Tuesday, October 15, 2013

My (New) Number One Piece of Advice to World Travelers

I carry in my pocket a few pieces of advice I think would be important to pass along to someone moving to a foreign country.
Things like reading up on cultural norms and how to adjust to them.
Things like taking a few familiar food items to get you started.
Things like being as flexible as possible and renaming "frustrations" as "surprises!".

However, one travel tip I didn't realize I'd left out until recently is this: ask what to do in an emergency.

On Sunday afternoon, I started getting this strange sensation and pain in my lower abdomen. I slept fine that night. Went to school. Was uncomfortable, but not unbearably so. Atleast not yet. No, that came later, like at 1am when things like this seem to happen.

I took a sleeping pill only to wake up an hour later, tossing and turning, 5 or 6 trips to the bathroom. After an hour I woke Jeremy up and said, "I think I need to go to the hospital."

The next thought in both of our minds: "Oh crap. We have no idea how to get to the hospital."

I had heard of a Korean tourist helpline offered in English. I called. Hit number 2 for English. A Chinese woman answers. Doesn't speak English. Tells me to call back in 5 minutes. I call back. She tells me, this is not a helpline for emergencies. "Right, I understand. But who do I call?" She tells me 1-1-9.

Dialed 1-1-9. Spent 15 minutes repeating, "Hangook mal moteyo (I don't speak Korean). Does someone speak English?" Over and over. I was transferred. I was disconnected. I was passed around like a hot potato, until finally, an English voice comes on the line. We miscommunicate between "do you want an ambulance?" (no) to "what is the problem?" (stomach pain) to "I can just take a taxi, but what do I tell the taxi driver? ("Chungbuk daehawkyo byeong won.") From this moment forward, I will never forget the Korean word for hospital: "Byeong won."

We gathered every possible document we would need in order to get medical care, and ventured out into the street to hail a taxi and get to the hospital. The two of us walked into the ER and the two Korean men on duty gave us a look I've seen several times that means, "Uh oh. Do you speak English? I don't speak English? Not it!"

We navigated showing appropriate documents and signing here, here, and there. A nurse pulled me to a bed and (hurray!) she spoke pretty good English (which is extra impressive when you're using medical terminology!). The nurse ordered a urine test, a blood test, and an x-ray.

My bed was next two a few dozen others. Half a dozen were full of other patients laying in hospital beds hooked up to IVs, shielding their eyes from the intrusive flourescent lights. This is about the worst place to be at 2am on a Tuesday morning.
During the three hours we spent there, I did all the tests. I sat down. I layed down. I walked the halls clutching my stomach. I was hooked up to an IV. Jeremy made me laugh and we looked at old pictures on his phone. The doctor (who said he didn't speak good English, but we could understand perfectly) said that based on the test results he thought I had cystisis, which is basically inflammation of the bladder.

What a relief! At least it's something. There's a name for it: cystitis (inflammation of the bladder)He gave me antibiotics, some pills for pain, and sent me home.

We got home at around 5am and crashed in bed. I woke up around 7am, called my co-teacher, Mrs. Che, and tried to explain what had happened. I didn't tell her I wasn't coming into work, but I asked her if it would be okay if I didn't. I actually considered going in anyway. From what I understand of Korean work culture, it is of utmost importance to "appear dilligent." Gratefully, she talked to the vice-principal for me and he said I could stay home and rest.

Poor Jeremy had to go to work, but I slept another few hours, and have been trying to relax here at home. I'm surely not in the pain I was last night, so I'm grateful for that. However, the information I'm finding on interstitial cystitis isn't super comforting. If you have any information or tips or stories, please share them with me!

I cannot explain to you the incredible helplessness of being in a foreign country in such pain in the middle of the night and realizing you have no idea how to get your needs met. However, in a way, this is what I signed up for. It is no one's fault that I was stranded in the middle of the night needing help. It is not Korea's job to ensure that there is an English speaker at every corner for me to talk to. So I am incredibly grateful that I was able to get the help I needed eventually. Plus, Korean health insurance is pretty awesome so the whole thing (tests, antibiotics, and visit) cost only $118.

I feel quite taken care of.
Jeremy called during his lunch break.
A co-worker from school text me: "Heather, I heard you are sick. What's wrong? Are you okay now?"
And another co-worker: "Are you okay? Get well soon. I miss you."
Then, Mrs. Che called to check on me.

So my new travel advice goes like this:
#1. Ask what you should do in case there's an emergency. Who will you call? Where's the nearest hospital? How will you ask for help in the local language?

Lesson learned.
Byeong won.


Alicia said...

Yikes! Glad that you are ok, but what a yucky experience!!! :(

Jessica Heath said...

Hi Heather! I am glad to see you are doing well, I thought I would drop by and say hello. I also wanted to say I have an app on my phone that will speak the words you write in whatever language you select. It comes in handy sometimes when you really don't know a word and need it.