In my half a year here, I’ve seen enough perplexing things to be the thematic topic of a small set of encyclopedias. Among them is a spectacle I observe now: it’s been snowing consistently since midday and now, in the early evening as the sun begins to set, it stops, and the air clears. A man appears out of nowhere with a snow shovel and scrapes it lightly over the sidewalk, clearing away all the insulating slush and leaving behind only the thin, invisible layer of ice on which you can slip and probably crack your head open without ever knowing what it was that did you in.
Another one of my encounters with strange happenings / logic occurred this last Friday at Eulji Hospital, a big medical center down the road from my hagwon, where some of my coworkers have visited before without much problem.
Since a couple Fridays ago I’d had pretty notable pressure in my right ear. I’d neglected to visit the doctor on that first weekend because it’d happened once before that I’d had really painful pressure in one of my ears one night only to find that it disappeared on its own within a couple days. So I thought I’d spare myself the stress of going to the doctor and trying to relay my symptoms across the gigantic language barrier that everyone in Seoul seems to deny or rather never run into when they go to the doctor… Everyone I talk to says “yeah, the doctor spoke pretty good English,” but what I want to know is, do those doctors sprint out the door the moment they see me walking in?
Admittedly, before this last time at Eulji, I’d only gone to the doctor once… but it was a stressful experience and made quite an impression on me, most notably for the fact that even after three days of thrice-daily meds, I still wasn’t better… And that time I’d had help from the guy I was seeing at the time, who wrote out my symptoms for me, so all I had to do was show the note on my phone to the doctor saying I don’t feel good, I have a cold and my body’s sore, please give me an injection. I still didn’t even get an injection, and I was told afterwards that that’s why I didn’t shake the cold after all, but actually I think it’s because I’m around little germ bags all day every day so I have no chances of ever healing completely.
So it was with this experience in mind that I fervently avoided all thoughts of going to the doc again. But as the pressure failed to let up in my ear, I gradually became dizzy and more and more spacey. I texted with a friend from home who told me that one of her clients told her she had an ear infection and had no idea because there was no pain, her only symptoms were feeling a bit of pressure and an off-balance equilibrium. So I thought… okay… maybe… there is a chance… that I have an ear infection… but I’m still not going to go to the doctor!!! Nobody can make me!!! I’m an adult!! Which means I’m old enough to ignore my problems all by myself!!
I lived with a pressure-y ear and poor balance for a while, longer than most sane people would endure this. One night, I was only able to sleep three hours, and the next day, I entered and exited my classes like a ghost, pale, ghoulish-looking, and not really fully belonging to this earthly realm. Sometimes one of my middle school students will pull his shirt up over his face and try to take a nap discreetly, although the effect of pulling your shirt up over your face is nothing less than conspicuous—like a child trying to hide behind a lego. I often say to him—Hey! Come on, join the living! But I think that day even if someone had said those words to me nothing less than an incantation would have rescued me from the otherworldly forces pulling me out of concrete existence.
I was, in a word or two—completely out of it.
I rode the subway back to my station like a phantom, and I remember very little of what passed when I got to the station except for a fateful moment, walking up to B1, when I failed to lift one of my feet up high enough to successfully clear the last step onto the landing. I fell like in slow motion down to the floor, and of course right below me where my knees would land the were intersecting, differently-textured Tactile Ground Surface Indicators that band the city’s ground and stations prolifically. Meant to be used by blind people in order to walk the streets and transport stations safely, TGSI’s are textured differently depending on what they precede, and it just so happens that before a staircase there’s a horrible conjunction of stripes and dots that were extremely painful to land on. My knees landed first, then my hands, as my backpack carrying my laptop and some books slid up over my back and pulled my head down to the ground, too.
Public spills are not a new thing to me. I quite often tripped and fell at uni, and fateful encounters with the concrete and asphalt of Orange County pervade all my memories. So, stunned and motionless on the ground in the station, I thought—one of the first thoughts I’d had all day—hey, my first public spill in Seoul—and pulled myself upright, readjusting my backpack and trudging to the escalator that would (thankfully) transport me to street level.
