My first Christmas abroad

Disclaimer:  This post will have very little to do with Christmas, and a lot with my back injury. I haven’t written about my injury, in fact, I’ve mostly kept it off Facebook, too. It just kind-of bamboozled the entire Christmas/New Year period for me, and I feel like writing about it all.


So I was really excited about writing all about my first Christmas in Korea. Here’s what I was going to write about:

Christmas Eve: I organised a dinner party with my closest friends. I was going to make one of my favourite dishes from back home. I’d gone to Itaewon weeks in advance to make sure I had the ingredients. We were going to do a white elephant gift exchange. Cindy requested that we carry on one of her family traditions, which is to each read a Christmas story. My apartment was clean and tidy, I had all my Christmas decorations up, and I was so ready to spend the evening with my family away from my family.

Christmas Day: A day also planned long in advance. Good friends had left Munsan post-contract and moved to an entirely new province. We arranged to meet in Seoul on Christmas day for some food and catch-up. I’d been looking forward to this for weeks. Brooke and Jacob used to be a 10-minute walk away and we saw one another often. Now we have to travel an hour, double that time for them, to get together somewhere in the middle. Despite our best intentions to get together as often as possible, life happens and I was really looking forward to this special day with them.

But hey. I don’t get to do that. Instead, I get to tell you about how, in April this year, I woke up one morning and I couldn’t move my leg. Jump forward a bit, and I’m diagnosed with what’s casually known as a pinched nerve in my back. This one is causing severe pain in my left leg. So severe, that at first I couldn’t walk, drive or, well, anything. Thank goodness my mom was available to help me. Man, the memories. I remember dropping something on the floor, and if someone wasn’t around to help, I just had to leave it there and move on. My poor mom and sister were responsible for helping me with everything. I couldn’t carry my own cup of coffee or dinner plate. I couldn’t even dress myself or comb out my hair.

I went to physiotherapy every day for a month. I wore a back brace to take some of the pressure off my spine. When I returned to work, it was with a crutch to support me. Everything was so much effort. During all this, a job opportunity came up in Korea – one that was months earlier than I’d bargained on, but one I didn’t want to turn down.

Thankfully my back gave me a break and my move to Korea was smooth sailing (on the pain front at least – let’s not revisit the stress I went through after failing two drug tests due to the residual codeine in my system from all the meds).

A few months ago the symptoms started again and my co-teacher helped me get to physiotherapy. Since then I’ve struggled on and off. I became the friend who had the lame ‘sore leg’ excuse for all sorts of random things. But so it is. For the most part, I knew the limitations of my own body and I tried sticking to that. I often failed, and returned to physiotherapy on a regular basis.

I was having a good run (well, more of a regular limp, but hey), until last Friday . I was walking home with some friends and slipped on the ice. I had a most epic fall, and apparently it looked really sore. I landed flat on my back, but got back up and didn’t feel at all sore. I spent the evening walking all over town for a friend’s farewell pub-crawl. Saturday was very exciting, as my bestie and I set off for one of the big electronics markets in Seoul so I could buy myself a Christmas present – a swanky new laptop. We walked around for hours, exploring and shopping. I was knackered by the time we got back, and assumed it was an after-effect of my fall.

On Sunday I hardly moved. I did a few preparations for Monday’s dinner party, but that was about it. I kept reminding myself that I only had to get through one day of work before Christmas and vacation time, and I committed to squeezing in a physiotherapy session before going shopping and rushing home to cook.

It’s cute how we think we have it all figured out.

I hardly got through Monday. I was in so much pain. By noon, I was solidly nauseous. I thought nothing of using the breaks in between lessons to rest my head on my desk and sleep. I kept reminding myself that physio would be soon, and that I’d need to pull it together to do some shopping before cooking up a storm for our Christmas Eve dinner. In the late afternoon, my co-teacher brought me some forms to sign for my vacation time. I’m assuming he could tell that something wasn’t right, because a short while later he was back to escort me to the doctor. I could hardly walk. I panicked, because I remembered that first while back home, where I was completely dependent on someone else.

By 16:00, we were at the doctor (the same one I saw the first time in Korea). I had X-rays taken, and the doctor looked very concerned. Keep in mind that during all this, the doctor would speak to my co-teacher in Korean, who would then have to translate all the medical jargon (not exactly elementary school syllabus stuff). So the whole interaction was very anxiety-provoking. He explained that I’d need to go to the bigger hospital (as it had better facilities), but that an MRI scan would be necessary, and most likely hospitalisation and surgery. The doctor wanted me to go immediately. Well, that was the end of me.  (TMI alert) I very dramatically ran to the bathroom, and they had to wait almost 20 minutes for me to stop being sick.  Not the state any NET wants their co-teacher to see them in. Weak, sore, with extreme fever chills. Glamorous, I tell ya.

So off we went to the fancy schmancy hospital (one that apparently opened rather recently) and the doctor ordered me to go for more X-rays. (Had this been SA, I would have freaked. But these babies cost me less than R50 a pop.) He explained again that only an MRI would be able to show the exact injury and the extent of the damage it has caused. (Once again, all this is happening via my co-teacher.) I, in turn, explained that it was Christmas Eve, and I wasn’t prepared to have anything done before Christmas (these are not days/events of particular significance in Korea, so I know they had trouble understanding my reasoning). My first thought, honestly, was: I need to let my mom know! We had a Skype session scheduled for 7:00 Christmas morning my time, and I really didn’t want her to find out via a message to my sister that I was, instead, in hospital.

