(Note from Dan: The following is by Michaela Scott, the charming daughter of regular poster Mike Scott. Mike introduced me to her in Martin’s in downtown Roanoke last Christmas-time, when we met to hear Richard Beason’s son and his band play at Martin’s downtown. Michaela’s in South Korea, teaching English, and will soon move to Saudi Arabia, where she’ll be doing the same thing for 9 months, which may prove to be a culture shock. Here, she describes access to health care in South Korea. Hold on to your seats.)
By Michaela Scott
“Tea-cher!” my students scream. They have answered a question correctly but I gave the points to another team. Why? I’m an otherwise healthy 25-year-old that has gone completely deaf in my right ear. I can’t hear anything. It’s not just affecting my work but my balance as well.
Yesterday I was caught off-guard and ran smack into a pole. Which was entertaining for everyone around me but not so great for me. Or team three sitting closest to my bunk ear at the moment. I have to go to a doctor but there’s one problem: I live in Busan, South Korea. It’s the second largest city in Korea with 4 million people, roughly the size of Chicago, but it’s virtually unknown. I had to Google it when I discovered my placement.
Come to think of it, the whole of Korea is basically unknown. Geographically people often picture a third world country somewhere between Japan and “that country where my jeans are made”. While still technically at war, South Korea has defied all expectations and rocketed to economic super stardom over the last 30 years.
Everything was built a little too quickly to be anything but utilitarian. With its massive concrete apartment blocks rising up en masse and neon-lit everything the country looks a little like the Eastern bloc to a trip to Vegas. It much more closely resembles Japan a few decades ago than the squalid conditions still prevalent in China or India, other recent economic success stories. Of course, there is still the whole “technically at war” caveat but it feels like any other bustling Asian country from day to day.
Still, I am not excited about the prospect of seeing a doctor. The last time I saw a doctor was the summer before I moved to Korea. I managed to break my knee cap in a devastatingly stupid rope swing accident. This happened roughly a month after my graduation from the University of Virginia and in the middle of sending out job applications for the coming year.
In the meantime I had what I thought was a myth: a waitressing job I actually enjoyed. The day after the rope swing accident I went to the local clinic to get an x-ray of my knee. I knew I had broken it but it was even worse than I anticipated; they thought I would need surgery and pins for it to heal properly. I also would need to stay off of it for eight weeks. I lost my job. I couldn’t work while I couldn’t walk.
I also found out my insurance had lapsed during the time month between graduation and the accident. Now the accident was a pre-existing condition and I couldn’t get an insurance company to cover it. I didn’t get the surgery and I went back to work after three weeks despite the doctor’s warnings because I had no choice. Years later, when it gets cold out or I put a lot of stress on me knee I feel a very painful ache that starts at my knee and goes up to my hip and doesn’t go away for days.
So in my own country, going to a doctor made my life worse. I had already known my leg was broken and getting it confirmed meant it was on record and barred me from receiving effective treatment. This time I was in a foreign country and I don’t even speak Korean. I was terrified. I went online and found a few large hospitals offering services for foreigners. I checked the times and away I went prepared to spend the entire afternoon languishing in the waiting room and praying that they didn’t call my name to see the doctor from the right-hand side of the room.
I nervously walked in to the Yeongjeong hospital and brandished my Alien Registration Card to a smiling lady in a pristine white uniform. In perfect English she requested I “wait just a moment please.” I assumed this moment would be four hours when an English speaking assistant materialized beside me.
“What can I help you with?” she asked. Within five minutes I had a hospital identification card and was on my way to see a doctor. While we walked the assistant explained to me that her sole job was to escort foreigners around the hospital and answer any questions they may have even though a majority of the doctors are bi-lingual.
When we reach the doctor he too spoke to me in perfect English and ran a quick series of tests. He diagnosed me with a double inner ear infection and prescribed some antibiotics. The nurse led me to the window for payment and the grand total for the walk in visit with a personal assistant runs me 5,000 won or about $4.50. She then escorted me to the pharmacy, ordered my medications for me (another $2), and explained all instructions to me in English. At the end of the visit she gave me her own personal cell phone number in case I need to call after hours and encouraged me to give it to all my friends.
I am not a very political person. I don’t know the fine nuances of Obamacare or the Korean healthcare system. I just know that since that first visit I’ve been back to the same hospital three times and it has always been as easy, as affordable, and as quick as it was the first time. My average walk in visit lasts 15 minutes and costs $5.
I know that when I saw a doctor in America, even a local doctor, I would wait for up to an hour and pay at least $30. I know that in Korea I mentioned that my knee accident to a doctor and he offered to fix it for me with my insurance covering most of the cost. I know that the hospitals are clean and sanitary and that in the unlikely event that Korea ever does go to war, at least I won’t be denied treatment because I couldn’t afford my insurance premiums.