Journals from Yonsei University, Korea
2009-11-14 Crisis Averted
Korean medicine packaging is a bit different from the United States...
The following post is about a comedy of errors that stars language barriers and details my run in with the Korean health care system last week. I am only just posting this blog because I did not want anyone to be unnecessarily worried. I post it now that I am completely better, the insurance claims form is waiting to be mailed, and I can laugh at parts of the daunting experience.
I live in a dorm with about 250 other people. The small rooms and shared bathrooms come with the promise of shared sickness. Right before YonKo Jon the first muffled coughs could be heard in the hall, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I came down with something.
All was going well until late last Sunday night. I had been hanging out with friends in the basement and went up to my room around 1 am. I got online and was talking with a friend when I began coughing. Knowing my propensity for the simple cold to turn into a nasty upper respiratory infection, I took some medicine and promised myself that if I so much as sniffled in the morning I would go to the health center to try to put a stamp down on any sickness.
The next morning I still had a bit of a cough, no real fever, but still decided to head to main campus to get checked out. I dont know if it was because I was a foreigner or was complaining of the first signs of swine flu that they saw me within 2 minutes of my being there (and this was in a room crowded with people). The doctor didnt speak much English, but after hearing my symptoms prescribed me a few medicines. I went and picked up what amounted to a z-pack of antibiotic, some medicated throat lozenges and two different pre-packed dosage packets. Inside one packet were 3 pills that I was supposed to take after each meal and the other packet had some pills for fever. I tried looking them up online, but not with much success. Funnily enough, by the time I had returned to my room from the health center I already had an email from the Yonsei IPO officer about my appointment. I spent most of the day in bed, hoping to sleep it off.
Throughout the day I woke up to eat a bit, monitor the temperature and take medicine. Unfortunately that annoying little cough got progressively worse and later in the night I developed a fever. I still wasnt that concerned until about 9pm, when my breathing started to go downhill and the fever spiked past the point recommended on all the warning posters. At this point I was also concerned that the doctor might have prescribed something that I could be allergic to, so when I got to what felt like only a half-breath intake I decided it was probably time to see if I could get a nebulizer to open things up a bit.
Being on a 16-hour time difference from Oregon, I got the fun pleasure of calling an IPO representative at home to let her know I would be heading to the hospital. Thankfully Skype calls are cheap and come in crystal clear. I took a friend who knows Korean with me and went to the school hospital just down the road from the I-House. Severance Hospital is one of the countrys best, so I was expecting a similar experience as if I were to go to the ER in the United States. After checking in right as I entered the door, I had a feeling things were probably not going to go all that smoothly.
Just as with the Yonsei student health center, I was seen within minutes. My friend told the doctor briefly about my symptoms and I was quickly sent to be given a Swine Flu test. Naturally the best place to create a quarantined testing area would be to use a section of the parking garage by the ER. My friend looked in the door at the makeshift hospital wing that had a row of tables, a crying toddler in a hospital crib and a curtained off examination room and told me she was heading home but that I should be sure to call if I needed her to translate. I dont blame her at all-- Im sure if I actually caught Swine Flu it would have been sitting in there.
A doctor came in a few minutes later and we had a brief, muddled exchange where I tried to impress upon him my decreasing ability to breathe. It would have been a difficult conversation if the language barrier were the only thing between us, but the added bonus of both of us wearing hospital masks made communication that much worse. He basically told me he didnt think I had Swine Flu, but that I should have chest CTs and sent me back inside. At the check in I was told that a single test would be around $500 and that only Korean insurance was accepted (my Linfield one works on the pay now get reimbursed later model). After being told it would be too expensive to admit me I was asked to wait for a doctor from the international ward to talk to me.
A few minutes later that doctor came out and I once again tried to explain to him that I was there to try to get help for my breathing, not to be admitted for Swine Flu. He listened to me breathe, said that it was just fine, and asked cant you stand it until tomorrow?. Seeing that this was an exercise in futility I took his brochure for the International ward and walked home. I got back in touch with IPO and was re-assured that I did not overreact and that they would have Linfields health clinic give me a call once it opened. A few hours later I got a call from them and was given some ideas on how to trouble shoot until I could see a doctor. Note for all the asthmatics out there: Using your inhaler in a steaming hot shower can indeed mimic the use of a nebulizer.
Suffice it to say it was a rather long night with less than stellar air-intake. As soon as the international ward opened I called and made the first appointment available with the American doctor, after 2pm that afternoon. I was less than thrilled to see the very same doctor who had sent me home from the ER the night before walk in to take my information. I was finally able to explain to him the whole reason I was at the ER the night before, not that it made much of a difference at that point. Highlights from my time with him: He once again told me I was breathing perfectly normally, that I might or might not have an ear infection (your ear drums are so small, it's hard to be certain), called himself an idiot (after I suggested he check the left one against the right to see if there were any difference between the two, as it might show if there was an infection), and then asked me at the end if I remembered what dosage the doctor had prescribed so he could fill out the prescription properly. These are the moments I can look upon with humor now without cringing too much.
The good news is that I was given a strong antibiotic and an obnoxiously large container of cough syrup that did the trick. So much sleep and countless emails exchanged between Linfield IPO, Yonsei IPO and myself later, I am now just about 100% better. I am hoping this will be my one and only medical experience here.
Writing this entry has made me once again reflect on my initial assumptions as an American when I went to the hospital. Im used to walking in and receiving care, medical questions asked first (and my answer understood), and insurance being talked about later. I found out that I was not the only student turned away that week; there were a handful of others who actually were seeking attention for suspected Swine Flu. None of us had so much as our temperatures taken because we didnt have Korean insurance. In a country that since our arrival has been paranoid of the flus spreading, we were surprised that we were all given masks and sent away. This strikes me even more as the debate over health care is raging back in the States. I have always been a proponent of universal health care, but after this experience am even more convinced that a persons ability to pay a hospital bill should not be a factor in determining the amount of care they receive.
Yonsei, Fall 2009