Friday, November 27, 2009

Hospital Series: Admission

I've been out about a month now. I no longer have bruises on my hands from the IV sites. I can walk up a flight of stairs again (actually all four at school) without getting winded. However, I want to capture what my 10 days in the hospital were like. I will collect all of these, as an essay, eventually under the title "The Thinking Bed," but as few expat bloggers (thankfully) get the full-on life in a Korean hospital experience, I thought you might like to see some of the early drafts:

"It's your 'thinking bed.'" Min Gi smiles as he rolls the lever to lower the hard metal hospital bed into a position to prepare me for sleep. I can see the worry lines forming under his grey wool cap. They are not natural. They are my fault.

"What do you mean? I'm so tired and so hungry, I can't think." Hungry is the wrong word. I have not eaten food in four days. The white lipid solution hooked permanently into a tender vein on my right hand keeps me from feeling the need for oral nutrition, but the desire for food--the sensual dreams about eggplant and pasta, the urgent need to tear off the head of my roommate's five-year-old granddaughter to steal her pastry, the incredible loneliness of hospital life without even the punctuation of meals to break up the intolerable tedium--it gets to me.

Again, he smiles, and touches my hand. "You'll see. When you feel better, you'll see."


I have a condition called ulcerative colitis. It's been manageable since I first got it in May, but October was a stressful month, and the condition has worsened to the point that I'm in what's called a "severe flare," characterized by 10-15 bowel movements a day with the presence of blood and mucous. I also have a fever and constant pain associated with the inflammation in my colon. It is difficult to maintain nutrition and hydration with this condition, and so I am lethargic. The doctor has tried to treat the condition with oral steroids, but it is not working, so I agree to enter the hospital for him to treat me (he wanted to admit me Friday, but I was worried about missing work so I gave the drugs one more weekend to work; they didn't).

I'm terrified. Although Keimyung University's Dongsan Hospital has a wonderful international clinic, I know that I'll probably be the only foreigner admitted to the hospital. That all the things about living in Korea that are difficult--the language barrier, the staring, the outsider-ness--will be worse and I'm so sick that I don't even know if I can communicate in this language I've been studying. And even apart from the expatriate issues, hospitals themselves are cold and institutional. I'll be at the mercy of doctors and nurses, in the way a prisoner might be at the hands of a warden.

I'm also paranoid about my job. I have good relationships there and an official 15 paid sick days in the contract, but I know foreign teachers who have been fired for a lot less than taking a few days of necessary sick leave. Korea has a strange attitude towards health--both prizing it highly and refusing to miss even one day of work to recover. It seems that most people in Korea either take one day off or six months off--nothing in between for illness.

I feel guilt, too. Because I've been sick for two weeks already, I know my job performance has been off its usual game. And when I go into the hospital, William will have to cover everything for me. It's not fair to him--and I'm really angry at myself that there's nothing I can do to help this.

But since I'm already a victim of my own body, I finally judge that my health is too important. One of the vows I will promise to Min Gi in two months with be to "take care of myself and my responsibilities, so that I can take care of you and our family." In the end, it is this promise that I must fulfill. I can't work if I don't get better.


Day 1--Monday, October 12

At five a.m., I send a pathetic e-mail to my co-teachers telling them of my situation and asking for a ride to the hospital in the morning. I pack a bag with some fresh underwear, books, a towel and shower shoes, and my laptop (loaded up with TV shows and movies). At nine a.m., I call the international clinic to ask them about my situation. Nurse Kim consults my GI doctor, Professor Kim, who instructs me to be admitted through the ER for testing until a bed becomes available.

Ms. Lim, my amazing co-teacher of American Culture, takes her lunch to drive me to the ER. She is worried. I babble on and on about how scared I am and the disease and how sorry I am that she has to cover my classes alone. She wishes me a speedy recovery and returns to work.

At 10:30, Nurse Kim escorts me to the ER. The ER is mostly empty at this time. There are a few ajumma and ajosshi in hiking clothes helping one another with minor injuries sustained on the mountains that morning. Nurse Kim finds a resident whose English is passable--her name is Yoon Young, though I don't call her this--and explains my situation. Yoon Young quickly and efficiently moves me through a barrage of tests--bloodwork, x-ray, EKG--and hooks me up to an IV to maintain my hydration and tells me not to eat or drink anything else. The nurses in the ER are efficient, but whenever they touch me with a needle, it hurts. A lot. My left hand is so bruised from the blood culture test that it swells up purple. At this point, I'm feeling so low and tired that I don't even care that I can't eat or drink.

Around noon, a translator from the international clinic comes by to explain that, in order to be admitted, I need to have a Korean person sign a responsibility of payment form.

"But I'm going to pay for myself."

"It is hospital policy. Can your fiance or his mom come sign?" His mom???

I call Min Gi and hand her the phone. He has to leave work to come be responsible for me, the stupid foreigner. I'm kind of angry about this (is my word not good enough? I'm a resident here!), but decide to just let it go.

Min Gi takes care of all the paperwork and stops by to see me around 1:30 p.m. I'm on a curtained-off, uncomfortable bed with a painful IV drip in my hand, wishing I could sleep for more than five minutes at a time. I don't really remember what he says or does, but I remember being grateful to him. So grateful. He promises to come by again later.

The nurses start the enemas in the afternoon. Humiliation doesn't begin to cover my afternoon spent getting the nurses to help escort me back and forth to the tiny guest toilet in the ER waiting room and then grimacing in pain for hours on the bed.

