When a Waegook Visits the Doctor in Korea
Six months ago, I was successfully vaccinated against Hepatitis A. At least partially.
“Come back in six months,” Dr. Won told me. “For second shot.”
Today, I returned. The waiting room was packed with old women and children. There were shoes strewn about the entryway, and nearly all of the slippers were in use. I managed to find a pair and approached the reception desk.
Operation: Ignore the Foreigner
“Hello,” I said, in Korean.
The receptionist stared at me.
She blinked, saying nothing.
“Uh,” I said, scrambling for my notebook. “Kan yeom? Hepatitis A, second time?” For some reason I make everything a question when I try to speak Korean.
“Oh,” she said, nodding her head and reverting to her original plan, which was to ignore me completely. Confused, I sat on a cushion directly in her line of sight. She wasn’t pulling the ‘invisible foreigner’ trick today, not on me.
Several minutes later, the receptionist called one of the nurses in the back. I heard the word ‘waegookin’ (foreigner) in urgent, hushed tones.
They both peeked over the desk, saw that I was looking, and immediately broke into nervous giggles. After some more awkward whispering, the nurse called me up.
She handed me a registration slip and almost fainted when I was able to read the words, “name,” “phone number,” and “address.”
My Korean skills are pretty basic, but this ain’t my first rodeo, lady.
The Doctor Will See You Now
I sat in the examination chair, which was exactly like one you’d find in a dentist’s office.
The doctor looked at me expectantly.
“Hello,” I said.
He responded by raising his eyebrows.
Oh. I guess it was up to me to speak. “Um. Hepatitis A, second shot?”
“Ah. Yes.” Finally! Recognition. “When did you have the first shot?”
He didn’t miss a beat. “And where did you have the shot?”
“Here,” I said. “Yeogi.”
The doctor peered over his glasses, like I was making up stories. “Here?”
“Yes, here.” I know doctors are busy people, but surely this conversation would jog his memory. There are only about 20 foreigners in the whole town, and I’m fairly confident they don’t frequent his practice.
“Hmm,” he said. “You do need the Hepatitis A shot in Asia.”
Yes. Well. That’s why I was there.
This Will Hurt
The nurse showed me to the vaccination room and sifted through piles of medicine in the refrigerator before selecting what I hope was the Hep A vaccine. She handed the needle to the doctor and hovered next to him.
“Little bit of pain, maybe,” the doctor said, pinching the skin around my left shoulder. I focused on the poster to my right.
It hurt, just like the first one.
But unlike during the first one, I started to feel faint. The edges of my vision blackened, and everything sounded like it was happening outside of a bubble. I broke into a cold sweat.
“Lie down,” I said, pitching forward. “I have to lie down.” The world went black for a split second, and when I came to, it felt like I was swimming.
The doctor was horrified.
“You feel nauseous?” he asked. “Can you see? Vision is black?”
“I can see. Nauseous. Dizzy,” I mumbled from my crumpled heap on the bed.
He and the nurse tried to conceal their panic. I was holding up everything – if I didn’t get out of the vaccination room, the next patient couldn’t come in. If the doctor was trying to fix me, he couldn’t see anyone else. Children screamed from the other side of the door.
“Please,” he said. “Lie down. I will be back in a few minutes.”
When he returned, I was sitting up, trying to quell the waves of dizziness that refused to go away. The doctor diagnosed me with an inner ear problem and politely tried to prescribe me medicine. I declined.
“Okay,” he said, visibly relieved. “If you have any problems in the future, please consult your doctor.”
i.e., please don’t come back and pass out in my office again.
A Hasty Retreat
I composed myself long enough to lurch over to the water machine in the waiting room.
As I slopped water down my front because of the stupid origami cups I had to use, I became aware that the receptionist was waiting for me to check out. It was another five minutes of water-spilling, hanging my head between my legs, and ajummas staring at me before I managed to get to the desk.
“Pail-ship won,” she said. What the – ? Eighty thousand won?? Again? I had been under the false impression that the 80,000 won was a one-off payment that covered both injections.
I was wrong.
My options were limited: dispute the bill while trying not to faint, or pay the bill and get the heck out of there.
I think everyone was glad when I left.