My Personal Experience with Surgery in Korea
Jump to: Finding a Hospital Getting Time Off The Hospital Stay Feelings of Isolation Pain Medicine Costs
In late April of this year I had an experience I was not expecting to have during my first year here – I had surgery in Korea. Luckily, this was not an emergency surgery, I had a few weeks to prepare myself mentally and get things in order. I hope no one reading this has to go through surgery, but if you do I hope this post helps you in some way. Prior to my surgery I was feverishly searching for other’s experiences and couldn’t find much info to soothe my pre-surgery anxiety. I was fortunate to have a friend who had actually had surgery in Korea at the same hospital I was going to, and was super awesome at answering all of my questions. So this post is for anyone who was in my position – I will be your surgery friend here!
Finding a Hospital in Korea
I might make a future post about how to go about finding a doctor(s) in Korea, but for now I have a few tips on finding a hospital suited to your needs. As you know I live in Jeollanamdo, close to the major metropolitan city of, Gwangju. I ended up having my surgery performed at a hospital in Gwangju opposed to one in the city where I live.
I chose Chosun University Hospital in Gwangju because that’s the hospital we all went to for medical tests during orientation, and I knew they had an English translator there in the International Health Care Center (IHCC). From what I understand you’ve got a better chance of finding a translator/translating service at bigger hospitals in larger cities. This makes sense since they would likely deal with more foreign patients. Without the help of the woman running the IHCC I wouldn’t have been able to get surgery – she was a total life saver. She did everything from booking my appointments to translating important information from my doctors – she was even there when I woke up from surgery! I can’t imagine going through this experience without the help of hospital staff that were fluent in English.
What if my hospital doesn’t have an IHCC or translators?
It may not be necessary if you’ve got someone close to you who speaks Korean and doesn’t mind tagging along on all your doctor visits. I would say having someone around who can translate at times is really important.
But don’t most doctors speak English?
Yes, many highly educated folk like doctors will speak at least some English. Many of the doctors and nurses I met at the hospital spoke enough English to communicate with me. However, this is not guaranteed and even those who studied English might not have great command over speaking/listening. For example, one of my doctors told me to text him my questions because it was easier for him to understand. If you are an English teacher here in Korea then you know first hand that reading/writing skills are always prioritized over listening/speaking. This could mean that your doctor can’t communicate as clearly in English (verbally).
I highly recommend you utilize some of the many Facebook groups that exist here for expats. People are always posting about English-speaking doctors and what hospitals to go to/avoid. A good place to start would be in the group for a nearby city where you might be looking for a hospital. Don’t be shy about it, many people have been to hospitals here and can give you some great recommendations. This will save you a ton of time too!
– Hospitals in major cities might have better support for international patients
– Doctors might understand English but their listening/speaking skills might not be very strong
– Use Facebook to find hospitals and English-speaking doctors in your area
How long will I have to prepare for surgery?
There are two major differences between healthcare in Canada and in Korea that I’d like to point out. Apologies to the non-Canadians!
In Canada healthcare is free, which is awesome, but it tends to be burdened by long wait times. I know for sure that if I were to have had this surgery performed in Canada I would have been waiting 6 months minimum. But that’s not all – it would have taken me several months just to get all the pre-surgery testing done. The whole process could have easily stretched out a year if not more. Free is awesome but waiting around when you’re trying to address health problems sucks.
In Korea it was quite the opposite. Testing was fast and efficient. If I needed a new test I often had it on the very same day I was seeing the doctor. Totally different than my experiences in Canada. There was only three weeks between when it was decided that I needed surgery and when I had my surgery – pretty incredible!
So if you end up needing surgery in Korea rest assured things will likely be taken care of swiftly.
Getting time off work (for NETS)
If you are a NET with a public school contract through the Jeollanamdo Language Program (JLP) then you have 11 sick days at your disposal. Now, we all know sick days in Korea are treated differently, namely that they are taken less frequent, however having surgery is an appropriate excuse. I would still encourage you to work around your schedule so you have to take off the least amount of days possible. Of course if this surgery is an emergency you need to put your health first, don’t postpone if it’s urgent. However, if you are able to be more flexible it’s of course better to see if you can schedule your time off around vacations, exams, or red days.
I was fortunate that my surgery fell around Labour Day, Buddha’s Birthday, and Children’s day. My students also happened to be writing exams that week. Ultimately I only had to take 4.5 days off of school (one of those days would have required zero teaching due to exams) and had 12 days off total. This worked out really well for me but again don’t stress if you need to have an urgent surgery in Korea. My school was very kind and understanding, in fact they were super worried about me!
Surgery in Korea: The Hospital Stay
I was in the hospital exactly one week, Tuesday to Tuesday, though it felt like a month! Keep in mind this was my first stay in a hospital ever, so some of these things might not be unique to Korean hospitals, they were just new to me!
When I told my co-teachers I was having surgery they often asked who would be taking care of my while I was in the hospital. I was confused at this question. The nurses? After my week-long stay I now understand what they meant.
It seems that in Korea you are allowed to have a ‘caregiver’ stay with you in the hospital, 24/7. There is a tiny ‘bed’ (not really long enough for an average person to lay flat on) at the side of your hospital bed where they can sleep. Basically this person does all the non-medical stuff not handled by nurses, like if you needed help going to the bathroom or eating.
