Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Medical Check: Initiation Rite of the English Teacher in Ulsan

When most people hear the words medical check, they might think of something like a sports physical in the States. A nurse takes your weight and height. A doctor listens to your lungs and heart through a stethoscope. Your blood pressure is checked. Maybe there is a urine or blood test, but the list seems reasonable and overall non-intrusive. In Korea, non-intrusive is not a word I would use to describe what happens during a medical check.

For what made my third medical check, I went alone. I had returned to my former place of employment in Ulsan, and I had confidence in my ability to go to the hospital.



Forgetting my previous experience in Ulsan, I had a preconceived notion that all Korean hospitals would be as foreigner friendly as the one in Gwangan, Busan. A place where the signs are in English, Russian, and Korean, and there is an information help desk on every floor. If someone doesn’t speak English? No problem. Call the on-site translator. Needless to say, I was in for a bit of a shock.
When I walked in the front doors at “Good Morning Hospital” (Yes, the sign was in English.), past the patients outside on their smoke breaks, I stopped and looked around. Where was the person who greets you when you walk in the door and tells you where to go and what to do if you have no idea? Where were the signs in English? The only English, foreign-friendly thing was the name of the hospital plastered on the outside of the building.

After so many times of feeling lost and overwhelmed, I have finally started to be able to process it. I no longer get worked up to a point of tears … when I am well-rested and well, anyway. Granted, I was neither sick, nor tired, nor rushed.

I took a deep breath.

Without a help desk, my option was to go to the hospital registration desk. I knew based on previous experience with hospitals and banks and anywhere with a line that I should take a number, if I wanted to get to the counter. I walked promptly to the machine that spits out numbers, took a number, and sat down to watch the digital numbers click up to mine. Only, for some reason, no one else decided to take a number, and while mine was only supposed to be two people away, I had to wait for the onslaught of people who had not taken a number to walk up to the desk and to get help. I was stunned. This was a-typical Korea from what I knew in Busan where people line up single-file on the busiest subway platform to get on a semi-crowded subway car. I almost decided that I was going to have to be pushy about things, but then my number came up. When I went up to the counter, I said in clear, concise English, “I need a medical check.” The woman looked at me with a blank stare and said some things in Korean.

It was in this hospital full of Koreans who did not speak English that I recognized something essential for life here in Ulsan.

I need to learn more Korean.

While I have day to day Korean which will help me with practical matters of finding what I need in a supermarket or ordering food or paying for things, I know zero Korean for hospitals. Somehow I fumbled enough that the supervisor of the woman I was trying to talk to came over, and said, “What is wrong? Where are you sick?”

“Nowhere. I am not sick. I need a medical check.”

“Huh? Uh.You need third floor.”

When I got to the third floor, I asked a nurse to point me toward the area for medical checks. I knew I was in the right place when I saw sample forms under the glass on tables, but the fillable forms were nowhere to be found. Just like the entry to the hospital, everything was different. In Busan my coworker showed me to a stack of forms, I filled one out, and then she handed it to the nurse. What did I expect? Different city, different hospital, different procedures.

I finally sorted out that I should go to the desk and ask for a form.

After filling out the form and handing it over, I was officially in the system and getting a medical check. The women said, “Pay, first floor (where I had just come from). Blood and urine, second floor. Then come back.”

Admittedly a bit baffled by the inefficiency of this payment system, again, compared to my hospital in Busan. I went down to the first floor, and learning from my previous experience, I did not take a number. I walked up to an open counter space and handed over my boss’ credit card to pay for the medical check.

Then I headed up to the second floor for “blood and urine”. When I came out of the stairwell, there were no immediate clues as to where to go, and no one around to ask. Once again I felt lost and helpless. The only room labeled in English was physical therapy. Obviously, I did not need to go there, but I thought, if I looked lost and helpless enough, someone would help.

Boy was I wrong.

I saw a single nurse in the two minutes I spend wandering around. When I took a step toward her to try and figure out where I needed to go, she glanced at me for a second before realizing that I was going to attempt to speak English at her. Rather than stop and deal with what might be slightly awkward, she put her head down and scurried off.

This made me laugh inside. I completely understand. If you are scared to do something, i.e. speak a language, you do your best to ignore it. My students attempt this all the time, and it is possible that I might do the same thing in her position. 

