52 Weeks of Adventure # 23: MERS Scares AKA The Adventure of Korean Healthcare

If you’re up on world news then you probably know that there has been an outbreak of MERS here in South Korea. While the first case arrived in Korea mid-May, it was only this past week that it became common knowledge. So, it’s been a fun week here.

Photo credit:  This is for illustration only. I actually think this is a Japanese family. But this is a pretty common sight here in Korea, even when there is no MERS.

Photo credit: (This is for illustration only. I actually think this is a Japanese family. But this is a pretty common sight here in Korea, even when there is no MERS.)

If you don’t know, MERS stands for Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome. As the name suggests, it’s a virus that originated in the Middle East (and is found there almost exclusively) that causes respiratory problems. As the American media dramatically announced, “It has no cure and no vaccine!”

While this is true, it’s also not quite the death sentence it sounds like. Like the flu, MERS is the sort of virus that the majority of immune systems can fight off and recover from. In fact, all of the MERS deaths in Korea so far (and most worldwide) have been people who already had a weakened immune system from other serious conditions, usually lung conditions (Tuberculosis is very common here). That’s not to say it’s no big deal or that precautions shouldn’t be taken, but it’s definitely not the bubonic plague the media is making it out to be.

This situation has led Koreans to react in ways that are just, well, so Korean. In other words, they are massively over-reacting in some ways, while not reacting enough in some ways that would actually be helpful. For example:

  • More than 500 schools in the Seoul area were closed to stop the spread of the virus, despite the fact that ALL current cases were contracted by people in the hospital, working in the hospital, or visiting the hospital that held the already diagnosed patients and despite the fact that best research indicates that this virus is not easily transmitted and only appears in people who have had prolonged contact with a MERS patient.
  • Knowing that 100% of the confirmed cases came from people who had been in the same hospital with other patients, the government refused to release the name of the hospital because they were afraid it would incite panic. I’m sorry, but that has to be one of the least logical things I’ve ever heard. If you know where the virus is, tell people not to go there. It’s pretty simple.
  • My school decided to take extra precautions by putting fresh bars of communal soap in our bathrooms. Because it’s impossible for soap to have germs, right? In good news, this is the first new soap we’ve gotten in a year. In bad news, we still have no toilet paper.

    I don't know about you, but this seems super hygenic to me.

    I don’t know about you, but this seems super hygenic to me.

  • My husband’s school has decided that they are now going to start checking the temperature of every person as they enter the school in the morning. Be advised that the closest MERS case to us is in an entirely different province and, once again, the ONLY people who have caught it are people who contracted it from the hospital.
  • I received an emergency alert on my phone (that would have been sent to all the cell phones in the country) instructing me to wash my hands, cough into my elbow, and not let other people cough on me. Duh Doy. However, this may have been news to some. For the two years I’ve lived here, I have constantly been surprised that people who wear face masks frequently (ostensibly to protect themselves or others from germs and environmental pollutants) have little understanding of how germs work. For example:
    • Old people (many of whom have tuberculosis) will wet cough all over you on the bus or subway or street with no apologies.
    • It is common practice for people, from grandfathers to dainty high school girls, to hock massive loogies into the street at your feet constantly. I have also seen some elderly people blow their noses onto the street by plugging one nostril and shooting snot out.
    • People eat and drink after each other constantly, even when someone is sick and wearing a mask. I will frequently see students take off their mask to drink out of their friend’s water bottle. IF YOU ARE SICK ENOUGH TO WEAR A MASK, DO NOT SHARE DRINKS WITH YOUR FRIENDS!
    • Again, there is this seemingly high sensitivity to germs and to social responsibility, given all the mask wearing, yet people never take the precaution of staying home or keeping their children home from school to prevent spreading illnesses. Your kid has pink eye? It’s fine. Just send them to school with an eye patch!

The media keeps saying that South Korea is in a pretty good position to contain and handle MERS since they are so medically advanced. This is certainly true in some ways and they are far more advanced than many other Asian countries. However, having all the fancy equipment doesn’t necessarily mean medical practices are what you might think of as “medically advanced.”

