Sunday, December 4, 2011

Two Weeks In Jaeil: The Hospital Diaries

Portrait of the author as a hospital patient.
After almost a week of constant fever and already at least two visits to doctors, I had my co-teacher meet me at Jaeil Hospital to ask the doctor to take some tests and see what was going on. He told me again he didn't think I was all that sick but indulged me with an X-ray, blood work and a piss test. It's a good think he did: I had pneumonia and needed to be hospitalized right away, for at least two weeks. How did I go from "not serious" to two weeks in the hospital? He showed me the X-rays. I could plainly see the sea anemone blooming in my left lung. And that was that.

After a quick trip back to my apartment to grab a few things I was being shown to my new room. I was never even checked in. At one point I sat for a few minutes in a room that looked like it might be for new patients but then I was gone again. The only time I ever signed anything was for a CT scan.

My bed was in a room on the third floor. The room had six beds where even four might be considered cramped. Each faced away from the wall with just a retractable yellow curtain to offer a suggestion of privacy. I changed into the hospital pajamas they provided—thank god they didn't open at the back, I was spared that one indignity—said goodbye to my co-teacher, and climbed into bed.

I finally allowed myself to look around. I had avoided making eye contact with the men in the room because I knew they were all staring at me. I knew they had watched my every move with a curiosity reserved for those for whom nothing much new ever happens any more. They were staring, baldly and boldly. I decided to ignore them for the time being and try to relax.

I laid flat on my back, my head on a rock-hard rubber pillow. The bed did not recline. It did not move at all. If we needed to sit up, we pulled ourselves up. If we needed to lie back, we used our arms, often leaning on the IV tube to do so. After a couple of times of doing this and smarting from the pain, I learned to keep that plastic leash away from my body. (I also eventually realized that the pain was just the tape pulling on my arm hair and not the needle breaking off in my vein.)

With my co-teacher gone, the full weight of my situation began to come down on me. I was going to be in this place for two weeks. I had never stayed overnight in a hospital before in America, let alone Korea. I was in a room with four old men with obvious respiratory issues. And from what I had seen so far, hygiene didn't seem to be high on the list of hospital priorities.

The bathroom was public. It was for the whole floor. You dragged your IV stand down the hall and either stood in front of the urinal or you parked it in front of a stall and locked the door on the tube. There was hand soap but not always paper towels.

Next to the bathroom was the public washing area. This consisted of a row of sinks with shower attachments for hair washing. There was a rubber bed under a nozzle in one corner. I was reminded of those scenes in The Wall when Pink is running around in the military hospital, reading poetry in the grim stalls. I had no hand soap to wash with. I had no shampoo. Hell, even Korean motels provide that. I was in a place lower than a love motel.

Bed with a view
The hospital didn't even have that antiseptic hospital smell. Usually that smell is enough to turn your stomach but I was longing for it. Watching two old ladies slop water around the floor of our room wasn't enough to convince me that the hospital really was clean.

I settled back into my bed and tried to sleep. There was a TV mounted to the wall at the foot of my bed that stayed on from 6:30 in the morning until 10:00 at night. I had forgotten earplugs. Luckily I had my iPhone and iPad, and busied myself complaining on Facebook until I fell into an uneasy unconsciousness.

Around 9:00 pm the heater next to my bed, which I had been eyeing worringly all day, finally kicked into life. It started innocuously enough but soon was pumping out hot air into my face. The door to the room closed, the lights went out, and the temperature crept ever higher. I don't know if I ever even fully slept that night. I remember sitting up in bed, staring out the window in the direction of my apartment, which I knew was forgivingly cool and spacious and private. The veil between Korea and myself had been completely obliterated. I was naked in a hot wind, and I cried.

Not long after I awoke the next day, a sixth patient was brought to our room, filling all the beds. Although I rarely saw him, he being hidden by the curtain that I stubbornly kept drawn, I began to think of him as the Executive. In glimpses, I could see he was not as rough warn as the other men in the room, who had the weathered skin of farmers or manual laborers. His hair managed to stay neatly parted even though mine had already taken on the appearance of old straw.

Occupying the third bed on my side of the room and closest to the door was the Sleeper, a man I only ever saw curled up in his blankets. He hardly made a sound except for when he called out for his wife, who invariably was not there. I had him pegged as the first to die.

