South Korea: How to get through Seoul on crutches

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Accidents happen. They can happen in a far away country where you have little to no knowledge of the medical system – like me.

Getting around South Korea on crutches is hard, but doable. You will get stared at, even more so than a foreigner would have been stared at before. One time a little boy ran up to me and pointed at my foot in shock, then touched my crutches, seemingly amazed by them. It was then that I realized that I hadn’t seen anyone else on crutches in Seoul, or even anyone else who had an apparent injury.

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To preface – I was playing pick up basketball on some outside courts at Yonsei University, I had only been in for barely a minute when I got hit from behind and my ankle crumbled beneath me. I heard felt it pop twice and knew, shit, I definitely did something to it.

Korea has amazing hospitals, with huge, clean, and very high-tech facilities. Getting in, I got a wheelchair and a boy I had been playing with offered to take me to get checked in. He spoke a little Korean and I didn’t.

We were pointed in the direction of the ER and only had to wait 5 minutes for a translator to come down and check us in. The ER at Severance Hospital was much less chaotic than American ones and my wait time for everything was never more than 20 minutes. Honestly though, I think that might’ve been because I was a foreigner as I saw many people waiting longer than me. I was also the only foreigner and EVERYONE stared hardcore at me.

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For some reason, the translator left and assumed I would get along fine. Aaron, the guy who was helping me, said he would stay and help me instead. He stayed with me through two X-rays and a CT scan, and finally the diagnosis that I had fractured my foot. He then had to witness me crying at the news and tried to calm me down by talking about NBA teams and the Warriors while I got a splint. He was honestly a superhero to me that night, as he stayed with me from 9:30 pm – 4 am and even paid one of my three bills for me as my credit card went over its balance. Obviously I paid him back when I could but even so I could not imagine getting through that night without him.

The doctors themselves were either very nice but tentative to talk to me because they were worried about their English, or they were irritated with me that I couldn’t speak Korean and would be obviously cranky with me when I couldn’t understand them. They told me to use crutches and wear a boot for two days until my next appointment.

(Below, me at Nami Island in a wheelchair and with my cast wrapped in plastic because of rain)

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For my next appointment, I went with a representative from CIEE, the program I went through to come to Yonsei. I got another X-ray and waited to see the specialist. He talked in Korean to the representative and she told me that it was a fracture as he showed it to me on a screen. I had researched fractures the day before and knew that I needed a walking boot and should use my crutches still. So I asked where I would get it, to which I got a confusing answer.

He told me it was a fracture, but I could walk on it and didn’t need crutches, only a pathetic little sandal with velcro. I was obviously confused and challenged this idea, saying that it still hurt and how could a post-operation shoe give it the support it needed? Both took this as a criticism against Korean healthcare and insisted that the shoe was American, therefore it was ok for me to use it.

No matter how much I protested, the language barrier and their insistence was too strong. I ended up with the stupid shoe and an ace bandage that I held onto from the splint. I kept the crutches too and called my mom right afterwards, telling her what happened. She asked for the CT scans and X-rays to be sent over to her so another doctor could look at them, which for some reason was nearly impossible for them to do! CIEE didn’t help at all until my mother sent two emails insisting that they help – to which they replied with attitude but eventually succumbed and helped.

After Facetiming with a podiatrist that my mom was friends with, we concluded that it was indeed a fracture and that I although I was denied a walking boot, I would use an ankle brace and the crutches until my mother and sister came out to meet me for our already-planned vacation at the end of my semester.

(Below, a picture of a video of my foot that I sent to the USA. You can’t really see the injury from this image but the technology is cool)

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Thinking back on it, I’m still most mad on how dismissive the doctor was of me and how little he took my worries into consideration. Also, when he finally spoke to me and not the CIEE representative, I realized he spoke near-perfect English! Why then would he not speak to me, the patient, directly? During the appointment he never once looked at my foot to see the bruising and swelling and didn’t ask about my pain. After his diagnosis, he didn’t even tell me how I should treat the foot afterwards – like icing, elevating, etc. To me, it was one of the most unprofessional doctors I had ever been to and I was furious that they didn’t take the patient’s worries and thoughts into consideration. After calling the podiatrist, she said it was idiotic that the doctor told me to walk on it without crutches and without a supportive boot, especially knowing that I’m an athlete.

Finishing up the semester in crutches, I started talking about my experience with another guy in CIEE who was Korean-American. He had been born in Korea and when he was a child, he had contracted a form of malaria that the Korean doctors dismissed as nothing more than a fever. After two more visits to the doctor and being rejected with no sign of it getting better, his father had insisted on them admitting him into the hospital for more tests – where of course they finally realized he had malaria. But it was too late, his vision was forever impaired and he is legally blind without his glasses.

He said that Korean doctors are held in an extreme high regard and are never sued because of the high cost and their prestige. This means that their actions are never kept in check and they won’t get in trouble for a bad diagnosis or be  responsible for a death. He gave me another example of this, in that at night, some of the doctors that help patients are actually students still who are more like medical assistants.

He said that one such student was actually responsible for the death of his grandfather who had lung cancer. I forget the exact details of why he was there in the first place but the student told him to sit down and wait his turn for his appointment, to which the old man tried to explain that with his lung cancer he couldn’t sit down right now (I’m not sure medically how this works but this is what he told me). Then the student actually grabbed his shoulder and pushed him down into the chair, and his grandfather died within moments. Again, I’m not sure how this works because I know nothing about medical things – this is just what he told me. In any case it is appalling.

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Being injured in South Korea made me stand out more than I already did. Being a 6’0 foot, white, female American in homogeneous Korea had already garnered me lots of stares, but throw in some crutches with that and wow – it was intense.

Crutches were a nightmare in Seoul, as Seoul is very much a city of walking. They have amazing public transportation, but getting there is a long walk. For me without crutches, getting to the subway was around 15 minutes. With crutches, this became 45.

Crowds were a problem too, as South Korea has more than 50 million people in a relatively small country. It was hard for me to get where I was going without people making a path for me. On my crutches, my activities were limited as walking for so long made my arms and legs ache. It was the last week of school, and everyone wanted to go to as many places as possible – but I couldn’t join them. This was really hard and was a slightly disappointing end to my semester.

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However, my mom and sister joined me by the end and lifted my spirits considerably. I realized, with friends and family by your side, no city is too hard to get around. Instead of the subway, we took taxis who always tried to work with us on how to get my crutches in with me. Going to famous landmarks, they pushed me around in wheelchairs and in crowds my sister would make room for me. In the airport, I was provided a wheelchair as well and an airline worker took and us through a special security line, allowing us to be the first people to board.

Bottom line, being injured is hard – especially in a foreign country. In South Korea, whereas getting through the hospital procedure might be a bit tricky and you will probably want to pull your hair out, other people are more than ready to help you with your injury and make things easier for you. Kind people exist everywhere, you just have to ask for help.

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