Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Nurse Who Could Speak English -- Visit to Seoul National University Hospital International Foreigner Clinic

Later on Friday evening Julianne told me her throat was feeling really crappy. She had mentioned it a few times during the week, but it had gotten worse. We were near Insa-dong at the time so we walked over to the Tourist Information office there to find out where the nearest open hospital was on a national holiday in Korea.

The woman working in the office told us to go to Seoul National University Hospital to the International Foreign Clinic. I got her to write this on a piece of paper to show a taxi driver as I really didn't feel like trying to explain where I wanted to go with my limited Korean when Julianne was feeling crappy.

We get to the hospital, and walk into the main lobby. The main desk for the foreigner clinic was to the right of the foyer and we walked over to it.


When I saw two old Korean men sitting behind the desk my heart sank.

I still tried to be optimistic (NAIVE) about the whole situation and asked in English, "Do you speak English? We need to see a doctor."

The Korean man said nothing, and just got up from behind the desk and walked out of the office and around to where we were standing, and then past us while gesturing for us to follow him.

We walked about 15 meters through the hospital to what I think was the main admissions desk for the emergency department. The two younger men (probably late 20s or early 30s) sitting there looked at each other and did the "OH-SHIT!-I-don't-want-to-deal-with-the-foreigner/speak-English-face" . . .

I would rather have seen Jay and Silent Bob from "Clerks" behind the desk at this point . . . I seriously think they would have been more helpful--think about that for a moment, SILENT BOB . . . at least he GESTURES and uses FACIAL EXPRESSIONS to communicate . . .

After they sat there for a minute longer, and I waited for them to look up and say something (Korean or English, I didn't care) the younger one looked at me and said something in Korean that I didn't understand. I told him in English that Julianne needed to see a doctor.

After trying to use the simplest English possible the clerk gave up and dialed a translation service on his cell phone, and then handed the phone to Julianne.

The clerk then got a translation and handed Julianne some papers to fill out. He did have enough English to help her figure out where "name" and "phone" were on the forms.

He then took us through the doors that lead into the emergency room treatment area.

Ten feet inside we walked into three nurses and a male nurse (or doctor in a uniform I didn't recognize) standing at a computer station. They all did the typical "OH-SHIT!-I-don't-want-to-deal-with-you/speak-English-to-you" facial/body contortions, and began giggling nervously and speaking to each other in Korean. Then another nurse walked up (who they must have known speaks English) and they all ganged up on her telling her (I assume, since it was in Korean) to help the foreigners.

[As a serious side-note to this posting I truly wonder if Korean doctors-in-training (and nurses too) are given any kind of cross-cultural training. Worrying about 'loss of face' and feeling shame because your English is not as good as you want it to be is something I'd hope would be a secondary concern when an ill and/or injured foreign person walks into a hospital or clinic . . . sigh.]

Once they had convinced her to help us they all quickly disappeared in different directions.

So, the nurse who could speak English began talking to us and was very friendly. I was thrilled that she had spent time in America, and had really good English.

She asked Julianne to sit down on a chair in the middle of the main corridor of the emergency department about 10 feet from the main doors off of the waiting room area. I was not happy about it but told myself to keep quiet as I had never been in a hospital in Korea and had no idea what to expect (other than what I've heard from other foreign teachers).

The nurse began asking Julianne some questions about why she needed to see a doctor when two security guards began laughing at the nurse and teasing her about something in Korean (probably they were jealous that she could speak English fluently) while she was trying to do her job--I was furious with them but bit my tongue and kept quiet.

Their GROSS lack of professionalism and respect for the nurse, and for Julianne, evoked this particular image in my mind that will from now on replace those disrespectful guards . . .

After getting some info from Julianne (to tell the doctor I assume) the nurse led us into a room where there were FOUR doctors treating patients. Each doctor had a 5X6 foot area to work in--I was shocked.

The nurse left us with a VERY YOUNG LOOKING DOCTOR . . .

Unfortunately it was NOT Doogie Houser, M.D.

When our doctor saw Julianne and I walking towards him he looked like this,

After which he immediately got the "OH-SHIT!-I-don't-want-to-deal-with-you/speak-English-to-you" facial/body contortions, and began nervously smiling a lot . . . and our nurse WALKED AWAY . . . why she left us with a doctor who couldn't speak English . . . well, I'll leave that question to philosophers and existentialists . . . she really should have left us with the doctor sitting next to the one we were presented to--in fairness to her, it was a national holiday and they did seem very busy in the hospital.

Julianne and I tried to say a few very basic words and phrases to describe her problem to the doctor . . .

I did feel some sympathy for him but at the same time I was starting to get really frustrated with the fact that we had come to the hospital because it is advertised as a FOREIGN CLINIC in a flier that is at all Tourist Information Booths in Seoul--W_F???!

At this point I wonder if it would have been helpful if Julianne and I had turned into Snowths and began a rendition of "MAHNA MAHNA" . . .

"Du doo du doo du"
"Two cowlike creatures called Snowths try to sing a jazzy song vocalizing "Du doo du doo du" while a wild eye creature, Mahna Mahna, keeps getting between them shouting his name and scatting to the Snowth's disapproval."

"MAHNA MAHNA" Video of Song from "Sesame Street"
The young doctor understood more English than he could speak--which is typical of 90+% of Koreans who have studied English. Julianne pointed to her throat and told him the basics. He proceeded to gouge her glands and sinuses with his thumbs pressing very hard--Julianne's face CONTORTED in PAIN and I again had to exercise an insane degree of self-control to prevent myself from saying and doing something I would regret later on.

