ERs and IVs - Memoirs of a Sickly Waygook in Korea

At the end of November, my boss at work handed out our December calendars, and I remember thinking to myself, “I really cannot afford to get sick next month.” With tests every week, behavior reports due, open classes, workout plans, and a huge overseas trip to Australia for Christmas, I knew I wouldn’t have the time or money to be falling under the weather. I drank lots of orange juice, popped vitamin C, religiously washed my hands, and practically bathed my runny nosed, booger picking students in hand sanitizer. Despite my best efforts, as luck would have it, I’ve now been sick for the past two weeks.

Being sick sucks no matter where in the world you are. It’s uncomfortable, draining, and extremely inconvenient. However, being sick while living on your own in a foreign country… now that is an entirely different level of suck.

In Korea, sick days don’t exist, doctors and nurses only halfway understand me, and I’m reminded just how far I am from home (and that I probably should have learned more Korean). While this country does have an insanely incredible work ethic, what the people here don’t seem to understand is that if you don’t take time off to rest when you don’t feel well, you won’t get better, you get worse.

Though speaking induces a horrible cough, and I have almost totally lost my voice, I’ve had to continue teaching seven to ten classes a day for the last two weeks… and that’s exactly why I’m still sick. Which brings me to the nightmare that was today… day 14 of being sick, doctors visit number three in the past ten days, and hands down the hardest day I’ve had in my 17 months of living in Korea.

I’m genuinely never one to make a big deal about feeling under the weather, especially here where you're expected to keep performing at 100%. You drink some tea, take some medicine, and life goes on. I took my medicine and tried to rally, but when I woke up a couple of days ago with constant, extreme chest pains, I knew I needed to go see a different doctor.

 

Hospital number 1

I waited until today, Saturday morning, since I couldn’t take off work during the week, and headed to the nearest international clinic. After finally finding what I thought was the clinic, the man at the information desk redirected me to another part of the hospital across the street. Once there, I found myself in a fertility clinic and maternity center (because info desk man clearly didn’t understand me) … and then... I found myself in tears.

It’s hard enough getting out of bed when you’re sick, so just imagine having to ride the subway across town by yourself, and then not being able to find the right place to see a doctor. An extremely nice lady from the maternity center walked me back across the street (to the place where I originally started). Once there, I was told that the clinic was done seeing patients for the day and that their weekday hours were 9-5 (when I am working). Finally, they decided that I was coughing enough, crying enough, and in enough pain to justify bring me in to the emergency center instead.

After having my vitals and symptoms assessed in the Emergency Center, which quite comically involved me using google to convert my height and weight into kilograms and centimeters for the nurse, I was told that they could give me medicine for my cough… but I would need to see a specialist for the chest pain… at a different hospital. The doctor, who looked about my age, told me that there were many other University hospitals to choose from and that he was very sorry about my chest pains. It had taken so long for me to finally get here that I can’t even tell you how upset I was to find out I needed to go somewhere else… and the guy didn’t seem to understand me when I told him I didn’t know where to go. Eventually, he understood my request and wrote down the name of another nearby hospital. With tissues in one hand and the address in the other, I headed outside to attempt to find a cab.

 
 

I don’t know if it was the extreme cold weather, the fact that I was hacking up a lung, or because it was midday on a Saturday, but, (aside from leaving Itaewon after 2am on a Friday night), I swear I have NEVER had to walk so far for so long to catch a cab. The first couple of empty cabs that I saw drove right past me… and I can’t say I can totally blame em – (I don’t know if I’d pick up a disheveled, teary eyed, foreigner either). After walking for what seemed like ages, a cabbie finally picked me up and drove me to the Emergency Center at the other hospital.

 

Hospital Number 2

When I got to the hospital, the man at the information desk asked me quite inhospitably, “Why you come here?” I know he wasn’t being rude… but broken English sure does come off that way sometimes. I explained my symptoms for the millionth time, and he told me it would cost 70,000 won just to see the doctor. 70,000 WON! That might not seem like a lot, but for Korea it’s outrageous. I wasn’t sure what else to do, so I paid it.

From there, the day became a whirlwind of being pricked, poked, prodded, and x-rayed. When a nurse came to draw half the blood from my body, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t eaten anything all day. Thank god she very quickly put me on an IV drip, or else I probably would have just passed out right then… (perhaps then they would’ve taken the lone, teary eyed foreigner a bit more seriously).

 
 

I laid connected to an IV drip in a tiny curtain-walled cubicle for two hours and texted my mom (bless that angel of a woman for staying up way past her bedtime). She of all people understood that I must be feeling pretty horrible to actually go to the doctor for a third time, and on my Saturday. Eventually, she fell asleep, and my god I’ve never felt more alone.

While laying quite uncomfortably (because I had to lay on my side that is in extreme pain, so as to not rip the IV out of my arm), I’d hear the passing nurses say the word “waygook” followed by Korean I didn’t understand and snickers. “Waygook” means foreigner in Korean, and since I hadn’t seen any other foreigners around, I suspect they were talking about me. Honestly, this was the most frustrating part about the whole day. I don’t know if they were laughing at themselves for having to use English, or laughing at me, but the fact that they could laugh at all when I was so obviously miserable made me feel even more shitty.

A couple hours passed and I was finally taken off the IV drip and discharged from the hospital… after being told (again) that I have a cold - (I’m sorry, but what kind of devil cold lasts for three weeks!??). They charged me another 40,000won and sent me on my way.

 

Post Hospital Holiday Cheer

My time in Seoul is running out, and so, thinking I'd feel better by the weekend, I had made quite a few plans. The absolute last thing I wanted to do with my Saturday is be stuck in multiple hospitals. The one redeeming part of the weekend so far has been meeting up with Alexa, my angel of a friend (and a fellow Carolina girl – south, not north). The other plans we had obviously fell through, but when I told her about the day I was having, she jumped on the train to meet me for some much needed Christmas lattes before I headed home.

 
 

Long story short, absolutely nothing beats being home and having your mom take care of you when you're sick. I love traveling and living abroad, but do not mistake this life for a vacation. Being so far from family, and sick for so long, really sucks. Despite my recent misfortunes, I'm trying my best to still find the silver lining, however small it may be. I am so thankful to have family who care so much (even if they're thousands of miles away), and for friends who have gone out of their way to help me out and check up on me - (shout out to Alexa for brightening my day and to Alma for the home remedies).

As much as this whole being sick thing sucks, I realize things could always be worse, and am glad it's nothing more than a lingering cold... So I’m taking my meds, getting an early night, and saying a prayer that this not so common Monster Cold goes away soon. Here’s hoping that, when it comes to doctor’s visits, the third time is a charm.

Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so let us all be thankful.
— Buddha