Monday, January 6, 2014

First Winter Ordeals in Korea: In Which Steph Gets Mysteriously Misdiagnosed With Bird Flu and Receives Her First IV Drip

I had been warned by numerous parties in the months leading up to this: my first winter in Korea would be particularly vicious upon my immune system. I was told stories of perfectly healthy twenty-somethings who, within a month of arriving in Korea, came down with the most serious illnesses of their lives. We're talking hospitalization, everything. Good thing health care in Korea is so affordable!

The weekend before Christmas, I came down with spectacular symptoms. Sore throat, throbbing sinuses, inner ear pain, headaches, full body aches... you name it, I most likely had it. Stupidly I struggled through the weekend, pretending that it was just a temporary dip in my health. But Monday dawned, and it had been over 24 hours since I had slept well and eaten more than a few spoonfuls of stuff, and I decided, fine, I'd go to a local health clinic, get some antibiotics, and beat this illness to the ground.

A dear but unfortunate friend of mine accompanied me to the clinic. It's a good thing she agreed to come with me, too, because in addition to the language barrier, I was totally not myself. Lights looked weird and buildings were kind of wavering in my vision. I decided to conserve my energy and focus on my hot, uneven breaths making their way in, out past my ravaged throat.

The doctor at the clinic announced that I had a high fever, so he couldn't give me any antibiotics until I had first brought the fever down, which would take a day or two. (In retrospect: HAH!) I zombied over to an examination room, where a nurse told me that I'd get a shot that would help decrease my body temperature... a shot in my butt. Yes, I live in a culture where butt shots are commonly prescribed. Something about the shots being more effective sooner.

This is where things go a bit fuzzy.

The nurse told me I'd be getting a butt shot, and the next thing I knew, my world had shrunk to the wall I was clinging to as a wave of dizziness crashed over me and flung me around. I couldn't draw enough breath into my lungs. I didn't know which way was up and which was down. I'm not sure how long I lasted that way, seconds, minutes, hours, but when I finally came back to my head I was lying on the examination table and the shot had been administered. I dimly had felt two people heaving me onto the table, felt someone unbutton my jeans for me. (Afterwards, my friend joked, "I feel bad that I kind of took advantage of you. I feel like I should've wine-and-dined you first.") But the resounding thought that was in my head--indeed, the thought that would haunt my mind for the next few days--was that I just wanted to be left alone so I could cry angry tears over how I hate not being able to control my body, to will away any ill health.

Anyway, stuff continued to happen. My friend informed me that, after hearing that I had been to Taiwan the previous weekend to visit relatives, the doctor said that I might have avian bird flu, and so I should go to the hospital across the river. (In retrospect: WHAT IN THE H---.) In the hospital: hours of bureaucracy and procedures to follow. Leaning against walls or lying down whenever I could. Meanwhile, stumbling wherever my friend led me and thinking, melodramatically, "Is this death? I think death might be preferable to this."

Anyway, I can't even make the hospital procedure part sound interesting for this blog post. To make a too-long story short, eventually I was able to see a doctor, who made a funny face at being told that the first doctor thought I had bird flu (at which point the first doctor was promptly nicknamed The Quack Doctor. I mean, bird flu, really? Did he think that Taiwan is all farmland and I was playing with my family's chickens on my ancestral farm?), made an even funnier sound upon looking at my throat (hah hah), and then finally, finally prescribed me an IV. Oh, the relief. Not that I crave IV drips like people often do in China, who, when they feel even the slightest bit under the weather, rush off to the hospital and get hooked up. It's just that at that point I was feeling seriously dehydrated and weak from not eating. I was drinking fluids aplenty, but the moment any swallow passed, with difficulty, past my throat, my tongue shriveled up into a desert again and I was fairly panting with thirst. That, plus the no-appetite thing, actually made me appreciative of Asia's penchant for prescribing IV drips to ill patients.

Here is a random picture of it snowing in Seoul, because. Um, 'tis the season?