Across from me was the Baritone, so named for his surprisingly deep voice. I would hear him talking and in my mind I would see a big bear of a man. Reality provided a squirrel. He was frail, with knobby knees, and was blessed with complete freedom of motion. I never could figure out how someone could be sick enough to need to be in there with us but not need an IV. It meant he could wear his own shirt though.

Next to the Baritone was LulzSec. At first I was calling him the Hacker because of the near constant, pained coughing. But in the middle of the first night, I was awakened by what sounded like a hyena laughing. It was him, trying not to cough. This went on all night. In the morning I gave him the new name.

Lastly, there was McMurphy. He didn't seem to be sick at all. In fact, I'm pretty much convinced he lives at the hospital full time. He didn't have an IV and he wore a regular jacket. He also seemed to be the captain of the room. He turned the TV on and off at the appropriate times, and let me know when it was time to eat. He even bussed my tray for me. At one point he swapped out my IV stand for a different one. I was a little miffed at first but then realized my old one didn't have a little tray for carrying stuff. (The new one, however, seemed to have bird droppings on it.)

I was visited later that day by my fellow teachers, who brought me sympathy, thousands of calories worth of desserts, and an envelope of money. One of them mentioned something about a private room and my mind immediately went into overdrive. A private room? You mean I don't have to sleep in this respiratory quarantine room? I can have privacy? Yes, please. And after another night of blast furnace heat and moist hacking, I was able to move up one floor and into my own room.

After two days in the lung ward, I was happy to be getting my own room. Although there were two beds, the second was unoccupied, leaving me in dreamy peace. I had my own bathroom with shower, a closet for my clothes and quickly accumulating gifts and desserts, and even a small refrigerator. I was also pleased to find out that the quality of the food improved. It wasn't gourmet but at least it was edible now And best of all, I could turn the TV off. It was heaven.

Of course, heaven isn't free. I was paying around $70 a day for my privacy. The dorm room, on the other hand, was essentially free, the price of the room included with the daily medical fees. Thanks to nationalized health, this amounts to something like $5.00 a day. In a poor area like this, it makes sense that people would be crammed into small rooms to save money. It also makes sense given the Korean love of company. But if the Republicans ever need another scare tactic to keep people away from a nationalized health plan, a photograph of a Korean hospital room would be enough to keep people up at night.

Now that I was getting enough rest, I was able to get around more during the day. The doctor told me I needed to get some exercise so I dutifully did laps around the darkened first floor of the hospital after dinner. I also exercised my right to leave the hospital and made trips to the convenient store across the street to stock up on necessities, like cookies and canned coffee. I also took occasional trips to my apartment, which was just across the street, to get fresh towels and change the music in my iPhone. I should probably mention that I was still plugged into the IV during these trips. I wasn't the only one out and about either. Patients in pajamas sucking down soju in the local restaurants, their IV stands hovering over them like nervous parents, is a common site in my neighborhood. Don't mind me, just another patient on the lam.

The morning routine.
I quickly established a daily routine. Get woken up at 5 am to take oral medicine. Fall back asleep and wake up again at 7 for breakfast. Eat very little of said breakfast, which is exactly the same spicy and garlicky food as lunch and dinner. After breakfast, wash my hair and sponge myself down, frowning at the smell that will not, no matter how raw I scrub myself, go away. Next, drink a can of coffee and surf the Web on my iPad, and maybe play some Scrabble. That takes me to lunch, which I can eat more of than breakfast. In the afternoon I watch a movie that I rented from iTunes and maybe play some more Scrabble. Then it's dinner and my walk around the first floor. Finally, a little TV and then to bed around 9.

The day was also broken up by visits from the nurses, who forced big turkey basters full of antibiotics into my veins three times a day. This was my only discomfort, as the medicine often burned going in. The nurses were delightful though and I did my best to flirt with them. It helped pass the time and it also got me things like candy and fruit, which would be brought to me with smiles.

After 12 days, the doctor declared me well enough to go home. I slept all day at home that day and then was back to work the day after. Including the fever at the beginning, I was sick for around 3 weeks. I'm still getting my energy back, and still smarting from the hospital bill. I think about how cheap it would have been had I stuck it out in the lung ward, but then again I might still be there, roasting in the heat and nurturing a brand new case of tuberculosis. No, I made the right decision, expensive though it was.

1 comment:

  1. Good lord, glad to hear you're doing well. Somehow I've managed to avoid hospital stays my whole life, but I can't see myself keeping that up forever.

    Pneumonia's scary stuff in a way, because it's so pervasive and can be deadly.