What I had been wilfully denying as a real threat to my health, claiming it to be a cough, a minor cold, just a reaction to the air quality, finally drove me to a doctor’s office. In actuality, I had decided to stalwartly endure all the breathing problems: I’ve had asthma and various and sundry kinds of bronchitis throughout my life (in grade 4, I had the “100-Day Cough” which is exactly what it sounds like), and no pitiful phlegmatic expulsions were going to get me down. It was the sudden onslaught of an ear-infection that made me whimper and seek out the medical profession, where my entire head was declared largely infected, and also I had bronchitis in both lungs. And thus began my interaction with the intriguing and bewildering world of Korean medicine.
The ear, nose, and throat clinic was filled, gloriously, with just enough English that I could communicate my problem and understand the responses efficiently. They took my insurance card, ushered me to sit, and then soon after ushered me out again. A kindly woman, who had clearly never had to pronounce anything but a Korean surname before and thus did interesting things to my own, directed me to a chair, which began to rise pneumatically as soon as my buttocks met its embrace. Prone, a man in green scrubs looked over from his desk and asked me what was the deal.
Soon he approached, and with the help of the nurse, began aiming enormous metal rods into my nose, alternately taking shots with the tiny cameras and spraying various gases up into my face. Then the mouth, and more gases. Then the ears, and more gases, and then digging pretty deep. He was poking right at ear infection town. “Do you feel any pain?” he asked benignly, apparently noticing the tears welling in my eyes and the way my fingernails were slowly embedding into the armrests. I agreed, meekly. Another day, this was followed by giving me an envelope of water, aiming an airpump up a nostril, and then timing an air blast with my swallow, blowing out both of my ears at once. I was able to generally guess what was supposed to happen, but the suddenness of the blast obviously caused surprise to sneak across my face. “Oh, sorry,” he murmured when I reached to clutch my head.
In another bout of impressive, comforting English, he told me I had bronchitis in both lungs, an acute ear infection, and a sinus infection. Could I come to see him for the next two weeks, and lay off smoking and drinking? The former, easily! The latter, uh oh.
Following this was what seems to be a typical Korean gauntlet of medical procedures. Things are divided into small, manageable, and to my foreign mind, bizarre-ass mini-challenges, a kind of obstacle course for my sinus cavities. Kindly nurses shoved hoses into my nose to flush out nostrils, aimed giant hair-dryers into my ears to warm my ear drums, and gave me powerful, cold-ass inhalants. An enjoyably stern nurse, who asked me numerous questions in Korean, including whether I knew of a Korean cartoon character that shared my name, poked me with various needles, gave me a happy-penguin bandage, and sent me on my way.
Everything was clean, efficient, and decidedly futuristic (a trick my brain often pulls: whenever things are all confusing and in another language, I interpret them to be as though they were from a time beyond our own. Double the effect if the particular space uses any nice chrome finishes). After every medical challenge issued to me, I was ushered to the next station in a practiced, elegant way, the nurses each whispering to me in a susurrus Korean some instructions I barely understood.
Blessedly, insurance footed most of the bill, and I was sent for what I had been hoping. In the pharmacy downstairs, I received the much bally-hooed Korean pill-packets. Like the procedures one floor above, each medical function was divided, split into its most essential parts, and thus doled out in an extreme-looking fashion: a hypochondriachal orgy of pills, individually sealed into packets for different meal-times, embossed with helpful cartoon animals to remind me of the time of day.
I need to take 9 pills after dinner, you say? I barely cared. I felt taken care-of. Several of the nurses are apparently mothers of my students, which they seemed to debate for several minutes in Korean before asking me if I worked at my elementary school, and they all seemed at least vaguely disposed towards me upon confirmation. They spoke to me in my own language or, when they understandably couldn’t, buffered their own language with the kind of hand signalling I use with my students. I walked out, my head blasted free of all mucouses, with dozens of pills in my pocket, for less than the equivalent of 10 Canadian dollars. For all the time-travelling medical treatment and full-service obstacle course challenges I received, it was amazingly cheap. Bless you, Korean medicine.