I do not like hospitals. I never have, and probably never will. I’ve also never understood the architecture of most hospitals. It’s as if the fear of dying or having some disease is simply not enough and the architects said, “Hey, let’s add the ugliest and most unfortunate shades of grey, yellow or brown, harsh lighting and mountains of starchy fabric in the form of pillow cases, sheets, nurse uniforms etc, AND make them colossal and impossibly hard to navigate!” The “information” desks are always put into some less than ideal corner and the maps are often giant blocks of color that mean absolutely nothing unless you search out the 2nd “wall” map telling you what each color means.

And actually this is probably where my biggest problem with most hospitals lies. I tend to get lost in them.  Well, in all truth, I tend to get lost within 5 inches of anywhere, but in hospitals it’s a given. Leave me in a hospital, armed with any and all sorts of directions and I will, inevitably, get lost.

Combine this propensity for easily getting lost with the leaving of me in a foreign hospital full of signs I cannot read along with people I cannot understand/who cannot understand me… and you’ve got the recipe for one of the more arduous experiences I’ve had since arriving in South Korea.

This morning the director of my school took me to the hospital for the “medical check” necessary for sustaining my visa.  I was already somewhat nervous about the “getting a medical check in another country” part and what that entails, but I figured I’d just get through it and be done.

As previously stated hospitals already confuse me, and this Korean hospital was LARGE and full of signs in Hangeul. It was also full of distracting oddities such as people selling shoes in the hallways, so when we arrived I found most of my attention captured by things going on around me and was not taking note of the path we were taking.  I also assumed I’d be led wherever I needed to go as this is how it’s been since I arrived, whether I always want it or not.

However, Mr. Lee did not seem to know where we were going either so we spent quite a bit of time wandering 3 floors and asking various people at desks where we should be.  This further muddled even my vaguest notion of where we’d started and were now ending up.

Upon finally locating the correct desk Mr. Lee informed me the principal was supposed to meet me but was running late. He then explained he had to leave and I should wait for her. I definitely did not have any intentions of wandering about and also did not have the first clue as to what was expected of me so I sat down and proceeded to “wait” until I was brought out of my sleepy reverie at the sound of “Sumo?… Sumo?” (which is how almost everyone here pronounces my name).

I looked up, realized the man at the front desk was gesturing to me and made my way forward. I was then informed I would need to visit the cashier’s desk to pay, go to the x-ray area and then head back to this location for the remaining procedures.  And by “informed” I mean they had to say this about 5 times in choppy half sentences and various gestures before I caught on to what they were saying. It then also dawned on me that I was going to have to do this alone since my “companion” had deserted me.

After further gesturing and bewildered looks on my part, (I think they realized there was no one to help me out) the lady behind the counter took pity and led me to the “cashier” area where I could pay for the check up. She then pointed at a seat to wait for the cashier, said something to the equivalent of “after pay x-ray 1st floor, next find me” and smiled. I said “sure” (while inwardly screaming “I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?” and attempted a smile and a half nod, which I’m sure made me look more queasy than anything and… she left.

…. Now of all the things I imagined happening during this medical check I did not anticipate wandering about this intensely large hospital, trying to find the stations I ought to be at based on what I “guessed/hoped” was told to me.  Nor did I anticipate I would be going through x-rays, getting my blood drawn and other procedures without anyone to translate what they were saying to me.  Of all the ways to make a hospital visit more terrifying… try going through one where you can understand about 3 of the words being said to you.

And to top that off I had about 3 minutes left on my pre-paid cell phone so using that was not an option as eventually I would need it to locate my principal and get out of there!

So…. I took a big breath and sat down. Upon further inspection of the location I realized there were little neon signs above each desk, flashing numbers. This was actually something I recognized and it occurred to me that I’d probably have to acquire one of those numbers in order to visit the cashier desk. And so I got up and successfully hunted down the number dispensing machine, waited for my number to be called, handed over the paper filled with NOTHING that I could read, (for all I knew it could have said I was getting my left leg and a kidney removed) and paid my fee.

That was the easy part. I was now supposed to find the “x-ray” area… somewhere. Now if this part of the event were being shown on CSI or some other detective show, the screen would freeze on a close up of my eyes and turn into a fuzzy memory of past events, because suddenly I remembered that during the previous “wandering” done with Mr. Lee we had stopped at one desk and I’d heard the lady say “x-ray.” Thanks to spending 4 weeks with very little English spoken to me, my ear now catches anything and everything remotely understandable thrown it’s way. And luckily it caught that particular word.

On a small sidenote, I’d like to say that people have been making fun of my “way” of finding places for a long time. I tend to give directions through landmarks or odd looking things (i.e. Go past the twisty bridge and take a left after the tree that looks like Elvis’s head.)  And while I realize that normally the photographic memory tool IS a silly way to find anything , it’s been working for me for 25 years and today it was my lifesaver.  I am proud to say I proceeded to FIND that x-ray desk based on the brief 13 seconds of memory I possessed in which we had mistakenly walked up to it.

I then managed to figure out what they wanted me to do based on more choppy half sentences and made my back to point A. And to my delight I made it back there without a hitch, once again based on previous sights.

It is now my firm belief that anyone wishing to find a cure for their fear of needles should be dropped off at a foreign hospital and forced to traverse the halls alone, while following directions for various medical tests made almost entirely from gestures for an hour. Because, believe me, after that harrowing experience, the sight of a needle plunging into your arm is much less frightening.

But I survived. And after a lovely lunch of “mandoo” bought by my principal,  sitting in the sanctity of a coffee shop while writing this,  I am actually quite proud of myself. It may not sound as dramatic as it felt but it was an experience I am glad to have had. I also have a feeling hospital visits in the US are going to be far less daunting to me now…. 😉