A few times I ask about when I'll be admitted. The translator returns to ask about what kind of room I want. A standard room holds 6-8 patients. For many, many reasons (not the least of which is that I need freer access to a toilet nearby considering why I'm being admitted, nor do I wish to be the object of amusement as a foreigner in a room of 50-70 year old Korean women and all their thousands of visitors), I don't want the standard room. The translator discusses the prices of private rooms (between 140,000 and 400,000 won/night--no thanks!) and 2- and 3- bed rooms. I decide it's worth it to pay 70,000 won/night to have only one roommate.

Min Gi disagrees when I call him to discuss it, but I reassure him that even though he signed the papers that afternoon, I have the money from my airfare reimbursement and "severance" bonus from my contract renewal, and that it is worth it to me. It's our wedding budget. Oh well, I guess we just won't get to do anything fun this winter. It's going to be ok. (In the back of my mind: Unless you lose your job because of this.)

In the evening, the ER gets busy. I hear wheezing not 10 inches beyond the curtain next to my head. A woman cries while she vomits on the floor two beds over. I hear her husband call for a nurse to clean it up. People in various states of injury are wheeled in and out.

At around 4:30, I begin to panic that my doctor will leave for the day before he sees me. I'm getting weak from not eating or taking my meds and having so much exiting my body every 20-30 minutes. I call over a nurse who checks my IV. It's not filled up as much as she'd like so she pumps at one of the levers and pain shoots down my veins, paralyzing my arm. I cry out. She gives me a sympathetic, but all-business look and brings over Yoon Young.

She checks my chart. "You will get a sigmoidoscope."

"When?" I manage. My voice sounds weak.

"Soon." She walks away quickly.

About 30 minutes later, an orderly arrives and starts to move my bed through the now-emptied hallways of the hospital. The orderly doesn't say a word to me. Just hands me my IV bags to hold for the trip. I've been in this part so many times for my regular checkups with the GI doctor, but now it looks haunted and menacing as I stare at the ceiling from my gurney. The people who attached the ceiling tiles didn't evenly space the tacks that are holding them in. There are chaotic and random triangles of every different size and angle at each new joint.

I cannot, I will not, I do not want to tell you about the sigmoidoscopy. I have never felt such pain in my life. I was crying and moaning the whole time. Humiliation is the worst part of this disease. Pain is usually second place to that. But honestly, during those 10 minutes, I didn't even care that I was being anally raped by a video camera--I just wanted the pain to stop. I would have done anything, been anything, paid anything for it to end. I felt bad for how awful I must have made that technician feel.

I lay staring at the chaos triangle patterns on the ceiling, defeated.

The orderly took me back to the ER. I saw a man being rushed through the door as the nurses and doctors were performing CPR on him. I knew he was going to die. I didn't care. Min Gi came. I didn't care.

A sobbing boy of about 11 was lying in the next bed over with his parents. He had broken his leg. The doctor began to remove the old dressing and reset it for a new cast. The boy began screaming with pain. His screams echoed inside my ulcerated colon. Every time he wailed, waves of pain radiated through my digestive tract. I couldn't take it anymore. My apathy broke, and I hated this boy. This 11-year-old boy in agonizing pain and his terrified parents. I wanted them to go away. I hated them. I told Min Gi to get me admitted to a bed, NOW.

Pain makes me a mean, petty, hateful person. I don't like it.

Somehow, by 7:30, Min Gi had achieved what I had failed to for the last 9 hours and got someone from the GI department to see me--a young Dr. Park, a tubby, enthusiastic resident whose English was passable, though not as good as Yoon Young's, and who giggled every time he got frustrated trying to explain something to me in English, though patiently persevered until the communication was successful.

Within 20 minutes of my consultation with Dr. Park, I was out of the ER, whisked away to the sixth floor, and changed into the unflattering but comfortable hospital uniform, where a tall, friendly nurse was taking my vitals and explaining the brochure about the rules of the hospital ward to Min Gi.

In the quiet of the semi-private room I now shared with a 60-something pre-op ajumma, my body began to release the child's screams, the probing camera, the proximity to death and illness that was the emergency room. I began to relax.

Suddenly I was hungry. And tired.

Next installment: Room 6012.


  1. like this a lot. had no idea it was that bad. keep it comin', the writing, i mean.

  2. You are a writer. A damned good writer. I read this last night and kept thinking about it today as I went again to the hospital to get more druuuuuugs. Outstanding, Diana. I'm really lookng forward to reading more - and I'm hoping your health continuess to improve. As I stood with a number ticket in my hand today, waiting to be called to cough up a bunch of money, I leaned on my boyfriend and told him how thankful I am that I've never had to stay in a hospital.
    Oh, and thank you so much for your invitation to come to your wedding! I hope I'm able to! We'll talk more!

  3. You both just made my day. :) On the blog, I usually keep my writing light or thoughtful, but my stuff I'm trying to publish is more like this--a little dark (or if not dark... then intense). It's hard to share with people I know in real life because while it is a part of my personality, it's a part I generally spare my friends/family from dealing with.

    And the first day was the worst. ERs may be one of the most horrible places on earth. And you always have to go to them when you or a loved one is so sick it's terrifying... so yeah. It did get better--especially around day 6/7 once the meds started working and they let me eat food again.



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