Things to Think about Before Having Surgery in Korea




A couple of months ago, I underwent surgery in Korea. Although I’m used to being a patient here, that was the first time I stayed in the hospital for what seemed like an eternity (a week, actually). Let me share my experience on being a foreign inpatient for those of you who may be contemplating on going under the knife in the Land of the Morning Calm.


If the surgery can wait, schedule it during vacation. In Korea, calling in sick for a day is like being guilty of a crime. What more if you’re going to miss work for days? If you’re going to undergo a medical procedure that may require you longer time to recover, you MUST ask for a leave a month ahead to give your company time to get someone to stand in for you. It’s not odd at all if your boss asks you to look for a substitute, especially if you work as a teacher. I’ve done this a few times during my hospital visits. If you say you’re going to resume work after a week, you have to keep your word. It’s better to extend the time of recovery your doctor gave you and get enough rest than have to call your boss again and say that you’re not ready to go back to work. I remember that time when I suffered from severe backpain and had to call in sick, my wonjangnim was furious! She called me up to say I had to go to work no matter what. I was in the hospital, and my boss kept berating me on the phone. She hung up on me as I was explaining. The next day, my condition got worse that I couldn’t even stand up. I had to call her again to say that I couldn’t go to work, but she wouldn’t listen even when I challenged her to call the hospital. I quit that hagwon before deciding to have surgery. My oncologist said that I could return to work a week after the operation, but I wasn’t sure if I would be physically and mentally ready after just a few days, so I took a month-long leave from the hagwon. In the school, however, I resumed work after two weeks, because I didn’t inform them about the surgery and I had English Camp to facilitate.


The initial plan was to have my mom fly to Korea, so she could care for me, but my husband was able to ask for a leave, so he took the responsibility of being my caregiver. Lately, I’ve seen a number of Korean inpatients who have no family member or a friend attending to them. Korea is a busy country with busy working people who barely have time to breathe, so sometimes family members will just visit and leave the patient under the care of nurses. When my father-in-law had an operation, no one stayed with him in the hospital. (Everyone in the family works fulltime.) We only visited him and brought him everything he needed. Sometimes my mother-in-law would cook him dinner or bring his favorite banchan (side dishes) and stay with him for hours, but she never slept at the hospital room with him. When my husband underwent surgery, I insisted that I stay with him overnight, but he declined. He said sleeping in the hospital would be too uncomfortable for me, because he won’t be the only patient in the room. Most inpatients here stay in the wards, because Korea’s National Health Insurance does not cover upgrades like having private rooms. I was willing to pay for my own room. (I have a private insurance and I really value my comfort.) Unfortunately, there was neither a private nor a semiprivate room available, so I had to stay in the ward with six other patients. I was more anxious of being in the ward than the surgery itself, because I thought I wouldn’t have much privacy, but it wasn’t so bad. The curtain around my bed was huge enough to cover my place and the room wasn’t packed to the gills. We were four patients in the room. Other patients arrived later. My bed was near the bathroom, so I didn’t have to walk far every time I had to use the toilet. The only issue I had was the noise. Sometimes I would be awakened by one of the patients’ whining. One of the attending family members coughed and spit incessantly in the middle of the night. (He seemed more ill than any of the patients in the room.) The girl next to me went through the same surgery that I had, and she was miserable when she woke up. She cried a lot during her first day post-op. I knew how painful the first couple of hours can be when the medicine wears off, and you have to fight off your sleepiness, because you’re instructed to stay awake. I asked my husband to get her a stuffed toy, and I gave it to her. I told her the pain would soon go away. Before I left the hospital, she gave me a thank-you letter and a box of macarons.

There was also the janitress, an ajumma (middle-aged woman), who cursed every time she was cleaning the bathroom. One day, she threw a fit because she had to unclog the toilet and clean the flooded bathroom. (All the patients in that room had to take laxatives before surgery, so you can just imagine the toilet being a fecal matter war zone!) To everyone’s astonishment, the ajumma kicked one of the unused IV stands left near the bathroom, and it landed right in my bed. I swear I would’ve lost it if that IV stand hit me! No one reasoned with her. I wish I did. (Anywhere you go, beware of angry ajummas… even in places like the hospital where people should have more compassion.)

If you can speak fluent Korean, you will be all right without a caregiver as there are many friendly and kind nurses who will attend to you, but if you can scarcely speak the language, I suggest you have a friend who can speak Korean help you out. Maybe your friend can stay with you until you wake up from the surgery. Before you have the procedure, you’re going to be asked a series of questions (about your medical background) and sign an agreement and/or consent. My level of Korean is intermediate, but there were still some things that were not clear to me when the nurses were explaining preoperative procedures. I asked if they could give me an English-translated copy of the paper they asked me to read, but they said they have it only in Korean. It came as a surprise to me, because the hospital where I was admitted is one of the biggest and most prominent hospitals in Seoul, and it even has an International Healthcare Center, but even the foreigners’ desk could not provide me with an English-translated copy. All of the papers they handed me and the waivers I signed were in Korean. I had to rely on my little knowledge of the language and my Korean husband’s help. Most doctors and nurses will try to speak to you in English if you tell them that you don’t understand Korean. My Korean is good enough to talk to the nurses, but my husband urged me to speak in English to avoid misunderstanding.

If you don’t have a Korean friend or someone who can speak Korean well to assist you, don’t fret. Most big hospitals in Korea have International Healthcare Centers. In Seoul National University Hospital (SNUH), for instance, you can ask for an English-speaking volunteer to guide you.


Normally, doctors in Korea don’t spend a lot of time explaining to their patients everything they need to know about their surgery. Doctors here are not used to being bombarded with questions. Some may even find it offensive. You are, however, their patient, and it’s your right to feel confident about the surgery they’re going to perform on you, so even when you notice your doctor fidgeting or scowling, ask, ask, ask. I suggest you make a list of things you’d like to ask your doctor prior to your procedure and make the talking concise.

Also, I made it a habit to ask the nurses what medicine they were giving me or injecting into my IV. Some of them would just hand you medicine without informing you what it’s for.


You may find it awkward to have another patient in the room waiting for his turn as your doctor is discussing your diagnosis or treatment plan with you, but believe me, that patient doesn’t give a damn. Korean hospitals don’t have the same privacy that we enjoy in our home country, something we have to get used to. I recall one time when the nurse had to empty my bladder after surgery. There was another patient in the room who was going to be next, and only a thin cubicle curtain separated us from each other. The patient was a woman, so I didn’t mind it that much. Besides, I had similar experiences in other hospitals. I’ve gotten used to this culture somehow.

When I was wheeled into the waiting room, I was stunned to see other patients, both men and women, who were lined up in stretchers, prepped for surgery. My husband was allowed to stay with me while I was in the waiting room. He was the only family member there.

Being alone in a foreign country when you are sick can be daunting, especially when you have to undergo a serious medical procedure. I’m fortunate enough to have a caring husband who never left my side, but if you have to face the surgery alone, you don’t have to worry. Korea offers excellent medical care despite some peculiarities in its hospital culture. You’ll be in good hands. You’re going to be all right. I will never forget the kindness shown to me by the nurses and how well they took care of me even when I had my caregiver. After the surgery, I woke up in the recovery room and I felt a gentle hand wiping the tears from my face. I thought it was my husband, but I realized later on that it was a nurse. I was crying not because of pain, but because I lost something important to me, a part of who I am as a woman. That nurse stayed by my side to try to comfort me until I was brought back to my room.


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