Broken Bones & My Korean Surgery Experience Overseas
Back during the preparation period, prior to arriving in South Korea I had a conversation with my extensively traveled sister. She suggested I look into travel insurance. Of the million things on my brain, travel insurance was low on my priority list. I attribute this to never of had a major surgery. Plus, I had 50% coverage through my contract.
What proceeds is evidence that travel insurance should always be one of a traveler’s main priorities.
A few weeks ago while having a night on the town I was unfortunate enough to slip on some ice while walking that lead to breaking my ankle. Fractured Fibula & sprain on some ligaments of the inner part of my ankle was the result.
I required surgery, so will divulge what to expect in terms of experience and costs. I’ll also discuss some tips if you ever find yourself in a similar situation and how my school handled it.
**Dollar examples used are all rough estimations in CAD**
The breaking point..
The previous weekend to the break, a good friend of mine from back home in Canada had arrived in Seoul to visit me over the month of February – shitty deal for both of us. After the first week of him exploring and I playing teacher from Monday to Friday, we decided to hit the town with a few friends of mine from Gwangju. The drinks were flowing and we hopped from bar to bar in the downtown district.
After enough drinks, its frequently in my nature to beginning exploring on my own. Well the drinks continued to flow and I was in ‘go mode’. Being the socialite I was that evening, I made some friends in the VIP section. The bottles flowed endless and I felt unstoppable.
From the top to the bottom happens real quick..
At about 5am I figured it was probably time to shut things down and regroup with the original team. I headed to the main strip to find a cab and some reception to contact my friend. I wasn’t able to get a hold of him and there wasn’t a cab in site other than the odd one that was already ordered ahead of time.
What seemed like a smart move at the time, I decided to head back to the bar to finished the night off and either wait out a cab or for the buses to start running again.
About half way back to the bar, i caught some ice and hopped up to grab my balance. Upon coming down I felt a twist, heard a snap and buckled onto the ground. Immediately I knew something was wrong as there was a pain in my left ankle, I couldn’t put weight on it and it felt a little floppy when I held it up in the air.
After grabbing a seat at a nearby building, I assessed the situation. I was alone, it was near 6am, had no cell service, and probably no one around me spoke English.
I eventually hopped back to the main strip where I waited to hail a cab. Two Korean guys eventually approached me and were able to call the police to assist me to the hospital.
There after some scans I learned I had fractured my fibula, sprain some ligaments and undoubtedly required surgery.
The ride & cost of admission..
The initial consultation at the emergency hospital, scans, and temporary cast/wrapping cost 450,000 won (about $480) of which I was responsible for 205,000 won ($215)
Over that first weekend I contacted my manager and let her know about the situation. She was understanding and care, and made an appointment at a bone specializing hospital on the following Monday.
The doctor confirmed I would need surgery and to spend 3-5 days in the hospital. Overall cost he speculated would be no more than 1,500,000 won (nearly $2,000) And that would be after my 50% medical coverage.
Unhappy to say the least. Especially since healthcare in Canada is free. After considering the cost of a ticket home, and the opportunity cost of leaving Korea I decided to proceed with the surgery.
The following week I was admitted to the hospital on Monday afternoon, with surgery scheduled for the next day.
Upon admittance I undertook the following tests to check my general health and clean me for surgery:
- Blood & urine sample
- MRI scan – oddly, I fell asleep during this. Despite how loud & obnoxious of a test it is.
I had to fast (avoid) both food and water from 11pm Monday until after the surgery.
Previous to the surgery they hooked me up to an IV and began giving me antibiotics. I would be given antibiotic twice a day from tuesday morning pre surgery until Friday morning post surgery. I also gave a few blood samples as the week progressed.
The surgery took about an hour and a half from the time they took me into the operating room until leaving.
The wheeled me from the bedroom – which I shared with 5 other nice old Korean women and between 1 and 2 nurses to look after us, depending on time of day – to the operating room while I stared at the ceiling beginning to feel fear enter my mind. The doctor had previously informed me I would be receiving a spinal anesthesia to numb out my leg for surgery. Needles are a total turnoff to me, and the spinal tap was more of a concern than the surgery itself.
The anesthesia turned out to be considerably less painful than it sounded and within a minute I couldn’t raise my leg. They then gave me some gas to knock me out for the surgery. The medical team then laughed as I counted mississippi’s down from ten. I think I got to three before lights out.
As they were finishing up the operation I slowly came to. I distinctly remember hearing some drilling sounds which I was conscious enough to know was them putting the last few screws into my bone to finishing applying the plate to my leg.
After than they flipped me over, transferred me to a different bed and wheeled me back to my room.
My leg was still numb for a few hours and all was good until that wore off. Upon being back in my room, after 20 minutes they brought in – what I assumed – was a painkiller drip system with a button activator.. Awesome I thought! Time to make the best of this terrible situation.
I was still fairly groggy from the anesthesia at this point but began clicking the painkiller drip when I felt the feeling coming back to my leg.
I knew by this point illegal narcotics are nearly non existent in South Korea. I now know that legal pharmaceutical narcotics are nearly just as non existent.
Whatever was in that drip had zero effect on the pain I was experiencing.
I called the nurses multiple times throughout that afternoon and evening pleading with them to give me something stronger and more illicit to remove the pain. Eventually some point on Wednesday morning they came in and gave me a shot in the behind that did the trick.
I don’t know what they ended up giving me but no longer suffering after 20 minutes and I recall the friends who I was texting at that moment also confirmed the drugs were working. I still find it ridiculous the amount of time and effort that was taken to give me a proper painkiller.
Healing & the final bill..
I spent about 3 days post surgery in the hospital where they gave me medication multiple times a day and cleaned my ankle daily. The hospital also offered breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was all Korean food which I am mostly fond of. One of the dinners included a whole fish that looked like it had gone straight from the lake to the pan that I had to politely decline.
Friday morning was check out time, and payments were due. Total cost for the 4 nights, meals, surgery, tests, and medication came to 2,400,000 won. After my medical coverage and what I’m told was a deal from the hospital since my director knew a head administration was 970,000 won. (+$1,100)
I was also given a bill for 55,000 won per night that was for the nurses, who were in the room 24/hrs a day with me & the other patients. They were helpful and very nice, but had I been given an option on that I would have declined.
As it stands I am around $1,500 into it and probably will incur some further costs for post check ups with my physician.
First off, get travel insurance. You never know when an injury will occur and especially if you’re going to the Southeast Asian countries where injuries are much more prevalent. Korea’s medical system is very modern and I had nothing but praise for it except for the whole painkiller ordeal. In retrospect would bring that up ahead of time that you will be wanting something stronger than the norm.
I would suggest bringing some snacks to supplement the meals in the hospital. Korean food is healthy and usually delicious, but some of it is just too weird.
Earplugs and a sleeping mask are a big recommendation. I was woken up at 5am everyday when the lights were turned on for tests and other business to begin with other patients.
Books, ipads, laptops and any form of entertainment are suggested. Other than going to the washroom I was in bed the entire day.
My school was very supportive of the whole ordeal. They provided rides to and from school each day during the week prior to my surgery. As expected, I maintained regular hours the week prior to surgery, even with my broken ankle. I do believe their cooperation was based on my willingness to continue work. As it goes, sick days are non existent unless you are extremely sick. Work is a huge priority in Korean culture.
That’s my Korean surgery story. Definitely not ideal, but I suppose somewhere in this whole situation is a life lesson. Though I’m still looking for it.
Take care & watch your step,
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