Then, I saw it. A man holding the crook of his elbow, a tell-tale sign that he had got blood drawn. I walked in the direction he came from.

When I stepped into the “blood and urine” room and handed my paperwork to the first nurse, she immediately asked me in Korean if I speak Korean. I told her a bit. She acknowledged what I said, grabbed a Dixie cup, wrote my information on it, drew a line, and said, “Urine. Here,” while pointing at the line. No lid. No rules. No nothing. Then she directed me to the restroom around the corner. I grabbed the cup and all my things, and while hoping that I had enough urine to fill the cup to the line, I also wondered how they possibly think this is an accurate test. Anyone could do anything to their urine in that multi-stalled restroom.

After successfully (and barely) reaching the urine line, I returned with my cup and stuck it in the appropriate tray, a stainless steel hospital tray, without anything to stop the cups from sliding around. I would hate to be the person that carried that tray full of random people’s urine cups.

Knowing what was coming next, I took off my jacket and sat down so the nurse could take my blood. The nurse kind of directed me through the typical process, mostly in Korean and gestures, band on arm, hand in fist, me looking away from the place where a needle entered my tender inner elbow vein. The only English word she used through the gestures and slow, completely incomprehensible (to me) Korean was the word “blood”, a word I know in Korean. After she finished drawing my blood, she gave me a cotton swab, gestured to me to hold it on the puncture wound for “five minutes”. I did as I was told, put pressure on my puncture wound, and went to go sit in the hall. 

Even though I was less than two meters from her, I was out of sight. Almost immediately after I left the room, she started laughing about the situation.  She said something something in Korean, “Urine. Blood,” and then laughed at the scenario. Yes, this is a story to tell people. I thought it was amusing that she got such a kick out of how ridiculous the whole situation had become. 

Finally, after my five minutes were up, I headed back up to third floor.

I was adopted immediately by a nurse who did not speak much English but was incredibly caring and considerate. Each step of the way she guided me, sticking to my side, and making sure I felt safe and secure despite my lack of Korean. First she showed me to the changing room, directing me to remove everything on top through gestures. When I came out of the changing room, she waved me over to the eye exam where I got to show off my knowledge of the words “left” and “right” in Korean. Then it was on to the color-blindness test that I am always nervous I will screw up – colors blend! After that, it was a short scoot over to the blood pressure machine, which is always tricky because of the stress of not knowing what’s going on language wise. I cannot ever tell if my blood pressure is higher than normal because I have been ingesting too much salt or because of the slight stress of the situation. Next, on to measuring my bust line – this is confirmed by all foreign women, but none of us understand what it is all about. Height and weight followed that brief awkwardness. We then went into a private room where I did a listening exam. Hand gestures and noises communicated that when I hear a beep, I should click the button. When I felt I had failed the listening exam, we went to a different, closet-like room for an EKG scan. She had me lay down on the gurney and attached strange little suction cups around my heart. For some reason the nurse could not get a good reading, and she nervously took forever and kept apologizing. Finally, it was time for this caring nurse to pass me on to another woman for the chest/lung x-ray. The entire time, my nurse had not spoken three words of English to me. When she tried to pass me off, her proximity to me (she made sure her whole arm touched mine) and my lack of Korean, did not allow me to understand that she was in fact moving on to the next patient. Finally, she gently pushed me toward the other nurse and said quietly, “Say your name.” Then she was gone.

The next nurse was a lot more laid back and less concerned that I understood what was happening. She quickly took my chest x-ray to confirm that I was tuberculosis free. Then she set me free. I was not sure what to do next. Was I done? I checked in at the main desk to confirm. My little nurse was nowhere to be found. I really wanted to thank her for being amazing.

After confirming that I was finished, I went back to the dressing room. The door was closed, so I waited, assuming that it was busy. An older woman walked by me and walked straight into the changing room. Her daughter said, “Come on! Together!” But her mom said, “No, no, no,” in Korean. Needless to say, I waited, telling the daughter about my confusion with the dressing room while we waited for her mom to change.

When I changed, I realized the whole ordeal was done. In less than an hour, I had been put through a series of challenges and came out in the end, no tears of frustration had been shed. I was finished. It was time to treat myself to lunch and go to work. 

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