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Having Surgery In Korea

Having a surgery is a scary thing. Having one abroad as an expat can be even more intimidating. If you’re considering a procedure in Korea, I hope my experience can help ease some fears. Some of the protocol felt overkill (extended stay in the hospital) and a bit backwards (no physical therapy after the procedure). But despite the differences, everything went smoothly and I was glad I had it done.

I broke my first bone in January 2015 in Turkey and had a metal plate put in my arm. Due to some discomfort, I decided to have the hardware removed last month in Korea. I went to Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital at the recommendation of some friends.

 

Having surgery as an expat in Korea

 

Consultation and Pre-Op

I called the international clinic to schedule an appointment. I was overwhelmed my first time at the hospital. St. Mary’s is large, one of the top hospitals in Seoul, and is consequently booked and busy.

The ladies in the office spoke English and were so helpful. There were a slew of forms, but St. Mary’s accepted my insurance and filed all of my paperwork. After I checked in, they sent me off with a map to get x-rays and meet with the surgeon. My meeting lasted just a few minutes, and by the end, I had booked the surgery. I was at the hospital for two hours.

A month before the surgery, I took a series of tests: chest x-ray, breathing, blood (vein and artery), urine, and EKG.

I met with the anesthesiologist two weeks before the surgery. A translator sat in and this meeting took only a few minutes. For some reason, I was never asked about allergies before that point, so I was sure they added that information to my file.

 

Surgery Stay

I went into the hospital the day before (about 24 hours before) the procedure. They said they’d take me back between 12–2 the next day, but they couldn’t fit me in until 4:30.

The Room: My insurance covered a double room, but they were all occupied. Instead, I got a private room. We felt so spoiled. It was on the twelfth floor and had an great view of Gangnam. The room included a desk with computer (which we didn’t use), a TV, a storage closet with a keypad locking system, a small fridge, a private bathroom with shower, and a small couch.

 

Gangnam hospital room view

 

David sleeping

 

The Food: I received an evening meal. I chose the Western menu over the Korean (just in case to avoid anything upsetting my stomach). The food was good, but a little bland. They served a cream soup, spaghetti, salad, bread, drink, and a pastry dessert. I was given a form to select my future meals.

They started fluids that night. I heard somewhere that Koreans have small veins, so they typically put IVs in your hand. It felt kind of offensive. It pinched and hurt so I couldn’t really use my right hand. And I was about to have surgery on my left hand. (After surgery, there was a problem with the IV and I had them move it to my arm, which felt much better.)

 

IV in hand

 

We met with a doctor (not the surgeon but someone in their residency) later in the evening. He spoke English and was very kind. He answered our questions and kept asking until we had exhausted everything we hadn’t covered in the initial consultation.

Nurses came to take my vitals throughout the night and next day. The waiting was the hardest part. By the time they wheeled me back, some of the nerves had worn off and I was ready for it to happen. David walked with me up to the operating room doors.

My previous scar had keloiding:

 

Keloid scarring

 

Post Surgery

I was glad the surgery was in the evening. After I woke up from the anesthesia, they wheeled me to an x-ray room on the second floor. This area is usually packed, but because it was around 7:00pm, there weren’t people staring at me on my bed.

Back in the room, I had to stay awake until 11:00pm. I was able to drink water around 2:00am. They had no food for me, and I didn’t eat until the next morning. They brought a full breakfast (eggs, fruit, cereal, pastry, juice), though the nurse told me to only have soup until lunch. They didn’t provide soup and I didn’t think convenience store ramen would be good for my stomach. Instead, I had some crackers and yogurt David had bought. That sat fine, so I ate the breakfast a little later.

Another thing we felt spoiled by: they let me go home early. I was supposed to stay another night (for a total of 3 nights), but they let me go home around 4:00pm the day after surgery.

 

Standing in Seoul St. Mary's hospital room

 

They also let me keep the hardware! The bracket is about 4″ long. After I saw the metal, I felt good about having it removed. It had done its job and there was no need to keep the foreign material in my body.

 

Hardware from radius bone surgery

 

Now I have holes where the screws were:

 

X-ray of radius bone showing holes

 

I was amazed at my recovery time. I gained strength and mobility much faster than I had anticipated. The surgeon did a fantastic job. He cut out some of the scar tissue and the keloid. They didn’t use stitches, but glued me together. Someone told me if you’re going to have surgery and are concerned about scarring, Korea is the place to get it done. They are very conscious about how they look. I have a silicone scar reduction gel and cream, and I hope to avoid keloiding this time.

I returned to the hospital every three days to have the bandaging replaced. Here is my scar two weeks after surgery:

 

Arm scar two weeks post surgery

 

Suggestions of Things to Bring:

  • Refillable water bottle (there are refilling stations for hot and cold water)
  • Snacks (because I got back from the surgery past dinner time, there was no food service)
  • Towels
  • Toiletries (body soap, shampoo, toothpaste)
  • Shower shoes (open shower room) and/or slippers
  • Electronic chargers

Other Notes:

  • Upon arrival, a translator took me to the room and explained the basics of what to expect.
  • Shave the area where you’re going to have surgery or bring a razor to do it there. David had to buy some from a convenience store. The nurse offered a hair removing cream, but I have sensitive skin and didn’t know if I’d react to it or not.
  • Take off all nail polish if you’ll be under anesthesia.
  • Physical therapy is not emphasized in Korea. My doctor said they didn’t have hand specialists at St. Mary’s, but I got him to write a referral letter. There is a physical therapist at my chiropractic clinic in Itaewon.
  • Visiting hours were from 2:00pm – 8:00pm.
  • The international clinic closes at 5:00pm on weekdays and noon on Saturdays. The nurses I interacted with knew enough English to help. Google Translate is always helpful, too.

I am thankful for a successful surgery and for the friends that came around us!

 

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