After watching the doctor's diagnostic "skills" I was reminded of another doctor we all know,

After a minute or two of torment in what felt like eternity in a hell of of non-communication, with the doctor looking at the floor, looking at us, looking at the floor . . .

. . . the young doctor's friend in the 5X6 foot space next to us turned his stool and jumped into the silence to help out . . . THANK GOD!

The second doctor was very friendly. He asked us a few questions, and then took one of those wooden flat sticks doctors use to check the back of your throat and tonsils and used it on Julianne.

It was at this point I made the mistake of looking around the room. I noticed that the box he took the stick from was sitting OPEN with HALF OF THE STICKS sitting part of the way out of the box ONTO HIS DESK. I then saw the OPEN CAN OF POP sitting right next to the sticks.

It was then I realized that NEITHER DOCTOR HAD WASHED their HANDS before beginning to treat Julianne. When I realized there was no washing station or sink in their little areas I looked around the room. I saw the wash station ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROOM and cringed at how DIRTY the sink was.

This is what I was hoping to see . . .

Or this,

I felt a sense of horror for a moment and wondered what kind of illnesses, injuries . . . . DISEASES the two doctors had been treating other patients for before they put their hands on Julianne's face and stuck a stick into her mouth with their bare hands without washing them or putting on gloves . . .

The second doctor who spoke English, after asking Julianne a few questions, picked up some paper and drew us a picture of "tonsils" as if it was something that we'd have no idea about . . . I don't know how it is in Korean culture but "tonsils" are something that the vast majority of North Americans know the definition of . . . and where they are located in the throat.

After a few more minutes of explaining that he thought Julianne's tonsils were fine, but that he'd give her medication for the pain, and something to try and kill whatever was causing the inflammation and swollen condition of Julianne's throat, we were told to go to the waiting area and that the meds would arrive in about 15 minutes.

A different nurse brought the medications out to us. She didn't have a lot of English, but the little she did have was FANTASTIC!

I think the biggest challenge many Koreans have is to turn off the 'face saving' switch in their heads when speaking English so that the goals and needs of the situation they are in become the primary concern instead of being paralyzed by worrying incessantly about how they LOOK to themselves and the foreign English speakers they are talking to.

The nurse seemed to be able to do that--I was VERY IMPRESSED and happy with her effort.

And that's my first and HOPEFULLY LAST trip to a hospital in Korea for anything other than fulfilling the E2 Visa medical check requirements . . .



Roboseyo said...

Congrats, Jason. This post made me laugh out loud three times, and just earned you "K-Blogger of the Month" over at Roboseyo.

You don't have to do anything to collect your reward, and you CERTAINLY don't need to tag any of your other blog buddies. . . just be glad, 'cause you made a reader happy.


Megdacon's blah, blah, blog! said...


Thanks for sharing your first Kor. hospital experience - that was a great telling, and I love the pics you included! I'm impressed you've lasted this long before having to make a trip to the hospital.

I've spent entire nights entertaining friends with stories of goofy, shocking and even horrifying Korean hospital & medical experiences.

I think my favourite story is of the time I was having painkillers injected in the base of my spine; While on all fours, half-naked (yeah, I was fully exposed from the waist down...ON ALL FOURS... I won't follow your lead and insert pic!) on a surgical table surrounded by half a dozen nurses and doctors when a Korean boy who couldn't have been more than 12 years old rolled in with a digital camera to photograph the event! In my best Korean I shouted, "Get that kid the @#&% out of here!" To which the lead doctor replied, "It's okay, he's my son." To this day, I still haven't figured out how THAT made it okay...

I'm sorry Julianne got prodded. I hope she's feeling better soon.

xo, M

Dan said...

Hi Jason,

Ok, I give. The image of keystone cops/doctors does come to mind.

The hand washing thing is one of my peeves. When I have been at SNUH, I've also noted a lack of hand washing, even in the dermatology section :( When contact with bodily fluids was required, though, they wore gloves and/or washed.

However, I have to say that the doctors at SNUH really are a well-trained bunch, not just in the Korean sense, but internationally. I've worked with many of them, both med students and doctors, and they are serious professionals (yes, I am associated with SNU, so, though I stand by what I say, take everything with a grain of salt :)

SNUH is a teaching hospital for the SNU medical school. On a holiday evening, I'm guessing that your Dr. Houser was likely a 22/23-year-old resident (MD in Korea is an undergraduate degree) or even a younger internee (though I don't think that they would be able to treat you).

I've found that overall most young doctors (and many older ones) can communicate medical topics in English quite well, though they will be hesitant to do so. This hesitancy is particularly noticeable if they have a supervisor over their shoulder.

Lastly, I'm not sure which desk you were at, but it's not the foreigner clinic. It's not open in the evening and it is staffed by competent English speakers. I think I know where you went and it has "International" in the title, but it's not really the Foreigner Clinic. It's an entirely different entity.

Again, I'd say that if you need treatment, SNUH is one of the best places to go in Seoul. The quality of the doctors is second to none and, while you may have communication problems, there is always someone who can help (which is also true at other large hospitals).

Jason said...

Hi Dan,

Thanks for the tips and info about SNUH. I will definitely try to go during the day if and when I am sick or my girlfriend is sick. That being said, no one plans these things so if I ever have to go there again during the evenings I'll just do several different meditation calming exercises at the same time and look at the whole event as another 'learning' opportunity for enlightenment of one kind or another.

I've mostly heard good stories about hospitals in Seoul. If I personally have a good experience at any of them--I hope I don't have to go any time soon, or ever--I'll definitely blog about it and rave about the competency and excellence in medical care.

Happy New Year,