I still have yellow and purple bruises on both knees.
It was after this that I began to admit to myself in isolated moments of lucidity that yes, I probably should go to the doctor. Although my coordination might not be the most impressive you’ve ever seen, I’d gone almost six months in this country without falling down—tripping is a matter of course, however—and so it seems like more than a coincidence that ear pressure would throw off my balance and I would take my first fall of consequence in a matter of a few days. In other words—something was wrong with my ear, and that’s why I fell. It wasn’t just for old times’ sake.
But then, I ran into the problem of not having any free time. My breaks at work were all a bit too short to be sure I’d make it in and out without missing some class time, and Thursday morning, when I usually didn’t have to be at work until ten after noon, I had to go in early for Kindy graduation. So it wasn’t until Friday, a week after I first noticed the pressure, that I could make it into the hospital, and this was only because I didn’t have classes until 3.30PM since kindergarten had just graduated.
I spent about an hour on Thursday night preparing notes diligently. I wrote a short paragraph in the best Korean I could muster, detailing all my symptoms—I caught a sinus cold. Also, since last Friday, I think I have an ear infection in my right ear. In that ear I feel a lot of pressure. But, the other ear also seems strange. Every day my head hurts and I’m a little dizzy.
I then wrote a paragraph trying to excuse myself for waiting so long—I know that it’s really late to see the doctor about this but until now I didn’t have any free time. Sorry, doc, please take care of me!
Then, this note and my fledgeling Korean skills my only weapons, I entered Eulji Hospital on Friday, midday.
On the first floor, there was a bank and a bunch of kiosks and a huge counter with screens above the desks showing numbers, so I assumed there was a number dispenser somewhere, but I couldn’t see it. There was also what was apparently a book sale happening to my right. The presence of the bank, several cafes, and the book sale on the first floor, plus the unexplained kiosks and the hiddenness of the number dispenser all together made me decide to skip this floor and go up the stairs.
I had no idea where I was going, but the second floor was a lot less crowded. To my immediate left on the landing there was a small desk. Although I knew there was a number dispenser somewhere and I should take a number, I walked straight up to the desk until I caught the eye of the lone lady sitting there and she was forced to acknowledge me and excuse me for what I didn’t know, seeing I was clearly foreign.
She greeted me and I said, in faltering Korean— “I’m sorry, but this is my first time. I don’t know what I should do, but I want to see a doctor. Where should I go?”
She asked me where I was sick, and I told her I thought I had an ear infection and a sinus cold. After that she asked me for my ARC card and registered me. I paid a small fee for this and she handed me my appointment card, on which she indicated that I should see the ENT (although, I thought this was written in Korean and tried a long time to read it before it struck me that it was English after all). She then gave me very complicated instructions to get to another part of the hospital, in which the ENT doctor was located. She took a look at my face and then said, “you understand, right?” And I nodded, although I’d only gotten about half of what she’d said, but in my opinion it was the important half. Then she said, “it’s lunch break right now, so you should come back after 1:30.” So I thanked her and left.
I went back around the right time and successfully followed the half-understood directions to the ENT offices. It’s lucky that I’d looked up what “ENT” was in Korean a few nights before I’d gone there, because otherwise I’d have had no idea where to go. But I made my way there, handed over my appointment card, and waited for about twenty minutes.
Most things about the doctor here seem very efficient—in the waiting area there were plenty of seats and there were screens outside the doctor’s rooms that showed the order of patients, so you’d know when it was your turn or how many people were before you in line. People were only ever in the room for maybe five minutes at most, so you could estimate how much the you’d wait based on how many names were before yours on the screen. The last letter block of each name there was punched out with an asterisk, apparently for privacy, although they called full names when they beckoned people to the rooms.
