Getting sick in South Korea: The worst medical system in the world

I just want you all to know that I’m writing this post in literal tears.

There’s nothing worse than getting sick in a foreign country. Everything is different, no one speaks your language, and you begin to panic and think the worst. I’ve kept this post in my drafts, waiting for the right moment to write about the Korean medical system, and now just as I’m getting ready to leave I have had the last straw. This is pertaining to the medical system and doctors in Jeollanam-do.

Since arriving to Korea, I have been to the hospital more than 300 times. For different reasons and parts of my body, but my first experience was at the hospital the day after my arrival. I went to the hospital to get our blood work and pee taken for immigration health check purposes. The hospital felt almost medieval. The syringes were all tossed into one container that was splattered in other people’s  blood. There was a tray beside the restroom with plastic cups filled with urine with no lids and no labels. It seemed as though they had never heard of public health and sanitation!?

TMI moment ya’ll

Fast forward a couple of weeks. I was having some urine pain. This kind of pain is something I’m accustomed to having had UTI’s since I was 15. I’m pretty much an expert now at anything relating to the vagina. You ladies know how easy it is to get infections down thur with everything being so close in proximity. ANYWAY! I went to a obstetrics hospital, which provoked many strange stares from the patients. Pretty much everyone was pregnant or had a kid and then there was just me and my Co-Teacher at the time. I’m not kidding when I tell you guys that I went back to that hospital every week for a month every time seeing a different doctor and getting a different diagnosis each time. AND HERE’S THE KICKER! They never actually physically checked me! Because the doctors here NEVER DO! They simply listen to your symptoms and then answer based off of that… So now fast forward a month and ya girl still has pain but has given up with the hospital and antibiotics. WHICH THEY GIVE OUT LIKE CANDY. But more on that later… I finally found a female gynecologist in a small clinic that actually spoke English. In my city, that is rare. When I finally saw her and she checked me out, turns out all it was was a yeast infection from my new soap. DAFUQ. Like, these other doctors gave me so much antibiotics FOR NOTHING! Antibiotics make Yeast infections worse! Just in case you didn’t know that.

Overuse of antibiotics

Koreans give out antibiotics like candy. Headache? Antibiotics. Broken leg? Antibiotics. Best friend cut his arm? You get antibiotics. There has not been a time I’ve gone to the doctor and walked out of there without antibiotics. Not that they will tell you because when you go to the pharmacist your pills look like condom wrappers. It’s literally a mix of pills that you have no idea what you’re taking, you’re just told to take it.

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This January I hurt my knee pretty badly in a ski accident and you know what they gave me? Antibiotics… WHY? Who knows!?

Here are some examples of people’s experience with doctors in Jeollanam-do. Specifically Mokpo and Gwangju.

  • I went to the dermatologist for small bumps on my fingers. They said it was dermatitis. Turns out it was eczema.
  • A friend’s son went in for small red bumps on his back. Doctor said it was small pox so they loaded the poor kid up with meds only to find out later that it was just acne.
  • Friend went in to the doctor thinking they had an STD, doctor said it was just a rash. Turned out to be an STD.
  • Friend went in with severe stomach pains, doctor said only to come in when the pain was extreme. She went to Seoul only to have part of her intestines removed due to severe inflammation. When she returned to Gwangju hospital, they didn’t believe she had surgery because they didn’t see the scar. LIKE WHAT?!
  • Diagnosed with bronchitis that turned out to be pneumonia.

I know there are more, and if you have a similar story I hope you share them in the comments.

Speaking of Pneumonia. Whenever I, or my friends, have gotten sick in Mokpo we always get REALLY sick. Like just a mere cold for a Korean is a full-blown flu to our bodies. So there is a stereotype that foreigners are fragile little snowflakes that can’t handle a cold. When we dare to ask for a sick day we are often met with blank stares. Sick days are a myth, don’t worry what your contract says. Some schools are more lenient than others, but if you take a sick day I guarantee you’ll be the topic of conversation at school. Last year 5/6 of the native English speakers had some serious bronchitis and when one of us asked how getting a sick day worked, our manager responded with “I don’t know, no one has ever taken one before.” This is because if you have to go to the hospital, your co-teacher will take you and you’ll come back and teach your classes anyway! When I tore the ligaments in my knee, we went for tests and scans in the morning and then in the afternoon I taught 4 hours straight. Yea.

