Things have been so busy lately, it’s almost unbelievable! Planning expat events, working with real people in a real office again, editing photos to post from Hong Kong, and …surgery! Yes, yesterday it was MY turn under the knife, unexpectedly. I am just getting over worrying about my grandma and dad, and now I get to share my own surgical experience with you. Being brave today, friends, bear with me.
Just a note: if you feel awkward reading about my medical experience, or you think this will be too personal, stop here. I will try not to give any gross details, but the experience is worth a blog post. Also, I should note that there are not many pictures available for me to share with you, so I apologize for the lengthy text.
Two nights ago, I discovered an extremely swollen gland on my body and immediately proceeded, of course, to panic and freak out.
의사가 필요해요… Ooee sah gah, peeryo heyo… I need a doctor!
Regardless of what my normal mind would tell me, I started to think of all the things that could be wrong with me and what keywords to Google first. Let me first say that I don’t think WebMD or Mayo Clinic online are so bad for society – if you know how to take information with a grain of salt, especially when it comes to self-diagnosis. Next, I might add that this particular gland had to be the size of a large gumball, thus I was just a bit beside myself and the only thing that made me feel better was Google. My online therapist. Alright, I’ll give J-Mar some credit too.
So, anyway, there we were, 11 o’clock at night, me in a state of panic and my poor J-Mar picking up the pieces. Resourcefully, I thought to call an expat friend in town who has had some medical experience of her own, to recommend her local doctor. She came through splendidly, offering the phone number of her English translator and told me I could probably get a hold of her at night to make the next appointment possible. The next thing I know, I had messaged back and forth with Hana the translator, and had an appointment set up for 9:20 the next morning. How’s THAT for healthcare efficiency?
To be safe, J-Mar attended my appointment and was a great support throughout the process. First, we met Hana at the door of the hospital. Doctors don’t really have private offices here. You go to the hospital to be seen. We registered with the administrative assistant who asked a lot of triage questions that would normally be asked by a nurse, and also took my blood pressure. We were then escorted to a seating area where we waited no more than 60 seconds before being called into the doctor’s office. We walked into his office, which was adjacent to his personal exam room (not entirely strange as you might expect), and explained the issue. Then it was onto the physical exam portion.
I was a bit nervous about undressing for the examination, but this was even better than my US experience. They gave me sandals for my bare feet, in the true Korean way, and there was even a nice shelf and basket for me to store my clothes in! I’ll leave out the details of the next part, other than that the exam table was awesomely equipped with hydraulics (ok, it was just electric) so you could sit on it at a normal level and not have to awkwardly hop on top in your exam attire. For my viewing pleasure, on the ceiling there was a light covered with a photo of a window with a view of cherry blossoms and clouds. How adorable and cheery! And corny, I thought. The doctor came in and did what he needed to do in about two minutes and I was free to resume my normal appearance.
When I emerged from the exam room, the doctor already had a textbook open (with illustrations) on his desk to help explain the situation. He confirmed that yes, my gland was indeed swollen from a blockage causing fluid build-up. This condition is common in as many as 1 out of 50 women, so that was one thing that surprised me after researching the issue a little. The doctor essentially gave me two options – either remove the gland entirely or have it cut open to drain with a larger chance of relapse of the condition. Removing it entirely would take longer and have a longer recovery, but the chances of recurrence were smaller. Hana was great at filling in the blanks and addressing our questions.
Another funny part of my appointment was when J-Mar and I were discussing the two options. The doctor was patient, of course, but you could tell he and the translator were sort of laughing about our discussion of which option would be the best for me. If you don’t know, the typical doctor-patient relationship in Korea is very prescriptive. In a lot of ways in Korean society, you do what you’re told and if you try to question the expert, they probably won’t be very happy with you. I’m sure this particular physician has seen his fair share of foreigners in Ulsan, so he knew to give us the time to talk it out even though he had recommended the drainage option, and we finally decided to go with his recommendation.
We figured we’d have to wait a few days to schedule something and it would be quite the ordeal. On the contrary, once the decision was made, the next question from my translator was “when did you eat last”?
No, of course I didn’t eat that pre-made breakfast burrito from Starbucks thirty minutes ago…
Since I had eaten breakfast, we would have to “delay” the surgery until 2:30 that very afternoon! I wasn’t prepared for the speed at which this issue was resolved. I can’t say enough about the efficiency of the medical system as I have encountered it so far. With the surgery scheduled, I was free to hurry up and wait. Before I could leave, I had to pay my bill, all “out of pocket” (no insurance involved at this point), at a whopping $37. Amazing!
Did I mention I was in the exam room precisely at 9:20 and out of the hospital by 9:46? Forget wait times, this is where it’s AT!
So anyway, we did our bit of waiting around, packing a bag and taking care of the dogs before we left for what I thought would be the rest of the day/evening. We arrived back at the hospital at the requested time, and the translator was again there to meet us right away. This time they didn’t need to do any intake details, but they did strangely ask me to pay for the operation before it even began. I have learned that most times it’s better not to put up a fight about such things unless you want a massive headache, so I wandered to the register.
Paid in full, “out of pocket” costs for my operation were $305. Another awesome thing to mention is that the operation bill was translated into English for me and all of the costs itemized for transparency. I paid 70 won for “medication” costs related to the operation. 7 cents!
