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  • Katherine Sirvio

This is Going to Get Personal...

So by now, you know that I lived in Korea for three years on an assignment for work. The differences between the American culture and the Korean culture are vast. My husband and I were tested before moving to Korea to make sure we were a good fit. We failed the test and they told us our chances of making it through the three years were very slim. I guess we proved them wrong, not only did we 'make it', it was the most amazing experience in both our lives for many different reasons and we didn't want to come home to the United States. I saw some crazy things and heard some crazy stories while I was there. Some of the cultural thinking was (excuse me for saying) bat shit crazy. But for all the differences that we have, I have never met a more kind, giving, caring group of people in my life. I have many strong friendships from Korea with both Korean nationals, Korean expats and foreigners that will last my lifetime. This is just one example of the generosity that was shown to me while I lived there.

As I mentioned, this is going to get personal and quickly. I had a condition called Menorrhagia. The cause of this condition for me was fibroid tumors in my uterus. The doctor in the United States never found the tumors, I had undergone many examinations, minor exploratory surgeries and had been dealing with this for over four years. We were discussing a hysterectomy or endometrial ablation as treatment options. So if that is not personal, I don't know what is. Anyway, I give you this background for three reasons. 1) That is the kind of person I am - totally transparent. 2) My doctor in the United States didn't figure out the cause or ignored it to keep billing me for 4 years and the doctor in Korea figured it out on the first visit in 10 minutes - Korea has good medical tourism. 3) This is why I was going to the hospital and the point of this story, also I hope you can understand how eternally grateful I am to all of the doctors and people who helped me and ensured I got the proper medical treatment required while still keeping all my parts.

So, I have to make a little side note. As I said, the differences in cultures are vast. The Gynecologists office is no different. In the United States, each patient goes into a private room. You strip down and get onto a table where the exam will take place. The doctor knocks to see if you are ready or you push a little button on the wall depending on the office. A nurse will stand by the doctor and be the 'witness' that everything was done professionally and no 'monkey business' happens. Some minor assistance from the nurse will happen, but the primary reason for her attendance is to witness. In Korea, you go into a little room, strip down the same way and get onto the table where the exam will take place. The difference is that half the table is in your little room and there is a curtain dividing the table in half and the lower half of the table is in an open hallway where the doctors come up for the examination. I guess for Koreans, the curtain is drawn and they leave their lower half on the other side of the curtain and never have to look into the eyes of the doctor doing the examination. I guess you could call this 'saving face'. I couldn't do that. Additionally, the open hallway had other medical professionals walking up and down it. Like a little show of hoo hoos for all to see. Did I say vast cultural differences?

So back to the main story. I was going to the International Clinic at the hospital for treatment, this was a god send. The clinic translated all the documents, prepared all the billing and took care of all the billing, translated everything for every doctor, nurse and professional you needed to converse with. Helped explain how things worked (at this point, obviously different than in the States). I was going in for surgery, so there was a lot to do and learn about the process. I had an appointment and my husband and I went into the registration area. The young lady that was helping us seemed to be somewhat distraught. We asked what was going on. She informed us that they were closing the International Clinic permanently that day. What?@*!? How could that be, I have a surgery scheduled. She told us she was just as dismayed, she had only learned a few hours ago that she would be unemployed at the end of the day and her life was upside down. I had now just learned that I would have to navigate a very different system with vast (did I say vast) cultural differences on my own. Wait...

I asked the young professional whose name was Suni - pronounced Sunny - if I could hire her for the next couple of days to be my personal assistant through this whole ordeal. Suni was pleased to do so. She would put her personal life and livelihood on hold to help me for the next couple of days. Great, we had a plan and I now felt much more comfortable. Suni was fantastic, without asking she would bring me juice knowing that I was thirsty, she would get warm blankets when she thought I was cold, she would tell me what was going to happen next, she would comfort me and my husband. For two days, she was at my beck and call, translated, negotiated and finalized everything from soup to nuts or billing to release. Suni was the god send.

At the end of the ordeal, and this is the truly important part, I was fixed. LOL, that is true, but the amazing part actually was when I asked Suni what we owed her, she said 'nothing'. 'Oh, no, we had a deal, I would pay you to assist me through this medical ordeal' I explained. Suni said, 'if you are in this area some night and have time, maybe you could buy me dinner'. I was amazed. I left knowing I would never see Suni again but would be eternally grateful to her. Who in America would stop to help a foreigner in this way for nothing? Someone you will never see again and has no impact on your life. Someone who doesn't speak your language, who doesn't understand your culture, who is lost in your world. How many Americans would take two days to help someone in need like this? I fear very few. I even question if I would pay it forward. I hope I would if the opportunity ever came up. I try very hard to be of assistance to those that visit - even if just being there for them. But this is a lesson in selflessness: concern more with the needs and wishes of others than with one's own. We should all take note.

This was not an anomaly in Korea, this was the norm. There may have been an alternative motive for some individuals. For example, while lost in a subway at a map (which was common at first) someone would always ask us if we needed help. They may have wished to practice their English with us and this was an opportune time. But there was also the selflessness and generosity as they walked us through a maze of underground tunnels to make sure we got to the subway change connection. This took time and effort. This is selfless and kind. This is Korea.

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