When I was trying to talk my Newfie friend Shawn P. Kelly into joining me for a tour of duty in Korea, I made the mistake of mentioning the mandatory medical on arrival, including drug and HIV tests and other goodies. And I added that the Korean co-teacher accompanied the lucky recruit to the clinic.
“What’s she do,” he barked back in his gruff Newfoundland manner, “Hold your balls while you cough?”
Shawn never made it to Korea.
We drove, Dorothy and I, into “Old Gimhae”, which pretty much resembled “New Gimhae”, only older. Parked on a sloping platform of corrugated steel (don’t ask) and entered the clinic. I sighed. Was anything worth this? I hate hospitals — what kind of sicko doesn’t? — but this one didn’t even sparkle and reek of disinfectant. It looked like somewhere you’d wait while your tyres were being changed.
I handed over 70,000 won of my own dwindling won-pile to a nurse who kept giggling and whispering disconcertingly to her colleague, and we took a seat. I couldn’t stop gazing at some poor bastard’s X-ray in the next room, which was illuminated for all of us to enjoy. It was a chest cavity, and I was struck by how closely the neatly stacked organs resembled a poster in a butcher shop.
A young guy in green came out looking more depressed than I felt. He had been briefed, and addressed me in sullen English.
“Please. Half-full.” He handed me a small plastic container. It had no lid.
Dorothy visibly flinched.
“There’s no lid on my sample container!” I wanted to shriek.
In the dingy restroom I poured my heart out into that container, stopping precisely at the 50% mark. Returning to the exam room — which, this being Asia, was in full view of anyone waiting (for example, Dorothy) — I was terrified of colliding with someone and spilling my sample on them. There was no lid!
I made it okay, and Green Pyjamas placed the container on the desk and dunked some kind of litmus paper in it. He commanded me to stand on a contraption that dropped a bar onto my head and produced a measurement of my height. I did an eye test, holding something over alternate eyes while squinting at tiny figures painted by foot sometime at the dawn of the 20th century.
I sat down opposite him. My sample sat there between us — my whole future in a beaker. I admired its opacity, its strength of colour, and felt reassured.
“Now, said Green Pyjamas, “Blood test.”
“Oh.” My pride dissolved.
“You have…needle shock?”
“Hmmm? No.” He produced a needle of prodigious size. I felt a mild spasm of needle shock, then looked through a window and focused on a poster featuring a pair of shapely female legs. It was much better viewing than the X-ray, and I barely felt the needle.
It was blood pressure time. I was dreading this: the rolling of the sleeve and the unmasking of my tattoos to a culture wildly suspicious of body ink and other displays of gangster thuggery, but GP and his assistant showed no reaction. True professionals.
I was commanded to stand and hold out my arms while the assistant hugged me with a tape measure. I hoped Dorothy was enjoying all this.
Into a small chamber with a woman who had to help me remove my neck ornamentation and then had me thrust my chest into the equipment in a most undignified manner. But it was over very fast, and in perfect English she said, “Okay,” and, less perfectly, “Finish,” and I was back out in the exam room.
I think it was at this stage that I was placed briefly in the care of someone else — possibly an actual doctor, since he was wearing white. He looked nervous, and asked me in Korean if I spoke Korean. I answered in English that I didn’t.
“OK,” he said with audible distaste,”Any medical problems?”
I decided to be selective, and told him about the stress fractures back in ’04.
“But no…bad effects now?”
“Good. Last examination by doctor? Six months? No problems? Good. Any depression, anxiety or insomnia?”
“Good. Any cardiovascular problems? Respiratory? Circulatory? No? Good. OK, finish. Next: dentist.”
I thought I’d misheard him, but no, Dorothy and I were quickly shepherded into an adjoining clinic, and met at the door by a nurse and the dentist, who looked like he might once have attended to the dental requirements of the last king of the Silla Dynasty.
I was steered into the chair. The doctor, his face the colour of crematorium ash, said, “Any problems, with the mouth?”
“OK, open mouth, please.”
I opened. He flicked on the light, immediately said, “Very good!” and flicked off the light again. “Ok, finish.”
The whole dental exam had taken approximately one second.
He steered me to Dorothy and the door. The nurse had vanished minutes ago.
“Where are you from?” he asked, smiling through well-enhanced teeth.
“Oh!” His eyes sparkled. “I go. Just Shi-doh-nee.”
“Here is for you.” He handed me a copy of my medical report, and pointed at the acronym he’d just written: WNL.
“Within Normal Limitations,” he explained, beaming.
But he was gone, and so was one more layer of anxiety coating my Korean expedition. It was quite reassuring, in fact, to know that whatever travails this country had in store, at least I had my health.
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote