LIFE IN KOREA - A Surgery Experience

by Lara Tosh, 14/08/2011


Last week I had surgery here (in Seoul, South Korea).  Having lived here for many years, I’ve been inside my fair share of hospitals and clinics for various health-related reasons:  doctors’ appointments, tests, even to visit family and friends who had been admitted due to illness.  Therefore, I figured that I had a pretty solid understanding of how the Korean culture manifests in the hospital and illness context.
I was wrong.

To have an intellectual understanding of something and to actually live the experience are two entirely different things.  Yes, I understood that I would need to have someone there to take care of me.   This is because the nurses are there ONLY to:
1. insert and remove IVs
2. give enemas
3. administer drugs (injections and oral medication)
4. check temperature and blood pressure
5. ensure that you are following the pre-set preparation and recovery “procedure” for whatever you are in the hospital for.
That’s it.  Need help getting to bathroom? Hungry?  In need of a Kleenex or wanting to wash your face? –better have a babysitter.
…so what am I referring to exactly in number 5?  Read on.

In Korean culture, there are set procedures for things:  In the hospital, a patient is expected to play the role of being sick.  A simple observation of my ward-mates provided the necessary information with respect to what was expected of me:  I would be wheeled away towards the surgery wing at 08:00, then I would be returned to my room between 12:00 and 13:00 –howling in pain, looking pale and frail,  hooked up to an IV containing powerful pain drugs.  I would be too weak (and perhaps too stoned) to interact in any meaningful way with others.  I would be unable to consume anything (including water or any liquids, clear or otherwise) for at least 24 hours –at which point I would pass-gas (fart) and then would somehow be magically able to drink and eat –but ONLY juk (rice porridge).   Immediately upon returning to my room I would need one small IV drip of protein, one IV drip of anticoagulant, and a HUGE IV bag of glucose.  I would also be moaning in pain and moving slowly –and I would only be able to pace up and down the ward hallway.  I would definitely NOT be able to walk up and down stairs.

Of course, for any sort of surgery or illness, there are going to be protocols which are followed by the hospital staff –regardless of culture.  The difference lies in how deviations from those procedures are dealt with.  In Korea, there is no room for deviation; so be prepared for a major freak-out if your body behaves other than expected.  The nurses will NOT know what to do and may genuinely end up extremely upset.  Korean nurses do NOT have the same sort of university-level medical school training that Canadian (or other western countries’) nurses do.  They are also NOT authorized to deviate from the procedure; so, if a patient under their care “misbehaves”, the nurses can end up in trouble.  Only doctors are allowed to deal with exceptions or deviations.  Once the doctor tells the nurses that an alternative course of action is okay, the nurses will happily carry it out, but not a moment before.

Patients are also expected to look and act as if they are in agony (to milk the experience for all that they can).   If you don’t act this way, be prepared to be met with surprise (and perhaps a small amount of fear) by all non-internationally experienced staff.

In my case, I was wheeled away towards the surgery wing at 08:00 and was back in my room before 10:00, pain-drug-free and looking pretty much like I did before I left.  I was fully conversant in both English and Korean.   The entire nursing staff and the other mobile patients in my ward very quickly gathered in my room asking if I had really had surgery and why I was looking so good.  By 12:00 I was able to have little sips of water (of course, I hid this from the nurses) and had gotten my babysitter to cut the flow on the glucose IV bag.   I’m from a family where sugar is not consumed in the same huge quantities as it is in Korea.  Each time the nurse came in to check my temperature and blood pressure (about once every hour), she would re-start the IV …and I’d simply get my babysitter to cut it off again after she left.   The nurse did NOT, however check the fluid levels in any of my IV fluids –my babysitter needed to request that any empty IV bags / bottles be removed.

At about 17:00 I asked the nurses to simply take away the bag of glucose –I unwittingly told them that I had been drinking water since about 12:00, that I turned it off each time they left the room and that I would MUCH rather be drinking a large bottle of sugar-free electrolyte beverage.  Let’s just say that my slip of the frustrated tongue didn’t go over very well:  my poor babysitter caught a bit of an earful from the now panicking nurses, who were certain that I must have been vomiting –or that I would soon vomit.  As far as they were concerned, there was no way that I could’ve been able to drink –and it was all my babysitter’s fault for not watching and controlling me closely enough.  They nurses said they couldn’t do anything different unless the doctor told them to.  I also asked if it was okay to go for a walk –and that was met with a “no”.

At 18:00, the surgeon came to visit me and gave me the go ahead to walk, and drink whatever liquids I wanted to –and had the nurses remove the IV bag.   By 19:30, I took my first stroll.
After that point, let’s just say that the nurses had my cell phone number entered into the ward phone speed-dial, so that they could track my down to administer drugs.  I spent the rest of my mandatory stay exploring on-foot outside and inside the hospital.  I used the stairs to come and go …and my first food was DoenJang Jigye (fermented bean-paste soup) –NOT juk.

About the Author: Lara Tosh is a Change Coach specializing in Empowerment, Cultural Awareness and Effective Communication. 

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