Thursday, January 27, 2011

Adventures in a Korean Hospital: Part 8 - Back Home

Today was actually really hard. As mentioned in my previous post, things made a definite turn for the better after my frustrating test day on Monday. Last night, and on into this early afternoon, our room was like a big love-in. That made it really hard to leave.

It wasn’t all love though. There is one other Haliboji in the room (let’s call him Haoliboji #2), who I hadn’t mentioned at all before. He had been a mostly grumpy and stand-offish character the whole week, and it didn’t help that he was directly across from me. It was unpleasant.

Still, I give him the benefit of the doubt. The man always had bandages hanging off of his neck and arms and he looked not simply “near death”, but magnetically drawn to it. He was in rough shape. I had a hard time sympathizing with this man though as he seemed to mistreat his ajuma constantly (let’s call her Ajuma #3). She was of the curly-haired/heavy make-up ajuma group, and I can honestly say that I never once heard either of them utter one word to each other. He treated her very rudely and seemed to resent her presence, and she responded by applying more foundation and lipstick.

Well, today, Haliboji #2’s ajuma left. She packed-up her overnight bag and make-up kit and made her way out of the room, saying goodbye to us, but not to her Haliboji.
It turns out I judged the situation all wrong. I get all the dirt from Ajuma #4, you see, filtered through the rabbit’s translation. Turns out that Ajuma #3 was Haloboji #2’s third ajuma over the last couple of weeks. The dude goes through them like kleenex, and now he was moving on to a new ajuma who would be arriving that afternoon. Apparently, he got rid of this one by telling her that his family would be with him for the rest of his time. Unfortunately, the recently let-go Ajuma #3 ran into the new recruit in the hallway and learned the truth. Haliboji #2 just isn’t easily satisfied.

Ajuma #4 has a different take on the whole thing:

(Loosely as translated through the rabbit)

Ajuma #4: “That ajuma (Ajuma #3) was not a good ajuma. She was never smiling and she didn’t like to talk. She only liked putting on make-up and she never washed her haliboji. You HAVE TO wash your haliboji! Look at him – his hair stands-up like a chicken and he probably smells bad. I always wash my haliboji. I MUST! If I don’t, he will smell and I can’t have this bad smell. It’s not fair to me or to my haliboji.”

As she said this, her haliboji (#1) listened and nodded with understanding. Haliboji #2 (looked-on with disgust).

I guess I have to agree with Ajuma #4. Ajuma #4, you see, takes absolutely zero crap from anyone – even when she’s holding the bedpan. If her haliboji doesn’t want to wake-up for breakfast, then the whole hospital wing is going to hear about it. He’s not in the mood for a sponge-bath? Not for long. Ajuma #4 can’t abide by lazy ajumas who don’t wash their halibojis and who can blame her? She’s got a tough job. Families who can’t be there for the bedside care of an elder 24/7 hire these ajumas to pretty-much live in the hospital for who knows how long. It can’t be an easy thing for either party. Who wants to suffer the indignity of being an 83 year-old incontinent former school principal and having a very in-your-face stranger tell you that it’s time to roll-over because it will help the bowel-movement ease into the bedpan? She’s hardly quiet about it. From her side, well, not only is she the one holding the bed pan, but her job is basically to live in a hospital with very ill people, going home only on Saturdays or for times when the patient’s family agrees to be there in her stead. In retrospect, it’s a minor miracle that more ajuma/patient relationships don’t end in mutual bloodshed.

Anyway, today I had my I.V. taken out and I made my way to the shower where I scrubbed-down in the patient-safe lukewarm water for the last time and got back into my street clothes for the first time in a week. When I got back to my room, all ajumas, ajushis and halibojis were pretty excited about my new appearance. They told me I was “handsome”, “beautiful”, and “sexy music”, which is always good to hear.
Thankfully, due to some other hospital business, I had a couple of extra hours to kill until it was time to go.

I remember my mom, when her and my dad made spent a day with my friend, Tanya, here in Seoul a year and a bit ago, bursting into tears when she realized that it may be the last time she would meet Tanya. They had a spent an amazing day together – Tanya taking the day off work to show my parents around – and my mom was suddenly overwhelmed with gratefulness for Tanya’s kindness, and the thought of impending loss of a new friend. Living half-way across the world just cuts-back on the probability of future meetings.

