It’s really an amazing story of being in the right place at the right time.
Mostly this is a space where I share pictures for my family, letting them know that I’m happy and healthy and eating well. But obviously, that’s not possible 100% of the time. And I don’t want to worry my family too much, so I don’t really write about the times where I don’t eat dinner until 11 pm or eat junk food or feel sad and lonely because moving to an entirely different country and adjusting to a new language and culture is, to oversimplify, difficult.
So if my hair is falling out and I’m gaining weight and feeling tired and depressed, that’s normal, right?? I mean, who wouldn’t feel like that in a country where people think it is perfectly natural to suggest that you would look “so much better” with plastic surgery?
But it turns out I might be able to blame my thyroid gland for part of that. A month ago during my routine health checkup, the ultrasound technician noted a few nodules when he was scanning my neck. The doctor gave me a referral to get the larger nodule biopsied. Or rather, she said “I hope you don’t have cancer! Ha ha ha! But if you have thyroid cancer it’s not that bad!” Clearly, bedside manner is not part of the korean medical school curriculum.
I think the reason I didn’t freak out was because all this news was coming to me in Korean, so it felt like it wasn’t really happening to me. And who gets cancer at 31? Also, my parents were in town and I didn’t want them to freak out either.
I called my cousin (an otolaryngologist) and he set up an appointment for me at the Asan Medical Center, a HUGE hospital in Seoul. After my fine needle biopsy, I was told I would have to wait 2 weeks for the results. But my cousin called later that night and told me that what I had was about 95% likely to be malignant and that I would need surgery to take my thyroid out.
Again, since this was all explained to me in Korean, I didn’t freak out. But I did call my parents and they went into super-parent-mode. Thanks to my family (not just my parents but my cousin and my uncle in Minnesota) I suddenly had an appointment four days later with Korea’s best thyroid surgeon.
When you meet with Korea’s top thyroid surgeon, you don’t really have time to ask too many questions. My surgeon was meeting 89 patients that day. I think each meeting took an average of 2 to 5 minutes. When it was my turn I wanted to ask a whole bunch of questions but was chastised for doing so. Our dialogue went something like this:
Surgeon: You know you have cancer, right?
Me: Uh, now I do. <Various random questions about the surgery and treatment options>
Surgeon: Why are you asking so many questions? Just ask them later! Your surgery date is the 26th.
But I have to say, thanks to my surgeon being so scary, having thyroid cancer seemed less scary. Also, my pre-op tests (EKG, chest x-ray, blood draw) all took less than 20 minutes, so I spent most of the time marveling at how efficient Korean hospitals are.
I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to talking about health insurance. After I graduated, there was a year when I was “unemployed” so I applied for individual health insurance through Kaiser. I was rejected for any plan that had prescription drug benefits because of my “prior prescription drug use.” That was for the 5 days I was on proton pump inhibitors thanks to the acid reflux I was experiencing during the stress of finishing my dissertation. And every time I needed to see a doctor my copay was $30.
Here in Korea, there’s a national health insurance plan and everybody pays a monthly fee that is a certain percentage of their salary. The copay is 30% of cost if you go to a clinic (I paid around $5 when I saw a doctor for a throat infection) to 60% of cost if you go to a tertiary-care hospital. Once I was diagnosed with cancer, my copay was reduced to 10% of cost. My prescription benefits also got bumped up - a half-month supply of T3 hormone cost me 50 cents. At any rate, can you imagine even trying to get approved for any insurance AFTER being diagnosed with cancer in the US? You’d probably be deemed uninsurable.
Nice view, right? That was the view from my hospital room! That’s a funny story but I’ll save it for the next post. Right now my uncle and grandma are visiting my new apartment and it’s time for dinner…