3.4 Winter 2021-2022

February 3, Hospital merry go round

Jack, I, and all other contract employees have to submit a yearly health check to school. The test includes tuberculosis, HIV, and drugs. As if it’s even possible to get drugs in Korea. Marijauna use carries heavier penalties than assault.

I was nervous because it meant going to a Korean hospital that I don’t know. As you’re well aware, I can either have a wholly positive experience, or a terrible, tear-inducing experience. Or today, I found out I can have both!

Helen warned me before leaving that Korea has changed the COVID testing procedure given the uptick in omicron cases. As a result, anyone with symptoms is required to get a doctor’s note and a rapid test before using up government money on a PCR test. I don’t know what this means about close contact. If another students gets COVID, will the health center team come to the school and test us all like they’ve done the last seven times?

[Update: Abigail from the future will have to go back to this same hospital and pay $25 for a rapid test because some fourth graders tested positive.]

“Make sure you wear a KF94 mask, there will be a lot of people with fevers there.” She reminded me.

I had driven my car to school early so I could cut time and drive to the hospital, only to find at my requested leave time that my car was completely boxed in by a sleek white Lexus with no contact number in the window. I had a choice to call Helen and spend precious time investigating, or give up on driving and walk the ten minutes instead. My luck is that it would be the principal’s car anyway.

It was indicative of the chaos to follow.

First I went to the wrong hospital building and two nice ladies checking temperatures at the front directed me down the road to “the one across from Emart”.

The chaos truly began. The hosptial was small and winding; the front desk was unclear because what was actually the front of the building was unclear; I entered the main doors through the partially underground parking lot that was littered with COVID testing tents.

There was a front desk-looking window that was unmanned by the sole worker who carted someone away. I walked deeper into the bowels of the hospital and took a number from the pay station,. Was it right? Who knows! Better than doing nothing.

When I turned around, there was an information desk so I asked the woman there. Under my padded jacket I could feel the hospital’s maximum heating turn my armpits into swamps. The stress wasn’t helping.

“Oh, throw that slip of paper away. Just go to the second floor.” The woman said.

I went to the second floor, even more unmarked and narrow than the first, and wandered until a nurse took pity on me and directed me to go all the way to the end of the hall.

I found the “employee testing office” and pushed through the heavy glass doors. Three women of varying ages looked up at me from behind the fake wood desk.

“Um excuse me, I need to get testing done for employment.” I asked in Korean.

“Then you need to go down to the first floor and pay.” The oldest one said impatiently, as if fifty other foreigners had come through asking the same today.

I paused for a beat.


Then I paused again.

“They told me to come up here…” I added helplessly.

The oldest woman who had given me the directive just stared.

Fine, maybe she’s just having a bad day since now her workplace is overrun with antigen test seekers.

I went back to the elevator where a nurse took pity on me.

“They told me to come up here. But when I came up here, they told me to go to the first floor,” I whined.

She patted me sympathetically on the arm and then I realized she was the same woman from the info desk.

Thus I went back down to accounts payable, pulled a paper ticket just I had done ten minutes ago, and waited for one of the partitioned employees to call my number. I finally showed the sticky note written by the woman upstairs to this new woman downstairs. We made it through the interaction with rough understanding until the end. Something something “send you a message”. I looked at my phone where there was no message.

“Oh, I guess it’s hard to understand,” she said, not unkindly. I held back a groan of frustration and my rapidly deflating confidence. It’s hard to pick up on threads of conversation that start in the middle. Context is everything for a non-native speaker.

She pulled out her own phone and translated that the hospital would send a message when the results were out.

So. Again. I went back up to the second floor to start the battalion of tests.

I’m exhausted just typing this out.

I asked one of the women if I could leave my jacket and bag on the abandoned couch. The one who had grudglingly got up to help me said nothing.

Okay…? I dumped my stuff on the pleather pastel sofa and chalked it up to her also… maybe… having a bad day?

She took my basic measurements and gave me little warning before the height machine booped me on the head.

171 centimeters, it read.

Is it possible I’m getting shorter? Every time I have gotten my height taken at a Korean hospital, it has dropped 2 centimeters. Have I really shrunk two inches in the last three years? I don’t think so.

The silent young woman directed me towards a closed door where a doctor was sitting at a small desk. She paused in reading her novel, slid a laminated sheet towards me, then pointed soullessly to the top left box.

“Do you have LIVER PROBLEMS HIGH HEARTRATE DRUGS” It said. The other translations were in Russian, Vietnamese, and Chinese. I had a moment to wonder if other foreigners, all five of us, came to this hospital at all or if this was a formality.

She pointed to another box and asked a question in the most detached, monotone voice I’ve ever heard, then circled my answers on the testing paper.

I wasn’t even out the door before the novel was back in her hands.

The paper she wrote on I then had to take to the bathroom for a urine sample.