I thought it'd be too Generation Me-Me-Me of me to take a selfie while hooked up to the IV, so unfortunately I have no pictures of the now-memorable incident. But there I was, a contraption taped to my arm (I have a thing with needles and fainting so I didn't look too closely), trying to distract myself from the fact that, right before me, some unnatural fluid the yellow of semi-unhealthy piss was flowing into me. Around me were the rattling coughs of octogenarians, the nasally voices of the same octogenarians yapping to the nurses, the darkly funny trill of someone's "Dancing Queen" ringtone going off beyond the plastic curtains around my bed.

Before, I had this conception that an IV drip was a miracle medicine, a legal sort of steroid that would have me bouncing out of the hospital bed, ripping out the needles, and skipping towards the door. Yeah, no. Sure, it brought me from 10% (on blackout's door) to around 30% (limbs have stopped shaking, though still weak), which was good, and got me home, and made ever optimistic me think that I was on the track to recovery... and then the next day I was promptly back on the hospital bed, with IV Drip #2 in my arm.

I'm still on the road to recovery, I think, but at this point I'm closer to the end than the beginning. I never received an official diagnosis (language barriers, y'all), but I'm pretty sure I had a nasty combination of the flu plus a throat infection. Hmm. Sounds about right. My sense of taste still feels a bit off, but I believe I am consuming an acceptable amount of food now.

But enough is enough. The point really isn't anything deep like how punishing Korean winters can be, or how accessible Korean health care is. It's just that I had a story about my life in Seoul that I wanted to share. And that may bode well for the future of my blogging.


  1. Feel better, Steph! Your ordeal was long and at least in the end, you're on the road to recovery!

  2. I'm glad you're feeling better! Nothing sucks worse than being sick, especially when you're having trouble eating and drinking. (It starts to make you think so slow on top of everything else.)

  3. Jeez, that sounds horrible! At least it sounds like you're getting better though - keep it up! :) And thanks for sharing; it's always interesting to hear about your life abroad.

  4. Oh my goodness, hope you're back to 100 percent soon. That sounds very scary and overwhelming, and thank goodness you had a friend with you to help.

  5. That is horrible! I would be such a wimp and definitely a lot of crying on my end and wanting to go home. Glad you are feeling better though!

  6. I can relate a bit. I went on vacation in Iran when I was a kid, and I got sick, as in vomit everything I ate sick. They told me it was because I ate cream pastry, which is ridiculous because I only had like two and my mom had over a handful and she was completely fine. Anyway, I don't generally get sick, and they forced the butt needle (I think I blacked out...) and gave me an IV too. I magically improved though. It's my only time ever with an IV... and I've never been that sick before, or after. Weird. It's an awful experience being sick in a foreign country, but hopefully your immune system gains from it!


  7. Man, that sounds like quite the experience. I'm sorry that you've been feeling unwell, but I appreciate you sharing your story with us! It's interesting to hear about the different standard medical practices in different countries. I hope you feel completely better very soon.

  8. Oh, Lord! You poor girl! Thank goodness you had a fabulous friend to be there for you because getting sick sucks enough without getting death's door sick in a foreign country with a language barrier sick. Stay warm, get well soon and drink plenty of fluids! *hugs*

  9. Oh! While I am glad to hear you feel a tad better, let's hope you'll be back to 100% really quick. Take care Steph!

  10. This story is scary. But I'm glad you are doing okay, Steph. It sounds like it's a journey that gave you a lot of understanding in random areas that may become useful someday. At the very least, it's an adventure that you are able to share. Maybe not a reassuring adventure regarding your health, but an adventure none the less. :)

  11. Whoa! That sounds like a very scary ordeal indeed. I'm glad you had a friend who accompanied you to the clinic and the hospital, and helped make sure you got the right care for your condition. Being sick like that during such cold weather sounds terrible. I hope that you're feeling better now! (Oh, and at least you can mark this down as an adventure...?)

  12. WOW! Hope you're continuing to fell better!

  13. Poor you! I hope you're feeling better now. It is fascinating how different countries respond to medical issues. You'd think it was all about science but it's just as much culture, politics and health insurance. It's a terrifying experience getting ill while abroad. I feel for you.


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