Monday, April 4, 2011

Away and Under the Weather: Part 3

This is it. My final and, in my opinion, WORST illness-related experience abroad. It actually involves a few different illnesses and was spread out over at least a month. It was painful, exhausting, and just bizarre. Enjoy!

#1 It started with the flu...

It started with the flu. Nothing special, just the flu. When you live in another country AND work with children, you're going to get sick now and then. It was around this time of year (April) in 2007. I don't even remember how bad a flu it was. I probably had a fever, some body aches and a runny nose. That's usually what I get. I taught lessons through it (as usual) and it was over. I didn't need to go to the doctor until later.

The flu ended but the crap in my lungs never really went away. After a week or two of wheezing and coughing, I went to get checked out. At the hospital, I was shown around by my own English-speaking nurse to see two specialists and got an x-ray of my lungs. It cost less than US$50. (I miss Korea.) I had acute bronchitis. The flu had slightly inflamed my bronchial tubes and there was a little infection. They gave me antibiotics, pain pills, something for the mucus, and anti-inflammatory medicine.

Getting treated in Korea by western medicine is different than at home. Korean hospitals also treated people using eastern medicine and I took advantage of that more after this experience. Eastern medicine is about treating the delicate balance that exists in your body and allowing your body to function at its peak potential. Western medicine works more like a band aid. You're hurt here; fix here. Western medicine in Korea takes this metaphor even further. Sick? In pain? Appendages double in size? Okay! What can we do to patch you up and get you back to work?

On top of that, we really do blindly trust doctors a lot. Which is fine for the complicated stuff. But in Korea, you barely even know what medicine you're taking. They give me the list but there's a lot on there and it's hard to tell the pills apart. They prepare all the pills for you and separate them by dose in these long strips of vacuum sealed plastic baggies. Swallow the cocktail and get back to work. No need to wait for the effects to kick in.

I can tell you that I took my first baggie on a Wednesday night or Thursday morning. I remember that because by Friday I was calling the nurse and taking the only sick leave I ever took in 3 years in Korea.

I felt a little off on Thursday. Not sick, just off. So it took me (and my head teacher/neighbor who was walking home with me) completely by surprise when I randomly puked on the street Thursday night. I barely made it to the storm drain let alone even thinking about trying to find a toilet. Living abroad, I've had my share of food poisonings so the idea that my body was rejecting something was not foreign to me. But there was no food. It was like a hangover without the bliss of being an idiot the night before.

Since it wasn't food, I assumed pills and called the nurse. I stopped taking all of them since I didn't know which was which in my poison cocktail. I didn't feel any better the next day as I started to have stomach problems come out the other end. Great. And remember how I couldn't have sick days? That was especially true my first year when our numbers were already small and there were teachers fleeing the country in the middle of the night every other week. Fortunately, though, through some luck--and a lot of pity from my head teacher and principal who watched me try to teach my 4pm-7pm elementary class from a chair when I wasn't running to the bathroom--my head teacher had her second three-hour slot free and taught my 7pm-10pm middle school class.

So I went home and proceeded to have my worst weekend ever. I was supposed to be at a wedding. Instead, every three hours (like clockwork!) I crawled the three feet from my bed to the bathroom and then tried crawl back, dragging what was left of my tattered stomach on the floor. Eventually that was too much and I brought a pillow and blanket into the bathroom to sleep on the floor in between sessions. I didn't leave the house until Sunday afternoon. I limped across the street to get some saltines and electrolytes with some hope that I would be better before Monday.

And, surprisingly, I was. My stomach was convinced everything was out that it didn't like and it stopped trying to kill me. On Monday, I was exhausted, soar, and really cranky but I was mobile enough to go down the hill to my work. I settled in my chair to be a white-faced, native speaker in front of 15 Korean kids for 6 hours. The kids were extra nice and the next few days went fine. Although, it still amazes me that the kids never viewed this behavior as strange. I could not stand most of the time and could barely speak but I was still there. Even now in Hong Kong, I often teach while wearing a doctor's mask when I have a cough or runny nose, and I have some kids come to EVERY class in a mask. Sick? Wrap it, cover it up, take a pill. But do it at work.