Now, in the US, urine sampling has a certain gravitas. Here, I found myself with an empty paper cup in the public bathroom completely at a loss of what to do. There was no box or shelf in the bathroom so I returned to the testing office to ask. Surely, I didn’t just carry a Solo cup of urine around the hospital?

The older woman from before looked at me unkindly and then pushed out of the office. “Follow the red lines to the bathroom and then go to the sampling room.” She said, pointing at the floor.

So I do just walk around the hospital with a cup of urine? Seems legit.

These women could not have been less helpful if they tried. On paper their behavior was exemplary, and I applaud them for the extreme grudging they were able to emanate while still upholding basic tenets of customer service. Their pettiness was next level. Brava.

In my haste I failed to notice there were two sets of red lines, so after the deed I did in fact wander around with a warm cup of urine until I found the sampling room, luckily manned by a busy but much kinder staff.

A phlebotomist motioned for me to put the cup in a metal tray with its other brothers and sisters. Then he gestured for me to sit down and began writing my name on impossibly small labels.

[Update: Abigail from the future will realize this man goes to the same gym. He will also be the man who takes her rapid test, because this hospital only has three employees apparently.]

He got around to poking me with a needle and then asked where my guide was.

I had the option for a guide???

“Um, I don’t have one,” I said and he genuinely looked shocked. Many thanks to him and the other lab workers who helped me find the last station for the health check– an extremely old fashioned way of testing for tuberculosis via x-ray.

I was so happy to see the x-ray team, a break from the crones on level 2, though the doctor looked too young to be wearing a white coat. One tech asked if I spoke Korean and we did the usual dance: “yes, I do but if you can speak English it’s more convenient for me” “oh I can’t speak English” “oh okay then”.

The hellish tirade ended there, finally, after I hugged a chest x-ray tripod and wondered why Korea hasn’t caught on to modern TB testing.

“Oh, my boyfriend,” I joked, clutching the giant white machine.

The too-young doctor ignored me.

Thanks to no one, the whole process went quickly and I found myself with an hour to kill before I had to be back at school to get my car. Sure, I could’ve just gone back to the office but… why? I already had the approved time off.

There on the corner was a bright white coffee shop that I had seen on my first day in town but hadn’t had the chance to visit. How serendipitous, because I ended up being in line with none other than Anthony.

“I’m so happy to see you!” I cried, shaking his arm in savage relief. Seeing any friendly face after a hospital visit that almost had me cry in frustration left me dizzy with happiness. My friend! The only person in town who understands my humor! A not mean nurse!

Finally I plopped down in a chair by the window. What sweet relief! The day was almost done!

The humorless older woman behind the counter, keeping with the theme I see, asked if Anthony was dining in.

“Just for a minute,” he replied which she shot down.

“If you’re dining in I have to give you your drink in a glass.”

I’ve never heard of that rule in my life and eavesdropped from my perch.

I swiveled around and told him to just head on out if it was too much trouble.

“Can I sit down with the plastic cup if I leave soon?” He asked, pointing to the already made iced coffee in her hand.

“No. I have to throw this cup out.”

What a bizarre policy. She presumably dumped the contents of the plastic cup into a glass because he soon appeared across from me an iced americano on a leaf shaped coaster.

Apart from the needlessly wasted to go cup, I was secretly glad he decided to stay and chat.

These chance but organic encounters, running into friends or students around town, give me incomparable joy. Is this what life was like every day before cell phones? Just finding friends in nooks and crannies?

“I heard that you have a boyfriend.” Anthony posed at present.

Everyone at the small school is a huge gossip so this didn’t surprise me, except for the fact that it was patently untrue. Did Yana get confused about my brief explanation of the navy date?

Now, alarms might be ringing in your head but if I had a dollar for every time Koreans asked me my relationship status and ideal age of marriage I’d be able to fund my cafe lifestyle.

I laughed. “No.”

It wasn’t until later I bolted upright in bed realizing this was a leading question. What perfect bait! I’m going to keep that for myself.

That was only a blip in a longer conversation: there was also student talk, stick versus manual debate, the unfairness of speed traps in Korea, and living situations.

“The walls are so thin at my apartment. I can hear my navy neighbor bring his friends home to talk at 11pm.”

“Does he have a girlfriend?” He asked, sharing my thoughts exactly.

I, Robot - GIF on Imgur

Can you imagine?

“No, thankfully! If he did, I’d have to, I don’t know, just move out.” I’m sorry but I hope he stays single. For my peace of mind and peaceful sleeping.

Our time ended with me needling him about the long forgotten promise of group sashimi.

“Okay when do you want to go? You, me and Jisoo should go together,” he proposed, kindly including extra female coworkers like last time, although it looks like Yana has been swapped out.

I need to go out with Yana at least once, but COVID variations keep kicking us in the kidneys.

“This month? Next month? April?” He asked.

Ah, the Korean way of setting up a time immediately. If you ever want to be vague about a “next time”, don’t try it on a Korean.

I proposed next month, when the new semester has started and the dust has settled from the end of year chaos.

The health check is complete and sashimi is on the books!

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