Next up was an escort to the second floor of the hospital where the operating rooms are located. Before I knew it, we had turned the corner through some double glass doors and I didn’t do much other than wave to J-Mar through the doors. Ack! This was another panic moment, this time thinking:
What if I die and I didn’t tell him I love him?! Ohnoohnoohnoohno!
Even if that was a slight exaggeration, there have got to be other people out there who have thought that. So I did what any good millennial would do, I got out my cell phone and texted him… while I was supposed to be getting in my exam clothes for the operation. I really wish I was able to take pictures as my surgery preparation progressed, but I was the patient and alone, so no dice.
After taking off my jewelry and putting on this awesome cap and skirt, I was escorted to the operating room. My past experience with outpatient procedures had me on a hospital bed to get an IV first before being wheeled to the OR, but this was all new. I walked in there fully lucid, and literally laid down on the table to greet my fate. They pulled out two arm rests and literally tied down my wrists like a mental patient. The nurse made broken small talk in half English, half Korean, trying to ask me where I was from and what my job was. I got a heart monitor on my thumb, and most of what I could hear for the next ten or fifteen minutes was the change in pace of my heartbeat as they had me wiggle around to adjust all the equipment.
Before I knew it, a screen had been put up in front of my face, and I couldn’t see a single part of any of said adjustments, I could only hear all the commotion and the movements of the people in the room I could not see. I was glad and nervous at the same time. I started to wonder if I misunderstood the explanation of the operation and that I would actually be awake for the procedure. All they had added to my IV at this point was a “pain killer”, and I could definitely feel cold alcohol (and iodine?) on me. I was making mental preparations that in the event I could feel something sharp, I would scream to make sure they knew I was still awake.
Thankfully, the doctor finally came in to tell me everything was going great, and the best part was he was dressed in a scrub cap that had American flags, baseballs and bats all over it. It can only be described as perfect. I know for a fact he wore this just to make me feel better.
He then told me to take a couple of big deep breaths as the nurse held up a HUGE syringe with some milky liquid in it. I almost panicked before I remembered she injected the first thing right into my IV, and not me.
AH, the ANESTHESIA!
While staring at another fake window on the ceiling, I drifted off in less than five seconds.
About 30 minutes later, everything was done! My first words out of dreamland were “juwahyo?” and “peegonheyo” meaning “all good?” and “I’m tired”. Too bad J-Mar wasn’t allowed in the OR to capture that. I’m sure I butchered it in my half-dazed state. I was actually surprised at how aware I was, as they asked me to help move myself from the operating table to a hospital bed. I barely remember them wheeling me across the hall to the recovery room, though. That was pretty bland, as I laid there trying to wake up while staring at the fluorescent lights and the ticking clock. At one point, they wheeled another Korean patient in the room who was mumbling and totally out of it, so I tried to be nice and say annyeonghaseo when he/she turned to look at me and then realized I was not, in fact, another Korean.
About 30 minutes passed before they checked to make sure I had absorbed all of the IV fluids, and then they gave me a Pororo band-aid for my IV arm. My translator was swiftly back in the room to tell me I was free to leave if I could get up on my own. I’ll be honest, I felt great! No grogginess or even fatigue. It just took me a little while to get back with the program, but I was soon up and running again. Of course, after what I presume was a local anesthetic wore off later in the evening, I started to feel a little sore but I can’t complain.
The only really weird part of the whole thing was they sent me back to the dressing room with sticky iodine all over me. At least, I assume that it wasn’t blood. I hope not, anyway. Ok, over-share, sorry about that.
So no one mentioned that there was an area to hose myself down, and I stood there awkwardly staring at myself for a couple minutes before a nurse finally came in and I could ask for a little help. I was soon packed up and out the door to greet J-Mar, who promptly offered to carry my bag and hold my arm up while I walked. (I think this is also why they have you pay up-front). However, he was surprised to see that I was in near fully-functioning condition.
The translator took us to the pharmacy, where I paid a whopping $10 for a bunch of pills to last me the next few days, and the greatest thing of all time happened. Ok, not all time, but it was pretty great. They divided up the pills into individual doses, so that one of each pill was separated into an easy, tear-off pack that I can use for each meal over the next three days! All stored in a nice paper envelope with the receipt attached for my insurance purposes. Later I found out they probably give the exact same set of “recovery pills” to all the patients, but at the time it was still way cool. They also have funny little pictures printed on the envelope to tell you what side effects you might experience from each pill and what they look like.
We were back in the car on the way home by 4 PM. I’ll remind you I walked in the hospital at 2:10 PM to prep for the surgery. Amazing.
All told, the experience was much less terrifying than I had anticipated, and I was just amazed at the efficiency of the Korean medical system. No, you may not have the option to consult 5 specialists before you make a decision, but in my minor case, that wasn’t a problem. So, I reaped the benefits and identified, diagnosed and surgically addressed a problem all within 24 hours. Time will tell if the Affordable Care Act can help the U.S. move toward such a system. In my dreams, maybe, but I now see it can be done!
P.S. I must add that my expat “family” has been so thoughtful and sweet sending me good wishes and offering to do anything I might need. It is truly amazing how fast you make friends in foreign lands. Even more incredible is what these friends are willing to do to help each other out. #grateful
P.P.S. My follow-up this morning required an “injection” in my rear-end. It’s not a myth what the other expat ladies have been saying: the little Korean nurses smack you repeatedly to numb the area before you get a shot. It’s not a myth. And it still hurt like the devil later on.