At the hospital, I am the nightmare version of myself. Quite literally: in my most frustrating dreams, I am easily hurt and driven to tears. The people around me see me cry and instead of feeling sympathy, feel disgust.
That wasn’t far from my experience last week.
After a worrisome episode of arrythymia, I decided to put my national insurance to use and get checked out. Better safe than sorry!
I wandered the dark empty hospital looking for the emergency room for twenty minutes before a call to Yana clarified I was in the wrong building. Say it with me: thank goodness for Yana. She’s the only one of my coworkers who actually lives in the same city and it was on her suggestion that I drove to the big hospital in the town over.
The small and narrow emergency room was populated by a woman in a sequined hat and a man with an older, more lopsided man in a wheelchair.
As Yana had called ahead (and confirmed that the receptionist didn’t speak English) the young woman was expecting me.
I crouched comically low to see her face through the plexiglass as she mumbled something at me. It was like the community center woman all over again and I felt out of my depth. If my mom were there she would have complained that the woman was a “mush mouth” and let all of her syllables fall over each other.
I looked to the man on her right for help only to find that he was legitimately cross-eyed, like some SNL skit that hadn’t been fully written. I couldn’t confirm if he was actually helping me out or talking to someone else, so I had to ask the woman to repeat herself several times.
The receptionist got angry at me and bit out in condescending syllables “Do. You. Have. Your. ID.” I fished it out in shame and felt the stress of the last few hours gather in my eyes.
She calmed down in the few minutes she was processing my ID and calmly explained that I needed to put my family’s contact. I wrote down my mom’s number only for her to look at me and ask if I had family in Korea. I felt the tears gather harder and just shook my head.
“Do you have any friends in Korea?”
I took back the paper in silence and wrote Yana’s contact info.
She told me to sit down and I breathed with great concentration so I wouldn’t actually cry in this waiting room. I think she turned to her companion to wonder why I was about to cry so I imagined what I’d like to tell her:
Imagine you’ve had a medical scare. You can’t speak the local language and can’t find the emergency room. When you finally do, the person responsible for triaging you gets angry and condescending though you’re trying to speak their language.
Some nurses then called me to the little blood pressure station around the corner. Considering how fancy the main hospital was, the scuffed floor and blinking lights didn’t inspire much confidence, but one nurse talked very slowly like I was a child while the other asked about my symptoms.
I almost preferred being yelled at but at least one woman was putting in some sort of effort to match my low language skills.
The other woman was wearing a rainbow lanyard and led me through the double doors and down the mostly empty emergency room corridor.
I wanted to wish her happy pride but couldn’t confirm if she had chosen the lanyard for more than just pleasing colors and kept my mouth closed. Korea is not a beacon of LGBTQ tolerance after all.
When I had passed the stage of tears, I moved into my other stage of stress: might as well have a good time.
“Wow, sexy,” I commented after putting on the hospital gown. She barked out a surprised laugh.
When a young male nurse wheeled me down the corridor to get an X-ray, I called out “let’s go on a trip!” And he laughed a little. Score!
The X-ray guy was too serious for me to joke though I tried.
When I gave my urine sample to another nurse I told her in Korean, “a gift!” She giggled.
There was a poster above my bed that seemed to communicate patients should not fist fight the doctor.
Later, two nearly identical older women were wheeled in then wheeled out. An older man moaning in his unbuttoned gown was only in our alcove for a moment before a team of five rolled him away.
I was reminded why I never went to med school. I hate hospitals and the patients set my teeth on edge.
The nurse told me two hours for results but the doctor showed up much sooner with her face shield propped open to tell me in Korean that everything had come back normal but if I was curious or concerned I could schedule an appointment with the cardiologist.
The nurses outside had warned me the visit was going to be expensive. I had looked at her, still teary and stressed, to tell her I was American and that no hospital bill was really going to be expensive in my eyes.
It came out to 232,000 won or roughly $215 for a slew or blood, heart, and imaging tests. I shudder to think what an emergency visit with that testing would be in my home country.
Luckily the angry, young woman had been replaced by another man whose hands shook handing me my papers. I’ve been in Korea long enough to know that the prospect of speaking English absolutely terrifies people. I responded in Korean but the shock for him hadn’t worn off; I had to ask for my debit card as he’d forgotten to hand it back. After everything, it did cheer me up to see someone else having an embarrassing moment.
As I left, the same older man in a paper gown who had taken my temperature at the door asked if everything had turned out okay and then worriedly asked if I needed a taxi.
I have a car, but thank you kind sir! Moments like these are little arm floaties that keep me above water when choppy seas of complications and shame threaten to drown me.
The whole thing was a series of unfortunate events, really.
Hospitals already set me on edge, and with the language component, I’m often two wrong looks away from bursting into tears. All doctors in Korea have been educated in English and yet how many of them are willing to overcome their pride and help me in English? Very few.
Even moreso, my baby attempts at Korean often inspire rage rather than empathy. Remember the ENT who made me cry on possibly my worst day in Korea? I remember. I carry it with me every time I go to a doctor on my own.
I suppose the solution would be to only go to hospitals with international centers, however, the closest hospital with a dedicated English staff is over an hour away. I’m interested in convenience and figure that my intermediate Korean is enough to get me by– and that’s true, but only if the staff is kind.
And who am I if I’m not challenging myself, even if that challenge means crying in a grubby doctor’s office?