This year I got pretty sick with the flu and I had to miss 3 days of school in a week. No longer in a deathly hagwon I was able to take these days without too much backlash. After I was able to physically force myself out of bed, I went straight back to work. I then developed bronchitis on and off for 2 months until I went to Australia and breathed in clean air. During this timeframe I went to my doctor 2 times a week changing medicines and figuring out how I could speed up my recovery. I’m not joking when I tell you I went to the doctor at 8:05 am and walked out of there at 8:20 with just enough time to get to work at 8:30. It was miserable. When I was at work you could see me laying on my desk like a blob covered in tissues. I started to annoy the teachers in my office with my constant sickness. They began to complain about me. I found this out months later when it was the last day of school, how kind.

My 6 month-long journey of pain

I’m about to get really personal, but I’m hoping that by sharing this with current/future English teachers that they will seek SERIOUS health advice ONLY in Seoul.

Last June I went to my usual Gyno about some pain I was having in my urine. As I stated earlier, I’m an expert in my vagina and I know when I’ve got a UTI coming. I told her that the pain was unusual for me and it DEF wasn’t a UTI. I told her I feared that it was some kind of problem with my kidney or a parasite I may have picked up on my extensive travels. She did tests and I came positive for UTI. For the next two months she gave me antibiotic after antibiotic and none of them seemed to help. I kept trying to tell her that it wasn’t a UTI and it was time to check other parts of my body. She then decided to give me the STRONGEST antibiotic possible and if that didn’t work I would have to go to a bigger hospital.

It didn’t work. Big surprise.

I took her recommendation and went to Hanguk hospital, the big hospital in Mokpo to see a Urologist. He did some tests and found my urine was clean of infection but could offer no explanation to me as to why I felt pain. So he sent me a few doors down to another Gynecologist that didn’t speak English. At all. This older man, having seen that I was a foreigner laughed at me. I hd my co-teacher on the phone so she could translate what he was saying and all she had to say was “you should leave now. The problem is embarrassing, it has to do with your boyfriend. I’ll tell you tomorrow.” The doctor still laughing, gave me a bottle of lubrication and blamed it on having sex. I started crying right there. In Korea foreigner are seen as promiscuous and known for coming to Korea to party and fuck around and share their diseases. I felt so offended. By that point it didn’t even matter that I wasn’t sexually active for months. How could I be when I only felt pain? Frustrated and without hope, my co-teacher tried to translate what the man said and would not listen to my side. That’s when I took matters into my own hands and contacted a translator at the university hospital in Gwangju. It was a bit far, but after crying in front of my principal he let me go get some tests.

Again, they couldn’t find anything wrong. One doctor suggested that if it continues to hurt they would just numb it. NUMB IT? If my body has pain, it is trying to tell me something is wrong! Are you kidding me? Once out of the doctor’s office the translator tried to tell me that maybe it was all in my head and that I was imagining the pain.

I gave up.

Fast forward to today.

When I went to Australia I met a Pathologist and I told him my whole frustrating story. He reassured me not to give up that there could still be something causing this pain. So when I returned to Korea I decided to try one last time.

My mother has failing kidneys and it runs in her side of the family. Since my kidneys were the only thing I haven’t tried I decided to see a nephrologist at Hanguk hospital. I had high hopes because this doctor spoke pretty good English. He suggested that maybe there could be something wrong with my kidneys. He also questioned whether or not it was… not kidding… Tuberculosis. Yup, he thinks it could be TB. He also said it could be Interstitial cystitis which basically means I’ll have pain forever. After peeing in a bag for 24 hours last week I called him back only to hear that I could have another bacterial infection.

I give up again. I’ll be returning to the USA in 2 weeks and I’m hoping to finally get some answers. I hope that no one ever has to suffer through something like this or get sick in Korea and have to experience this. I’d really like to start some discussion on this, if you live/have lived in Korea and have experienced something similar, please share.

 

Peace and love,

Natasha

Edit: Update (April,13 2017 1 month post Korea)

Hey guys, so it’s been a bit since I wrote this article and for those of you wondering how my story ends you are in luck! After coming back to America and spending far too much money, I have finally figured out what the problem is. Turns out I was right, I never had an infection and I should have never taken a years worth of antibiotics. I have severe muscular spasms in my bladder, this is what has been causing me pain. I now have a doctor in the USA treating me for this very simple problem and I’m feeling much better with the right medicine.

Once again, Peace and love!

Natasha

 

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