“Teacher, I go hospital”. Upon arrival in Korea, these words filled me with genuine concern. In the states, the hospital is reserved for tests for serious ailments, surgeries, emergency rooms, or admittance for long hospital stays for observation. In Korea, this statement can mean anything from, “I stopped by the ear nose and throat doctor for some anti-histamine”, to “I broke my leg, but they sent me back to school an hour later”. Consequently, I learned quickly not to panic when students, family or friends told me that they had visited the hospital, it usually wasn’t anything serious.
As a foreigner, one of the biggest shocks was the realization that Koreans do not understand nor tolerate the concept of sick days. Children who are sick are sent to school regardless of their condition. Once, a student of mine who was about 7 was positively green sitting in his place at the table in the classroom. “Teacher sick”, he told me. There was nothing I could do for him as the director had parked him in the chair and told him to stay there. The lesson continued until he leaned over and vomited all over the floor. Only then was he allowed to leave the classroom. He was led downstairs and gently laid down on a floor mat to feverishly sleep and wait for his mother who would arrive at the end of the day, 8 hours later. Walking back to the classroom, I heard him whimper “Oma”, or “mama”, and my heart broke for him, knowing that he would be left alone miserably waiting for the rest of the day.
Older students and adults are not afforded the same comforts. Unless you need to go to the hospital (and be admitted), there is very little sympathy for illness. Older students who are ill generally are allowed to rest their heads on their desks (provided they are really ill, and God help them if they are faking), but they are not permitted to return home. Teachers, staff, and employees of other establishments are expected to carry on as usual. An employee might be begrudgingly permitted a half an hour to visit a pharmacy or a doctor (hospital to Koreans), but they are expected to report directly back to work.
Once, very early in my stay as a teacher in Korea, I had the misfortune to contract either the stomach flu or food poisoning. Either way, I spent a very unpleasant night and much of the morning in intestinal distress. As soon as it was a decent hour, I called my director to tell her that I was very sick, too sick to come in. After a pause and some nervous laughter on the other end of the line, came the question that I will never forget “what time you come in today”. I was absolutely flabbergasted. What do you mean, what time? American stomach flu buys you one day off, or even two, and my director wanted me to come back to work in an hour or so. After a little negotiation, it was decided. I would work in the afternoon, and I did. Chills and all.
Visiting the Doctor in Korea is a very efficient experience. There are no appointments. Upon arrival, your insurance card is presented, and you take a seat in a large waiting room. Within 10-30 minutes depending on the time of day, your name is called and you are escorted into a smaller waiting room with 4-5 people. There is a large chair with plenty of medical apparatus around it, and the 4-5 people who are in constant rotation to be seen look on as you have a brief conversation with the doctor. Foreigners always know where the doctors are who speak English, and although the English is often curt and limited due to the language barrier, the job is done and you are on your way within minutes:
Doctor: What’s your problem?
Patient: My nose is stopped up, and I have a rattling in my chest.
(Doctor takes a metal scope and sticks it up your nose taking a picture of your nasal cavites, both left and right)
Doctor: You have inflammation in your nose
Doctor: I give to you something for inflammation
(Doctor sprays liquid up your nose and down your throat. The metal instrument always hit my teeth, which made me cringe to see them coming, this was because my doctor was always in a hurry.)
Doctor: You have bronchitis
Doctor: I listen to your chest
(Doctor listens to chest)
Doctor: I think I give to you antibiotic. 3 days.
Patient….um, ok…. Can you tell me the name in English?
Doctor cocks head, then shakes it and says “See you again”
The whole interaction takes less than 5 minutes and then you go to the front office where you pay about $10 and they print off your prescriptions for you to take to the pharmacy. There were a couple pharmacies where some of the people spoke limited English, so I would take my prescriptions there and sometimes they would be able to tell me in English what the medication was and what it was designed to do.
The medication would be put in sealed packets by when you were supposed to take them, not by what the medication was. Each packet would have different color lettering on it to tell you when you would take it, morning, afternoon, and night. Inside each packet would be the various pills that had been prescribed to you. For bronchitis, or the flu, or a cold, it was usually anti-biotic, anti-histamine, and some variety of Tylenol. If you were coughing a lot, they would also give liquid codeine cough medicine to be taken.
Not all medical needs in Korea are simple. Over the course of our three year stay, my husband was paralyzed with back pain. I received a call from my director who had taken him to the hospital that he was “in traction”. We had the only serious argument that we only had during my stay in the country that day because the doctors refused to give him anything for the pain but Tylenol. Outraged, I tried to insist that he was given something stronger. My director retorted that if I didn’t like how things were done in Korea, I could go back to America and get stronger medication.
Hospitals seemed to be more like hotels. It was not uncommon to see patients in gowns walking the streets pushing an I.V., wearing a hospital gown. In Seoul, I spotted three patients in a very busy district of Seoul in full hospital dress scooting across the street in wheel chairs looking like they were on their way to a night on the town. Treating patients like guests who are allowed to come and go as people and not prisoners was my favorite aspect of Korean medicine, something I think the west could learn from Korean medicine.