The Korea Herald


[Grace Kao] My Korean hospital adventures after breaking ankles

By Korea Herald

Published : March 19, 2024 - 05:31

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The doctors’ strikes in South Korea reminded me of what happened after I broke both of my ankles in Seoul last April.

While there is never a good time or place to break one’s ankles, doing so while traveling abroad is quite a challenge. I was in Seoul giving talks at universities and meeting with people in the K-pop industry. While my friends joked that I should tell people that I fell while working as a backup dancer for a K-pop act, the truth is that I fell from a single missed step while exiting a restaurant. I shattered the ankle that slipped and then fell onto the other ankle, fracturing that one as well. I fell before I was supposed to give a talk at Sungkyunkwan University. Luckily, I was with my Korean friend and host, economics professor Jaesung Choi, as well as two students, when this happened.

I knew immediately that I could not walk. I scooted slowly down the steps of the restaurant, but when I got to the last step, there was no way for me to reach the curb where Jaesung’s car was parked. I asked for an ambulance but was told that there were no ambulances because it was lunchtime. Eventually, a kind man from the restaurant offered to carry me on his back. Even though I had seen drunk women being carried on someone’s back in many K-Dramas, they were usually thin women in their 20s -- much younger and lighter than me. This was not an experience I wished to have, but such is life.

Eventually, Jaesung and his two students brought me to an orthopedic clinic (the first one was closed for lunch). The only problem was that they had no crutches or wheelchairs, so we could not figure out how to get me out of the car and to the clinic located on the 3rd floor of the building. Jaesung ran to the Samseong-dong Residents’ Center to borrow crutches, but I couldn’t use them anyway since, unbeknownst to me at the time, both of my ankles were broken. He then borrowed a lab stool (with wheels) from the clinic and he and his students pushed me from the car to the elevator and then to the clinic.

Once we were in the clinic, my husband Jeff Rubidge found us. I received excellent medical care. The orthopedist fixed the dislocation of the severely injured ankle. The problem was that the x-ray showed that I had shattered that ankle and fractured the other one. He didn’t really speak English, but managed to say: “No weight on both feet” and “You need surgery.” I asked him how long I could wait before getting surgery and he said “Two weeks.” Since I was due to leave Korea in 10 days, I decided I would wait it out.

He put both of my ankles in splints. My legs stuck straight out. Besides not having any wheelchairs or crutches, the bathroom was also not accessible at the orthopedic clinic. In fact, there were dozens of people there waiting to be seen, and I don’t know how some of them made it there.

Then, we faced the problem of how to leave the clinic. I was told not to put weight on either foot (and even if I wanted to, I was physically unable to do so). Since the clinic had no wheelchairs. Jaesung went back to the neighborhood center and borrowed a wheelchair. He brought the wheelchair to the clinic, placed me on it, and brought me to his car. We then returned the wheelchair back to the Samseong-dong Residents’ Center.

Luckily, Jeff and I were staying in a large chain hotel. We called them and asked if they had a wheelchair (they said yes!) and if they could move us to a wheelchair-accessible room (they said yes to this as well!). For that evening, we had a bit of a reprieve. Thanks to the hotel, we had a wheelchair for the rest of our time in Seoul.

However, having two broken ankles with nothing more than Tylenol for the pain was difficult to endure. My many Korean friends (and even their relatives) tried desperately to get me a follow-up appointment at the Samsung Medical Center. I also received help from International SOS, a service to which many American universities subscribe that helps with medical emergencies while traveling. A few days later, my student Meera Choi and my husband Jeff took me to the Samsung Hospital. It was efficiently run, and I entered it with my QR Code. After entering, I felt as if I were in an extremely busy airport (think Chicago’s O’Hare), with people running past us in every direction. I was briefly seen by an orthopedic surgeon (as he had many patients to see and I was clearly added at the last minute), who confirmed the diagnosis and also told me that I needed surgery as soon as possible. He took my “good leg” out of the splint and replaced it with a brace. Of course, flying in my condition is not without risks, so I had to take medication to prevent blood clots during the flight. During the rest of my stay in Korea, I was interviewed for an article in another paper in Korea, so you can see me in a wheelchair in the photo for that piece. I also gave a Zoom talk at KAIST.

The day of our trip back to the US, we were directed to a third facility -- this one was right next to our hotel and was a smaller but full-service hospital -- so that I could get a shot to further prevent blood clots on our flight. This was a terrific experience. It was not crowded, it was well-staffed and had wheelchair access.

We finally made it back home to the US, where I had surgery and took many months to heal from my injuries.

While I have no real knowledge of the medical system in Korea, I have interfaced with it. The medical professionals I saw were skilled and took great care of me. My wonderful orthopedic surgeon at Yale, Irvin Oh, told me, “You saw my adviser in Seoul!” However, the lack of accessibility and equipment in Seoul left a lot to be desired. In the US, every hospital I’ve been to has many wheelchairs for patients to use and staff to push you around. Public buildings are required to have accessible bathrooms (allowing wheelchairs to make a 360-degree turn) and entrances. Sidewalks have curb cuts so that one can maneuver wheelchairs and strollers. I had no problem getting from my car to my campus office in New Haven in my wheelchair

I am fortunate that my time in a wheelchair was brief, but this will not be the case for an increasing number of Koreans as the population ages. Medical facilities and accessibility in public places must be expanded and improved upon in Korea.

Meanwhile, I will try to avoid dancing for any K-pop group (just joking!) and going to restaurants with stairs when I’m in Korea.

Grace Kao

Grace Kao is an IBM professor of sociology and professor of ethnicity, race and migration at Yale University. -- Ed.