In a lot of ways, I’m like my dad, and in others, I’m like my mom. From the time I woke-up this morning, I was excited about going, but also dreading the goodbyes. The last two hours passed with a lot of laughs, and a lot of photos. Everyone, it seems, has become a Mukmuk fan in the past week, and they all wanted a photo – even Haliboji #2’s new ajuma. I had my photo taken with Haliboji #1, and when he saw the playback on my camera, he uttered his first English word since my stay began: “Nice!”
Today, before I left, I hugged all of the people in the room and exchanged email addresses with everyone who wanted to have their photo with Mukmuk sent to them – nurses and doctors included.

In a place where we all, regardless of our age, end-up feeling a bit like Charlie Bucket’s grandparents, it’s hard not to become close – despite the high probability of stepping on each other’s toes.

Today, one of my roommates received some hard news: that a cancer had returned and spread to his lymph nodes. He seemed to have no concept of how dire the news was, but was reading our faces and it soon started to sink-in. Everyone to a man (and woman) did their best to encourage him until his meeting with a specialist in the afternoon. It’s amazing, really – up until about three days ago, none of us had barely spoken to each other unless absolutely necessary.

I said goodbye to each person in the room and wished them luck. After signing-out downstairs and paying for my stay and the new meds, the rabbit pointed-out that she still had Ajuma #4’s pen. She suggested that I return it and it would give them all a nice surprise. I couldn’t do it though – apparently this hospital stay did absolutely nothing to toughen me up. I don’t want to be a teary foreigner when I had apparently and unwittingly already done so much to give the room a favourable impression of tall white people with “high noses”. The pen stayed on the 1st floor and will be easily replaced. Knowing Ajuma #4 as I do, she likely stole it from an orderly anyway.
I’m now home with the rabbit and enjoying some delicious Duen-jeong jiggae and we’re about to sit down to watch a Korean movie she’s been wanting to show me for a while. It’s called The Man From Nowhere. I’m looking forward to it.

Here are some photos of the friends I made last week. I wonder what they are up to tonight.

Me - trying to break the ice on day 2 with some pound cake.

Receiving my last injection of antibiotics through the I.V.

With Ajuma #4 as Haliboji #1 looks-on.

People I will miss.

Haliboji #1.

Dr. Robyn Kim.

The nurse who wanted to know how many bowel movements I had each day.

My rabbit and I.


Tuttle said...


This has been an amazing series of posts! First of all, your attitude has been... well, better than mine would have been I'm sure!... and humorously analytical. Wonderful. The Golden Klog needs a category just for this!

Second, I want to know what to do about cellulitis before it gets too bad. I think I have it (and probably caught from you!)

When you mentioned the Charlie grandparents, I've got to say I had already been picturing that from your earlier descriptions.

I am glad to hear you are back to...well, as normal as possible for you...and I hope you've learned your lesson about exercise and vegetarianism!

A few grammar notes: "I remember my mom, when her and my dad" should be "when SHE"; the English word for "gratefulness" is actually "gratitude"; there are almost no occasions when "word-word" is prefered to "word word".

Sorry you're going to miss Thailand, I'll be there from the 8th to the 20th, mostly at Koh Samui I think. Or if that doesn't suit, someplace even more laconic.

So these additional ajummas are pretty much private nurses hired by the sick person or family? No wonder they stride in like they own the place--they have the experience! Wonder what they charge?

Finally: "probably"?

Douglas said...

Looks like you really made the best out of an uncomfortable (for lack of a better word) situation. You learned a bit about the Korean health care system, about other people, probably about yourself as well.

I can't imagine how that one guy feels after discovering the re-occurrence of the cancer. Sorts of puts things in perspective and lessens your own suffering.

George Bailey Sees The World! said...

Absolutely true, Douglas. The whole experience just makes me feel more lucky than anything.

Steve - I appreciate the edits. I really need an editor. Of course, you've been an English teacher for 20 more year than I have, so give me some time :)

Glad you boys stuck it out and read the entire Odyssey. I enjoyed writing it, and it helped to keep me sane and to keep things in perspective.