Most Koreans have three letter blocks in their names: first for last name, and last two for given name, such as Kim Yong-sub, which would be written 김용섭, and if it were on the screen at the doctor’s, it’d look like this: 김용*
My name was written everywhere—on my receipts, and on my appointment card in several places—just as “Lily,” I guess because my last name takes up too many letters. Lily transcribed to Hangeul is 릴리, so on the screen my name was just 릴*. I kept sniggering every time I looked at it, thinking, “lil, lil, lil”… I don’t know why I thought it was so funny. I could blame my ear, I suppose, or spending too much time with school kids.
When they called me, they called “Lily-nim!” and I sniggered again, but managed to get myself under control when I entered the room. I sat down and the doctor asked me what was wrong. I falteringly told him that I thought I had an ear infection in my right ear and I had a sinus cold. He asked me a series of questions and I answered until I couldn’t understand what he was saying anymore, at which point I pulled out my well-prepared note and handed it over. It seemed to do the trick. He looked at the calendar, repeating, “since last week…” and I stared down at my hands guiltily.
He took out a long wand-shaped thing with a bright light at one end and told me he was going to look in my ears. I was shocked to see that perfectly in my line of view was a monitor that showed footage from the camera, and looked on in a mixture of disgust and fascination as the camera travelled down my right ear canal, passing a few chunks of wax (which disturbed me for the rest of the day) and then coming to rest before a horrible, horrible sight—I later told Dad, “the part of a snail inside the shell… I don’t know what it looks like, but imagine that all covered with red blood vessels standing out in relief… clearly blocking the whole ear canal… it also looks a little like a white latex glove filled with some liquid substance.”
In short, it was horrifying, clearly infected.
The nurse took a photo and then they checked my left ear. A less-inflated latex glove, white all over, not sick-looking, but still something I never wished to see. The nurse took a photo of this too, and then displayed both photos next to each other on the monitor. The difference was so clear that I didn’t need any explanation, not even in Korean, but the doctor told me to look at the photos, explaining unnecessarily, “the right one is red, right? And the other one is white, it’s alright. But this one… it’s all red… it seems there’s an infection.”
I stared wordlessly at the ghastly photos on the screen. I could say nothing but, “yes, yes…” as the doctor spoke about it.
Then he asked me about my cold, asking if I had a stuffy nose (“yes”) and if my nose ran (“yes”) and then using the same wand contraption to look up my nose. This time I was prepared and stared up at the corner of the room rather than at the monitor as the camera poked around my nasal passages.
In the end, he asked me some more questions, the last of which were, “does that ear hurt?” (“yes”) and “can you hear well out of it?” (“um…uhm…”). Then he told me he was prescribing meds for a week, meds I’d take by mouth, and then I’d have to come back for another checkup. I was still in a daze and just chirped “yes, yes, yes” as he spoke to show I understood. He handed me back my note. The nurse stood and helped me up and I barely remembered to turn around and thank the doctor as I was being pushed out the door.
I waited a little while for the doctor and nurse to write the prescription and relay a message to the front desk. When they called me again the nurse there was asking me about my availabilities for my check-up, but I didn’t understand her at first. Luckily she barely saw my face as she checked her calendars and I finally caught on to what she was saying when she pointed on the wall calendar to next Friday and said, “one o’clock.” Then she gave me an appointment slip and directed me down to the first floor to somewhere mysterious, which I thought might be the pharmacy but was in fact billing.
Before I knew that, I stood in front of the desk cluelessly for a while before realizing I had to scan my receipt barcode into the kiosk to get a number, which the desk lady then promptly called on her screen. I was still wondering what was going on but then I saw the signature pad flash a total at me and I realized this was billing for this part of the hospital. I paid and then, unexpectedly, the lady spoke to me in English and told me that next I needed to go to the pharmacy. I thanked her and headed in the direction she’d gestured toward, but there were only doors to outside.
