Living in a different country brings many different experiences - some challenging and frustrating, others hilarious and life lessons. In my travels, flexibility and a sense of humor have been valuable tools. An appointment with an English speaking gynecologist in Seoul recently reminded me how valuable these tools are. I made an appointment with a gynecologist that a friend recommended, a female doctor who caters to foreigners living in Seoul like and who would not run for cover seeing a foreign "woohoo!"
I knew a visit to any doctor; and especially a gynecologist would be different in Korea than seeing my doctor in the United States. As I headed to my appointment, I reminded myself to be open and maintain a sense of humor because things were likely to be different. And I was right!
I arrived 10 minutes early for my 9:00 am appointment to find an office colleague and his wife, who I had not met before, sitting in the clinic. I had hoped to sneak in and out without being seen, but quickly accepted that I would have to speak with them. My office colleague clearly found the situation awkward as he blurted out "My wife made me come for a BMI (body mass index) test."
I was called to the front desk and asked to sit down to conduct a health history interview. “Here in the lobby?”, I asked. “Yes, please sit down,” said the friendly assistant. I looked around the reception area as I sat down to see who was present. The receptionist proceeded to take my blood pressure by one of those machines that are found at U.S. drugstores, my height, weight and a full discussion of my past reproductive history – all in the very public waiting area. I'll admit the lack of privacy made me uncomfortable and thankful I was not there for something serious!
After a short wait and a visit by one of the assistants to further discuss my personal history, I was escorted into the exam room for a pelvic exam that consisted of a sonogram. The exam room contained the technician’s office with an exam table to the side. Entering the room, I was told to remove my underwear and come to the exam table. A curtain was pulled and I proceeded to undress. I did what I normally do back in the States; I removed my nylons, underwear and skirt. I was not provided any gown or cover, but thought "Ok, they must do exams differently here." I pulled the curtain aside. Upon seeing me with nothing on the lower half, the technician, in a panic, waved me back inside. “Please put on your skirt, but don't put your underwear on," she repeated several times. I had clearly embarrassed her! I did as I was told, perplexed regarding how the sonogram would be conducted. The technician modestly lifted my skirt and efficiently conducted the sonogram – skirt and all! [I have since been informed that in most European countries patients also keep their skirts on during a visit to the gynecologist.]
Once the sonogram was over, the technician sent me back to put my underwear on, then provided me with an extensive explanation/lecture regarding the sonogram pictures, including the use of a binder of sonograms pictures of healthy and unhealthy uteruses and cervixes. Her explanation was informative but more targeted to Korean women that do not typically visit a gynecologist until they are married or pregnant. In Korea, most birth control pills are available by over the counter from a pharmacy without a prescription, so no need to visit a doctor. There are a few brands that have recently entered the Korean market that require a prescription, but this list is short.
As I waited for my pap smear, I was visited in the hallway by the sonogram technician who further expanded upon my exam (Yes, I was still sitting on the bench in the hall). I was then escorted to meet the Doctor for the first time. She apologized for the wait and sent me to again remove my underwear – but not my skirt, she reminded me! The incident in the sonogram examination room was obviously spreading quickly through the clinic! When I arrived at the exam table I found thigh-stirrups, not the foot stirrups I was used to. The thigh stirrups were Korean-sized, not American-sized, which made the skirt logistics even more interesting. In my a-frame skirt, I scooted up on the exam table and balanced my American-sized thighs in the stirrups. As I took stock of my situation, I realized that I had placed my hand in the center of my hiked-up skirt in a futile attempt to bring a little modesty to the situation, It quickly dawned on me that there was nothing modest about being in stirrups, so I removed my hand, facing the reality that I was flashing everyone in the room with my “woohoo!”
Once in place, the Doctor carefully explained the procedure then asked "Do you want to see your cervix?" Taken back a bit, I responded "No, that's ok." As the TV in the upper left corner was turned on, I realized in partial horror that the Doctor had not heard me and before I could respond there she was in HDTV – my cervix! There was no way out, so I sat back and embraced the situation. As the shock of seeing my cervix evaporated, I attentively listened as the Doctor provided an in-depth geographic and interesting analysis of my cervix. In retrospect, I’m glad she didn’t hear my initial refusal. Really, how many times does a woman get to view her cervix?
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