In this case though, the pills were the problem. I talked to my mom on Skype later and she told me that it was probably the anti-inflammatory medicine. She used to work for a doctor and patients often called and complained of stomach problems when the doctor prescribed anti-inflammatory medicine. So that was it. The weekend was more than enough to learn my lesson. The body is connected, beware of pills, listen to your mother, work somewhere with sick days, bla, bla, bla... Teacher, finishee?? Anio.

I got better and started to regale my friends with gross stories of the worst weekend ever. Around midweek, I decided that I was better enough to not cancel my rafting trip for the coming weekend. It was rafting in Korea, after all, which is only slightly more intense than floating down a lazy-river. It was mostly an excuse to drink somewhere else and also to watch a traditional Korean mask performance.

Rafting was scheduled for Sunday so we watched the mask dance on Saturday. It was in a very cool theatre-in-the-round, and--despite not understanding a word they were saying--it was really funny! There was an ajumma character which is always a riot and at one point a guy pretended to cut off the fake bull's penis. It was an outdoor theater, and it was really hot, so most people sat in the shaded section. About 30 of us came on the trip and showed up late so a few of us sat in the sun so we could watch from the front row.

It was really bright when I first stared down at my feet so I just thought I was seeing things. They felt a little strange and warm, but so did the rest of me. And I was wearing larger flip-flops so I wasn't uncomfortable. I felt a little stupid but I turned to my friend and said it anyway, "Do my feet look bigger to you?"

I'm not sure if she could see or if she was just a little worried about the question I just asked but we needed a closer look. We walked around the edge of the seating and went outside to where it was shaded and we could see better. And there they were: cankles. I grew cankles in an afternoon! There was a weird fluster next as three of my friends and I tried to figure out what to do for a case of instant-fat-feet. I lay down on the ground and elevated them, someone put a cold water bottle on them, but mostly we just poked them a lot as if we were suddenly going to able to diagnose the problem.

I freaked out for a while as they seemed to get bigger in the heat. Fortunately, they grew to certain size and stopped. They didn't hurt and I could walk. I didn't go to a doctor because I was where I usually was when stuff like this happens: in a village in a foreign country.

The play ended and after some shopping we all got on the buses to go back to the place we were staying. A few more people got to see my exciting new development. Most of the theories tossed around that day had to do with the bus going up and down the hills and something with altitude. I kept them elevated and took some allergy pills or something. I even went rafting the next day. (Seriously, easy rafting.) I just kept showing people my fat feet hoping someone could tell me what was happening to me.

Monday I went to work, fat feet and all. I got a kick out of freaking out the kids with my cankles. (It actually freaked out the other teachers and staff more.) They were still there a week later when my parents arrived in Korea. I'm sure it was a great sight for my mother, who hadn't seen me in nine months. Because that's what you want to see when your oldest child is all alone for the first time and on the other side of the world. That she's becoming deformed.

My dad made me sleep in his special airplane socks that are supposed to give you even circulation and they started to really go down. Mom cleaned my apartment which was not in an acceptable state (is it ever?). I took my first real vacation since I arrived in Korea and relaxed in Jeju-do. It took some time but they went back to normal and I was all better.

Finally, we sat down together with the Internet and tried to figure out why my feet blew up. (Mom is an experienced hiker and didn't buy the 'altitude' theory.) And there, at the bottom of the list, on some medical website under possible causes for swollen feet it said, "...may be caused by anti-inflammatory medicine."

So that was it. I got the flu which gave me bronchitis that led to the worst weekend of my life followed by one of the weirdest. The lesson for all this is very simple and not at all original: Stuff happens. I did what I was supposed to. I was sick so I went to the doctor. Usually that's the end. Take the pills, drink some liquids, all better. Only this time the pills poisoned me, my stomach tried to kill me, and my feet doubled in size. The good experience that came out of this was that the next time I was sick, I was really willing to try acupuncture and Korean traditional medicine. Also, I try not to suck down pills like candy. My feet are big enough already.

Unfortunately, I know this is not the end. Despite Hong Kong being more western than Korea and having more resources than Buenos Aires, I know it will happen again. You get sick, you fall down; drink your fluids, pick yourself up.

It's just different when you don't speak the language.

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