  • Many Koreans still believe in fan death – the belief that if you sleep in a room with a fan on, you will die from breathing the recirculated air. In fact, there must always be fresh air. So even in the winter when it is 20 degrees Fahrenheit, we must open all the windows. We may also run the heater while the windows are open, but the windows must stay open.
  • Most Koreans believe that eating and drinking too many cold foods will make you sick. Even Korean doctors will tell you this. If you are sick, you must avoid cold foods. I assume this comes from the general idea that you want to keep your body temperature from dropping too low, but I can assure you that it is OK for me to drink cold water when I have runny nose. Really, it is.
  • Korean healthcare is excellent in that it is quick and very cheap. Because it is cheap, doctors often like to run tons of unnecessary tests and prescribe lots of unnecessary medication. I once went to the doctor for what I knew was a lingering sinus infection. I told the doctor it was a sinus infection. He did not examine me in any way, but ordered a chest x-ray and prescribed me 5 different medications without even asking if I was allergic to anything (which I am) or taking any other medications. I’m pretty sure one of the meds was just Tylenol, but still. The upside was that the visit cost about $5 USD and the medicine was another $4.
  • Along with that, in America, people tend to want to know more about their health. Patients often do their own research (for better or worse) and ask their doctor about specific medications and things of that nature. It seems that Koreans tend to blindly trust the doctor and take whatever the doctor prescribes for them to take.
  • Many Koreans go to the doctor for EVERYTHING. And the doctor prescribes medication for EVERYTHING. Granted, it’s probably Advil half the time, but still. I once told my Coteacher that my arm was sore because I’d had to stand on the bus the previous day and the bus driver was driving crazily and I had to hold on for dear life. She looked at me with wide eyes and said, “You should go to the doctor!”

Ultimately, I don’t think we have too much to worry about as far as MERS is concerned, but it certainly has made for an interesting week and has given me the change to reflect on the greater adventure that is living abroad in a country that has very different ideas about health and healthcare than what I’m accustomed to.

*Please note that this post uses a lot of generalities based on my experiences. I’m fully aware that my two years of experience here does not make me an expert nor does it mean that every Korean person feels and behaves this way.

If you have an adventure to share, add your link to the link-up by clicking the button below. You can participate in all of the adventures or you can just do a few – no pressure. If you missed last week’s adventure about our trip to Tokyo you can find it here. And if you are new to my Fifty-Two Weeks of Adventure project you can find out more about it here.

There is no failure

At the beginning of this week two of my roommates from college were in town visiting. It was the first time we’d all been together since my wedding in June. It was wonderful to see them and so strange to realize that we’ve been out of school for almost a year and how quickly that’s gone. It’s strange to think that our college experience is over and all we have left are the memories.

For the most part I had a wonderful college experience–I made lifetime friends, I learned so much academically, socially, and spiritually, I met my husband, and I learned how to drive in the snow. But what I found myself thinking about as we reminisced were the things I wish I’d done differently. The things that, if given the chance, I would do over.

During a significant portion of my jr. year I was pretty severely depressed. There was family drama happening at home, two of my roommates (the same two who were visiting this week) were studying abroad half of the year and the resulting living situation was tense and stressful. I was terribly lonely and felt that I had few friends which made me put a tremendous amount of pressure on Jonathan to be available to me anytime I wanted him. And on top of all of this, a friend of both of ours made some choices that we couldn’t understand and for which I judged him severely. For some reason, although his choices didn’t directly involve me, I took his actions as a personal offense. I handled the situation so poorly that I lost that friend and hurt someone else in the process. There are times even now that I cannot believe Jonathan still chose to marry me after seeing that.

When I reflected on these things that I wish had been different I realized that even if I were able to go back, there was very little I could have changed about the situations themselves. What I would have changed is how I responded to them. I would have stopped myself from taking responsibility for things that weren’t my responsibility (the family drama, whether or not my roommates were getting along, whether I thought my friend was making the right choice.) And then I realized that while I regret some things about that time in my life, without it I might not have changed. With it, I have the hope that in the present and in the future I will handle myself differently.