In retrospect, I’m glad I did this. But we’ll get to that.

My co-teacher dropped me off at home, and the full extent of all of this hit me with the force of a canonball. I was a mess. I messaged my friend, who sprung to action and made alternative arrangements. Before heading off to the new dinner location, this friend popped over to check in on me, and found me in a state of near hysterics. After some soothing words of support and encouragement, I was left in a more functional state and I got ready to Skype with my mom to tell her. That, also, wasn’t the most together interaction I’ve ever had, but for all I knew, my entire life was about to be shifted into a state of WTF.

My friends had a wonderful dinner (or so I heard). At around midnight, two of them came over to my apartment to check on me and spend some time with me, too. I woke up just enough to gather that it had started snowing shortly before midnight, and I peeked out the balcony window. I got my White Christmas, after all! My friends and I exchanged gifts and just hung out for as long as I was awake. I appreciated this gesture more than words can express (I should tell them this. I don’t recall if I made that much of a fuss while they were there.).

White Christmas! A special bout of snow that fell just for me, to cheer me up. :)

White Christmas! A special bout of snow that fell just for me, to cheer me up. 🙂

Christmas Day consisted of plenty of sleep. When everyone went off to Seoul, my best friend stayed behind to keep me company. We watched some Christmas movies, and in the early afternoon I Skyped with my mom and sister. We opened our gifts and had a quick chat before they went off to our traditional Christmas breakfast.

My Christmas tree with the surprise gifts from home underneath.

My Christmas tree with the surprise gifts from home underneath.

And so it was the morning of the 26th. My co-teacher fetched me from home and I had my MRI. I then had a session of physiotherapy (which, I must admit, was way fancier than at the previous, older, smaller hospital). Eventually I got to see the doctor again – a different one this time. He went off in Korean and explained the scans to my co-teacher. I stared at the wall posters, and mentally prepared for hearing the 2-minute version of this almost 10-minute explanation. My co-teacher whipped out his smartphone, which he does when he needs to translate unfamiliar words to me. Again, we don’t usually make small talk about herniated/ruptured discs and nerve damage. Next thing, the doctor turned to me and gave me the exact same lowdown – in PERFECT English. Like, I almost cried as a result of my shock and relief.

As an added Christmas bonus, he sent me home with seven days worth of (really effective) pain meds. Usually, Korean doctors only prescribe three days’ worth of medication at a time. HE SENT ME HOME! See, this is why I’m glad I didn’t listen to the first doctor. Imagine spending two nights in hospital over Christmas, only to find out it wasn’t all that necessary. And then I might not have crossed paths with the English-speaking doctor. Still, I was all prepared for spending the rest of the week in hospital (I tidied my apartment, cleaned out my fridge, everything!). Two doctors had convinced me that hospitalisation was a sure thing. And here I was, going home, albeit with strict instructions to lie down pretty much all the time (doable!), go for physiotherapy every second day for three weeks, and then see the doctor for a follow-up. This I can do! The hospital is a ten minute walk from my apartment, so I get to stretch my legs a bit and I don’t have to take the bus into town. I also walk right past it on my way home from work, so the stars have aligned for me here.

Seven days' bliss right here!

Seven days’ bliss right here!

I took the meds three times a day, and slept like a log for a good while after. My entire vacation was spent in a haze. This partly sucked, as my good friend and I had plans to do some exciting things every day of our vacation. That said, I also needed the rest and I’m glad that I had a legitimate excuse to sleep alllll day and alllll night for a week.

During this time, Munsan sadly lost its craic. Our token Irish friend’s contract finished up, and she was kind enough to pop over to say goodbye, and to bring over some leftover chocolates (bless her!). Korea has many things, but good chocolate isn’t one of them.

The chocolate selection. Cadbury, yum!

The chocolate selection. Cadbury, yum!

It’s been just over a week now, and even though my leg still hurts most of the time, I can function (pretty much) normally. I’ve learned to say no and take it easy. And for the most part, my friends are understanding and accommodating. (I’ll take a moment right here to mention that Cindy was an absolute rock star those first few days until I seemed coherent enough to care for myself. From feeding me to keeping me company at random times of the day and night, to walking with me to physio and staying with me there just so I had someone to talk to. It helped that she was on vacation, but mostly, I’d never been so happy that she moved into my building. I hope that I can return the favour someday.)

The soup I was going to make on Christmas Eve. Cindy came over one night and cooked it up while I (in her words) "directed from my bed like a sultan". <3

The soup I was going to make on Christmas Eve. Cindy came over one night and cooked it up while I (in her words) “directed from my bed like a sultan”. ❤

For all intent and purposes I’ll still be here this Christmas. I’m set on having a better one, whether it’s in Korea, or some exotic holiday destination. Touch wood.



Just FYI, medical care is really cheap in Korea. Like, really cheap. It’s a private hospital, which means I have to pay cash. Here’s what I’ve had to shell out (rounded off for ease):

Initial doctor’s visit and X-rays: 10 000 won (R80)

Physiotherapy (including traction): 5000 won a session (R40)

Seven days’ supply of decent pain meds, anti-inflammatories and some other mystery pills: 10 000 won (R80)

MRI scan plus follow-up with the awesome doctor: 440 000 won (R3 500) *Now, not just anyone has that amount of money just sitting in their bank account. Imagine swiping your card to pay for an MRI in SA. But this is Korea, and cash flow is one of the perks.


Here’s wishing you a happy, healthy and prosperous 2013!


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