I wandered around, up and down escalators, until I returned to those doors and went out, back around to the front of the hospital where I’d gone in at first, and up to the information desk. I asked the man there where the pharmacy was and he pointed me in a direction, and mumbled some things at me, so I followed his pointing and ended up walking up to the second floor again. I remembered having seen the pharmacy window at some point during my travels around the hospital, so I thought if I just retraced my steps, I’d come to it. But I didn’t, I just ended up back at the ENT office again. So I went back the way I came and then saw the sign for a pharmacy on the B1 level. So I went down, and followed the signs, till I came to what was clearly the back door of the pharmacy and a door I was clearly not supposed to be at as a patient. I wandered around back down the hall but then turned back around and figured, I should at least ask one of the pharmacists while I’m here, how to get to the front part… but when I shuffled up to the door and a lady saw me and took pity on me, she looked at my receipt and then pointed up, saying “this isn’t it,” so I went back up to the first floor and then found the pharmacy’s front window, directly across from the information desk I’d been at earlier…
I went up to the window and handed the man there my receipts, which he looked at and then back up at me hesitantly. He paused for a moment and then gave the receipts back to me, asking, “do you know Korean?”
I told him, a little bit.
So he told me, it’s not this pharmacy but it’s actually outside the hospital, if you turn left and then go through a parking lot, look for name of pharmacy there.
So I thanked him and headed out the doors, turned left, and turned left again into a parking lot, at the other side of which signs for the pharmacy were clearly visible. I looked down at the time on my phone. By this time it’d been about twenty minutes of wandering. Why had nobody but that pharmacist told me where to go?
I walked into the pharmacy, feeling wary, wanting to ask, “this is it, right?” but instead gazing around for the number dispenser since all the desks had number screens above them. But a young-looking girl at one of the desks caught my gaze and looked at me expectantly, so I walked up to her without pulling a number and handed over my receipts, holding my breath. Without saying anything she began punching things onto her keyboard at her computer, printing out receipts and stamping things in a practiced flurry. I paid for the meds and then sat down to wait to be called to the pick up counter. I couldn’t be relieved until I had the meds in hand. They called my name after about five minutes and the pharmacist asked me if I could speak Korean—to which I said, a little—before launching into a long explanation about when to take the pills. Three times a day, after breakfast, lunch, and dinner, for seven days. She pointed at 아침 (morning/breakfast) on one of the packets. “You know things like this, right,” she said in Korean, then flipped through and pointed at 점심 (lunch) and 저녁 (evening/dinner). I told her yes, then she told me about the meds—an antibiotic, cold meds, tylenol—and at last, I was free to return to the real world.
In a giant hospital which has its own pharmacy and several people capable of speaking English, how is it that I only found out after twenty minutes of wandering around and ending up in all the wrong places that my prescription had been sent to a pharmacy outside? Inquiring minds want to know.
Now it’s Sunday evening and I’ve taken meds since Friday afternoon. My ear feels a little better but is still distractingly blocked. My cold feels much better, on the other hand. The meds for the cold make me a bit sleepy, so after taking those and a melatonin last night, I slept for almost a whole twelve hours, which is something I haven’t done at night for a long time now. Granted—I did spend more than twelve hours out yesterday, for reasons I may detail in another post, the first of which was a morning training at Sogang University for teaching a new series of books at SLP. I attended with two other teachers and our two supervisors, and we ended up going to lunch afterwards, and then I went with one coworker to Korean class in Itaewon in the afternoon, after which we went grocery shopping and I did not return to the apartment until more than twelve hours after I had left it that morning. That is enough to exhaust even a chronic insomniac, I think.
Although I still need to go to a general practitioner to ask about possible treatments for my continued tiredness and chronic insomnia as well as a podiatrist for something that’s wrong with one of my feet, I feel that my second encounter with the Korean medical system was an overall success, despite the mystery of the pharmacy situation. I suppose an extended exposure to the language and some more attempts to self-study have paid off, as I was able to understand much more of the Korean spoken to me at the hospital than I’d been able to the first time I went to the doctor last November. That, and I’d done my research, which proved invaluable.
As I walked to the bus stop with my meds in hand, coming down off my stress-high and enjoying a few moments of sunshine before the clouds blocked the sun again, I thought—well, looks like my taking-a-spill-in-the-subway-station days are over, for now.