Sunday, November 13, 2011

Eye trouble in Seoul

Last Wednesday I was sitting at my computer when I noticed my left eye seemed a little dimmer than my right. I could see out of it fine, but everything was a little darker, as if you had turned the lights slightly down in the room. I decided to sleep it off, but on Friday, my vision was still somewhat off kilter.
Back in the mid 1990s, I had a similar problem. The vision in my right eye rapidly changed from normal to practically blind. I remember seeing a bunch of eye doctors, test after test, a day off of school to get an MRI and my mom fretting over the possibility that I might have MS. It turned out to be optic neuritis with an unknown trigger, perhaps viral in origin.
Fifteen years later and I am in the same situation. I headed to an ophthalmologist on Friday and had a bunch of tests done, but nothing showed up. They recommended that I go to the emergency room, so I headed over to Seoul National University Hospital (which is apparently the second best in the country). The emergency room was freaky; a lot of people in the waiting room were on drips and stretcher after stretcher passed with people in a much more severe situation than me. When I finally was admitted, I was asked questions while surrounded by people that looked like they were dying. Although everything was efficient, there was no sense of personal space. Quite different than the United States.
At about 1 am, I was able to see an eye specialist. She was really young, and must have just been a resident. She didn't speak much English, so I struggled to convey my past medical history and current condition in Korean. After doing the same tests that the doctor did in the ophthalmologist, she told me to come back the next day.
Saturday morning, I get up and head back to SNUH. As there is an international clinic, a translator was available to help me. Luckily, the doctor spoke fluent English, but was not able to be 100% sure on what was going on with my eye. After about ten more tests (with all of these eye machines I had never seen before in my life) he told me that it was plausible that I had a posterior optic neuritis, but without an MRI he couldn't be sure. I have health insurance, but the MRI is super expensive. We talked it out, and decided that I should give my eye some time to rest and if it gets worse, to come back to the clinic.
On one hand, I was really impressed by the Korean system. Everything was really efficient and computer based, so once they did an eye test, they could send me quickly to the next room for another test. When I was finished with all of these tests, I met with the doctor who analyzed the results and informed me of what he was seeing. It also was cheap; ten dollars for the initial ophthalmologist, seventy dollars for the emergency room, and then thirty dollars for the visit to the specialist on Saturday.
Then again, it seems like the insurance is only really helpful for primary care. While basic services are practically free, the MRI would be around eight hundred dollars and, apparently, the insurance stops covering you if you have any really serious illness (like cancer). People buy secondary insurance to pay for these costs, but it seems like something that should be part of the national health care plan when the highest cause of death in Korea is stomach cancer.
If you need to get sick in Korea, try not to get too sick. There are plenty of services for English speakers as well, especially in Seoul, but don't expect to receive these services unless you have an appointment and go during normal hours.

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