At Weight Watchers they say, “There is no failure. Only feedback.” What they mean by that is that if you have a week where you don’t make the healthiest choices, and the result is that you gain weight, you shouldn’t see the gain as a failure. Instead, it’s your body’s natural feedback to the choices you made and that feedback tells you that if this isn’t the result you want, you should make a different choice. I think in many ways the rest of life works that way too. While it does us no good to live in the past or to dwell on our mistakes, I think much of our success and growth in the future depends on our past.

I look back on that year, and on other situations over the past few years and see things that I wish I’d done differently and I am faced with a choice. I can either live a life filled with regret (and trust me, this is easy for me to do. I am the queen of beating myself up over things) or I can look at things I wish I’d done differently and do them differently. Now and in the future.

Weight Watching

Last Tuesday I joined Weight Watchers. Things have gotten out of hand (and by “things” I mean, me). Just promising myself I’d eat better wasn’t cutting it. Throwing in some exercise wasn’t cutting it. I needed a plan and I needed to be held accountable. I’ll admit, I felt very self-conscious when I walked through the door. I was thinking to myself, ” People who go to weight watchers are in their 50’s and are obese. I am going to feel so out of place.” I felt pretty uncomfortable doing it, but I opened the door and went in and launched myself into a new lifestyle.

I know I set this up to sound like I was completely wrong about Weight Watchers being the hangout of women of a certain age and a certain build. Actually, I was pretty spot-on. I attended my first meeting and of the more than 50 women present I was one of about 10 who looked younger than 40 and one of about 4 who looked younger than 30.  What did surprise me was how much I enjoyed the meeting in spite of that. It was such a non-judgmental environment. No one cared that I’ve gone up three pants sizes in the last 8 months, not did anyone look at me and say, “Oh, you’re so young and skinny, you don’t need to be here!” (which sounds like a nice thing to say, but can be very frustrating when your good enough at excusing yourself without someone else’s help.) They accepted that I was one of them, a woman seeking to take care of her body and live and healthy lifestyle, and for that I was embraced.

I am a week into this journey and have done well so far, largely due to a book I read over the past week. It’s called Made to Crave and deals with developing and sustaining the godly desire to be healthy and to keep food in it’s proper place in our lives. The author talks about using the apostle Paul’s words, “Everything is permissable for me, but not everything is beneficial,” as a guide and I can honestly say that I find it very helpful. I am often tempted (about food or anything else I know I shouldn’t do)  to feel that it’s just not fair that I can’t just have or do what I want, but this verse really changes my perspective. No one’s restricting me. I’m allowed to eat whatever I want. I am just making a choice that’s more beneficial. I think my mother would say that is called maturity. Ha.

I have come to realize that one of the reasons I’ve been struggling so much in this area over the past few months has to do with my adjustment to marriage. I have an overwhelming desire to be an amazing wife. I don’t just want to be good and loving, I want my husband to feel love oozing out of every piece of housework I do and every meal I cook. I deeply desire for my husband to think I am the best cook, the best homemaker, the best lover, the best friend, etc he could ever have imagined. The truth is…I am just me…and my husband already thinks all of these things are true. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling like I have to earn them sometimes. Consequently, I put a lot of pressure on myself most nights to create either elaborate meals, or at least meals that I know my husband really enjoys. The problem is, my husband’s favorite foods are delicious, but also tend to be pretty unhealthy. Even though I know intellectually it is better for both of us if I don’t make fettucine alfredo and stuffed potato skins every night, I so crave his praise that I had been unable to make a change.

One afternoon last week as I left work Sami called after me, “Goodbye, Lily! And you be good to Jonathan!” She cracks me up. I thought, “Of course I’ll be good to Jonathan. Goofball. I try all the time to be good to Jonathan.” Today I am thinking, maybe actually being good to Jonathan means not always doing the thing that will earn me the most praise. Maybe it means doing the thing that will truly be best for him and for myself, even if it doesn’t make him jump for joy. It amazes me how often I do things out of selfishness, even when I think my motives are completely other-centered.

So…here’s a new chapter in my life. A journey towards a healthier life, for my body and for my spirit.