I think because I am young and generally quite healthy the need for a caregiver would be much lower, but the old ladies I was rooming with seemed to heavily rely on theirs. During my first two days I was in a lot of pain and several of the ‘caregivers’ in my room helped me out, I think they likely felt bad for me considering I was young, foreign, and all by myself. I am super thankful for the kindness they showed me, it was really heartwarming.
I stayed in a room with four other patients, it was a decent sized room with a bathroom, refrigerator, and TV. Privacy is not something you find a lot of in a hospital, but this didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. Generally, I’m a fairly private person but staying in a hospital tends to open up all of your vulnerability. You quickly stop caring about things like privacy. At least that was my experience.
There were curtains to separate the beds but they were only really used at night when everyone was sleeping. During the day the room would be noisy at times with the TV on and visitors chatting, but then quiet at other times when everyone was napping.
I chose a room with roommates because double and private rooms were insanely expensive. I think they ran around 130,000 won per DAY! Looking back, I don’t regret this decision at all. That would just be an unnecessary amount of money to add on to an already pricey hospital bill.
– Most Koreans have a ‘caregiver’ staying with them in the hospital 24/7, most foreigners might not have this option considering many of us live away from our families
– Go for the shared rooms. Private rooms cost way too much money and shared rooms aren’t really a big deal
Feelings of Isolation
Feelings of being isolated are nothing new for expats, but I think it’s important to mention how this played into my hospital stay. Having surgery is scary no matter where you are, add on the fact that you are in the foreign country, and in a hospital where most people speak another language. It suddenly becomes scarier.
Because of wanting to take the least amount of time off school as possible I chose to have surgery mid-week. Unfortunately, this meant that all of my friends were at work and I would be on my own before and after the surgery. Looking back, I seriously underestimated how much pain I would be in (pain medicine discussion up next). If I had to do it over again I think I would have wanted someone there with me before and after surgery, like a very close friend. But I didn’t have that and I still managed, so don’t freak out if you end up being on your own! I had lots of people texting me to see if I was o.k. and people I could call if I was lonely.
(Weaker) Pain Medicine in Korea
It is a well-known fact among expats who have been to hospitals here that pain medicine in Korea is just not the same as ‘back home’. Meaning, it isn’t as strong as we are used to. I’ve read other stories of people having surgery in Korea and many mentioned the lack of (strong) pain medicine, I can confirm this! When I woke up from surgery I had some pain medicine attached to my IV but unfortunately it had a side effect of nausea, and I was the lucky recipient of it! So they took that off but it was not replaced with anything. I apologize I have no idea what the specific medicine was, but it didn’t seem to be doing much beyond making me nauseous.
I eventually was given some shots of pain medicine but I felt like I really had to beg for them. They were the only thing that brought me any comfort but the effect wore off in about 4 hours. Again, apologies that I don’t know what the drug was. Anyways, there is a chance you will be in more pain than expected so just prepare yourself for this possibility.
– you will likely face some feelings of isolation, particularly if you don’t speak Korean. Manage these feelings by having friends visit or keeping in touch with friends/family via text or phone calls
– pain medicine is simply not as strong in Korea. Be prepared to (potentially) have more pain than you were expecting
How much does it cost to have surgery in Korea?
Now obviously this answer is going to be different depending on what kind of surgery you are having done. You also have to factor in any pre-surgery testing, doctors visits, and post-surgery medicine. I will tell you how much I paid but understand that your surgery costs will likely be different. My American friends have told me that it is significantly cheaper here than in the United States – so good news for any American readers!
I had a lot of testing done before it was determined I needed surgery in Korea. Keep in mind I technically had two surgeries with two different doctors in two different departments. This involved meeting both those doctors for visits pre-surgery and having tests with both departments. So it’s likely I paid a lot more than if you were just dealing with one department.
Overall all of my pre-surgery tests/procedures probably cost me between 800,000 and 1 million won. Again, this was not all at once, it was probably divided up over a few months. I was actually at a different hospital when I first started getting tests done so I included those in the cost.
The surgery and hospital stay $$$
The final bill for my surgery and hospital stay was just over 9 million won, but I only had to pay 3.6 million won because the rest was (thankfully) covered by National Health Insurance. A friend who had surgery at the same hospital paid around 4 million won for everything, to give you another example.
Do I pay all at once?
From what I understand, yes. That’s what I did at least. I actually paid 3 million won on the day I checked in and paid the remaining 600,000 on the day I was discharged. Koreans have the option to set up payment plans but I am not sure such options are available to foreigners. I think it might be possible if you had a Korean friend sign off as a sort of guarantor, though I’m not positive. If you’re worried about having to pay such a larger sum of money at once talk to your Korean friends and get them to inquire with the hospital about payment plans for foreigners.
– My pre-surgery testing/procedures cost between 800,000-1,000,000 won
– The cost of my surgery and hospital stay was 3.6 million won
– I paid the full amount at once, 3 million won on the day I was admitted, 600,000 won on the day I was discharged
– Keep in mind you might have some post-surgery costs too, like follow-up appointments or medication
Having surgery in Korea was occasionally scary but overall a very positive experience for me. There were times during my hospital stay that I felt really emotional and upset. During these times I simply reminded myself of how lucky I was to have received the surgery I needed in such a short amount of time. Having surgery sucks. No doubts about it. But if you find yourself in the position of needing surgery in Korea rest assured that you are in good hands. I have been nothing but impressed with the Korean healthcare system and would do it again in a heartbeat.
Take care of your health, friends!