening two octaves above high-C from the stereo some painful love song. Like she knows pain.



Somebody please hold my hand!

Sissy. You’re in Korea. This will end —-

Finally, just like on M.A.S.H., the snap of gloves.

“The surgery is a success,” says the surgeon with no particular emotion. His tone of voice is as steady and nonchalant as a barista telling you your latte costs five bucks.

“Thank you,” I whisper in English. Actually it was more like a desperate, breathless gasp. I’ve got no stomach for Korean right now. I feel like I’ve got no stomach at all, but I’m forced to find that in fact I do. As they hoist me from the table to the gurney I’ve got to clench what I can feel of it to make the transfer, trying not to cry. I don’t know what the tears that want to come out are about: pain, relief, need, some deep maternal absence released from the opened body-emotional? In this place, in this moment, they seem simultaneously warranted and irrational. But in this place the tears of a 187 centimeter tall wei-gook won’t be understood, the novelty of my even being here notwithstanding. If you ever go in for any kind of surgery, bring a loved one with you. Someone who will understand and appreciate the look in your eyes, pre or post-op. Someone to absorb the relief, a channel for your emotions, however simple, to flow through.

“Come on En-so-kneeee,” the nurses sing. After a bumpy, hasty ride down the hall, one more time from the gurney to the hospital bed in my room, two slight Korean women try to move me. I’ll have to help if this is going to be successful. So I use the muscles that still work – my arms, leveraging with my elbows. One renegade tear down my right cheek.

On my bed now, where I’ll have to lay relatively motionless for the next four hours getting an awful backache that no Korean nurse will tend to. Korean nurses don’t tend to patients, their needs – not beyond the basics of the job anyway – your pills, your shots, your IV, your instructions: “Move body, okay. Move head, no!” But my head’s about all I can move painlessly, but still not enough to see the phone and to dial the number to call them. What about a call button? That would be novel. I try to massage my back, place my fist below the small of it, a fulcrum below the ache, but it doesn’t help. Moving can be quiet agony, if only because shouting would hurt more. I need a family. That’s what Koreans use. The family are the nurses; they hang around in shifts, tending to your needs. Later, I ask the nurse to raise the foot of the bed. She obliges grudgingly. It’s not her job and she’s not my sister, and besides it requires that she get on her knees and twist the crank against the weight of my legs. They’ve got the fanciest electronic gadgets you can imagine in Korea, and in my bathroom a special hemorrhoid toilet that looks like it would do wonders to your anus, but the hospital beds are straight from the fifties. Hand cranks for chrissake. Next time, when I’m mobile again, I turn the crank myself. It’s kind of quaint in an arcane way, like a motorcycle with a kick start, a dial phone.

I was told to rest in bed for four hours. I did. Precisely four hours later, a nurse comes in and says, “Rest time over, walking time now.” She doesn’t help me up. The pain of getting out of bed, all that force in the abdomen required to rise, is almost blinding. My head spins, or is it the room? I grab the handle of the IV tower on rollers, shuffle slowly over to the entry where I’ll have to manage getting into my too-small slippers, way down there on the foyer tile, four inches lower than the raised floor. I cough and that’s about enough to knock me down with pain. But it’s time for walking and my nurse is no longer waiting. Off to the nurse’s station to surf the net or giggle with co-workers I muse, too disoriented to be irritated. If I fall I’m fucked so off down the hall I go for the slowest walk I’ve ever had, one hand on the IV tower, the other on the rail lining the beige papered walls. Each step is quieter than the previous, like autumn leaves falling that last soft swoop to the ground, gently against the pain of contact. I’m parched, having not been allowed to eat or drink a thing since the night before. The water tastes like sex going down. I drink three cups filling my belly with life, relief and pride. The walk back to bed a little easier. I’ll do this every hour, perhaps a little more.

Rest time over. Walking time now.

Actually, I got plenty of rest. And the progress of my recuperation went just as the doctor had said. By the next morning, fortified with food that puts American hospital food to shame (I know, like that’s hard), and with the aid of pain shots that would be administered only if I requested them, I was able to amble at a clip of perhaps a quarter mile an hour, instead of a tenth. My trips to the water cooler were frequent, perhaps because they had to be. No nurse was going to bring me water or tea, move my IV from the stationary tower to the mobile one, twist my crank; so knowing it was expediting my recuperation, I was glad to be doing these things for myself, even if I still felt like being babied, even if getting in and out of bed, squatting on the toilet and ambling down the hall like an octogenarian still sent shivers of antagonism down my newly sensate spine.

By the time my friends started showing up for visits, I was pridefully taking care of myself and offering them water and tea. They brought me brownies, mango juice, almonds, a coffee mug so I didn’t have to drink out of a disposable piece of paper. They watched me wince during the occasional cough or laugh; offered sympathy through dark, worrisome eyes. If I were in the States I would have gotten super blue-green algae, HerbPharm tinctures, gourmet chocolate, back rubs and a warm hand or two to entwine with. Hugs. But this would have all been offered at home, for despite the eight grand or so the hospital would have pilfered from me, they would have kicked me out a few hours after surgery. The nurses weren’t as helpful as I would have liked, but it was nevertheless comforting to remain in the hospital under qualified medical supervision while I inched my way back to normal.

Now, two days removed from the hospital, I’m sitting on my sofa on the seventh floor of the Herb Motel in Mugeodong, my angle of repose a counterpoint to the angle of my laptop screen, ticking away in relative comfort while smoking an Esse Gold that by rights ought to have some herb in it. If only I was home. But I’m not, and even so I’m really quite grateful that I have friends here that set up this low-cost adventure of mine, and to the best of their abilities and cultural allowances, have seen me through it.

I’m doing so well that I walked a good mile today through the fall foliage of Ulsan Grand Park on my way to meet Kwon, Rae and Claire downtown for lunch and coffee. Of the four of us, I was the only one with any real energy to spare, the three of them threatening to fall asleep after cake, cookies and coffee. So, I’ve been in good hands all along, even if the hands seemed a little calloused at times, the equipment a little B-movie. Tomorrow morning I go to the hospital to have my bandage changed, and on Thursday I get the stitches removed, at which time I’ll be free to head to Seoul for a little R and R. Then home again, where, all things considered, I would have much preferred to have this surgery done in the first place.

Next time . . .

Should misfortune dictate.



4 Responses to “Adventures of a Medical Tourist – part 2 (Surgery)”

  1. 1 Jenya
    November 23, 2010 at 1:57 am

    Whoa. No general anesthetic…no pain meds after surgery…holy crap. Maybe I won’t complain about the health care system in the States quite so much. I mean, surgery is bad enough when you CAN’T feel it!

    Glad you’re back on your feet. Wish we coulda been there to hold your hand!

  2. 2 sean
    November 23, 2010 at 4:20 am

    My poor lad! Wish I were there to squeeze your hand during the ordeal. And maybe to administer bourbon. That’s the only sedative you need.


  3. 3 Paul
    November 23, 2010 at 9:22 am

    I feel quilt ridden for enjoying your written word at the expense of your painful ordeal which, by the way, is a very interesting snapshot of Korean life. I found myself wincing throughout the description of the procedure and beyond only to be happy that i was in this corner of the world sipping some wine over my laptop. Glad you are on the mend and wish i were there to help when you needed it most.

    All the best


  4. 4 Phoebe
    December 3, 2010 at 6:19 am

    Amazing story and experience. I am glad you made it through and are on the way home.


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