Our Son’s Visit To A Korean Emergency Room

Filed Under: Family, Kids

Yesterday I began the story of our son’s visit to a Korean emergency room.

To summarize, we had flown down to Jeju from Seoul that morning and were in the process of picking up the rental van from Sixt when he ran smack dab into a steel pole. We got the bleeding under control and headed off to hospital which the Sixt staff had programmed into the van’s GPS. My wife took him into the hospital and told the story from there.

We found ourselves in a small waiting room, with maybe one other person in it. At the counter, I again showed the wound, now using the keyword “laceration,” and presented my son’s passport (but not my own). We sat for about five minutes before being called back to a triage bed just inside the door to the treatment floor.

We were first seen by a young male nurse. He spoke some English, enough to ask us pertinent medical history questions, about what happened, and how our boy’s behavior had been since the accident. We explained slowly with gestures, and it took Boston Ben rephrasing my words a couple of times, but we all got our points across. There was certainly a language barrier, but it was not insurmountable.

After the nurse disappeared, the doctor — a short, middle aged woman — showed up to look at my son’s head. She held his cheeks tenderly and told him, “You a brave boy.” Then she turned to me and said, matter-of-factly, “Three sutures.  Also we take head x-ray, just to check.” I agreed with the treatment plan, and the male nurse reappeared to discuss the cost. He looked nervous about it. He said, “It will be….” and wrote down on his notepad “280,000 KRW.” ($250) Sold, I thought.


The nurse escorted us back to the emergency room operating theater. It had a big overhead light and was storing a lot of equipment. We waited for several more minutes here and my son was asked to change from his shirt into a hospital shirt. Shortly thereafter, a tech came to take us back to x-ray, which was just across the hall from the back door of the room we were in. They arranged my slightly nervous son on the x-ray table, and we explained to him that the machine was just a big camera. I ducked out of the room into the hallway and left him by himself, as I am pregnant and wanted to minimize exposure to the x-rays. He did just fine and wasn’t afraid at all.

After being escorted back to the operating room, we had our longest wait of the whole ordeal, perhaps 15 minutes. My son weathered it well — he played games on my phone — but I was feeling the fatigue setting in. Nurses ran in and out to get equipment as it seemed like someone else was having a more urgent problem than us. But it wasn’t too long until the doctor was back with the nurse to confirm that the head x-ray showed no skull damage and to set up for the sutures.


The doctor had a cloth with a hole in it. The hole aligned over the wound and the cloth covered my son’s eyes. She played peek-a-boo with him a couple times and got him to giggle, before showing him where she would put it. It made him comfortable and relaxed. Of course, he did not like the shot of local anesthetic at all, but after that, he mostly calmed down, holding tightly to my hands and listening to me sing softly. The doctor also spoke to him softly throughout the procedure, in both Korean and English. I really appreciated her kind bedside manner — it put both him and me at ease.

The three sutures were in before we knew it. The doctor was able to give me post-op care instructions in fairly clear English, and we were summarily released.

Our son
Our brave boy with his Tigey.

We headed back out to the waiting room counter to pay our 280,000 KRW ($250) with a credit card, and receive our receipt, printed entirely in Korean.

We were then on our way, a mere 45 minutes after entering the hospital doors.


Unlike Ben, I’ve been to more than a few hospitals in my time, either for myself or accompanying friends and family members. I generally assume that any trip to the ER is going to take a minimum of several hours — if it’s something serious, it takes a while to deal with it, and if it’s not serious, they’ll make you wait while they deal with somebody else who is. Either way, you’re gonna be there for a while.

So I wasn’t really surprised by Ben’s ordeal at the German ER as I can easily see the same sequence of events playing out in the US.

We were, however, quite impressed with the care my son received in Korea. The care, the attention, and the compassion were all exemplary.

He got his stitches out by his pediatrician here in the US who said it all looked great. A little over two months later and the scar is barely noticeable.

Overall, it was a really good experience given the situation. I’d like to hope it’s one we don’t repeat, but given that my offspring seem to have inherited my adventure gene, I have a feeling we’ll be in for more of this in the future.

Obviously, Ben’s ordeal in the German ER and ours are mere anecdotes. The ages of the patients were (slightly) different. The ailments were hugely different — when someone shows up with a hole in the side of their head, it’s pretty clear what needs to be done, whereas I imagine that it can be hard to get to the root cause of abdominal pain.

Then there is the language barrier. Ben was speaking perfect German and my wife and Boston Ben knew exactly zero words of Korean. Sometimes I actually wonder if you get more attention if you don’t speak the language? Were the caregivers more inclined to show sympathy and compassion because they knew it was a foreign world for us? Or is it because where there is a language barrier, compassion becomes a universal language? Meanwhile Ben appeared like a local in Germany and therefore they didn’t feel compelled to stick to his side? Obviously, I really have no idea.

I’m just very grateful that they were able to quickly and efficiently patch my son up and send us on our way.

Who doesn't want a giant bandage on their forehead in every vacation picture?
Who doesn’t want a giant bandage on their forehead in every vacation picture?

Have you had to go to the emergency room in a foreign country? Was your experience more reminiscent of Ben’s, or my son’s?

  1. Glad it worked out so well!

    Having just been to Korea, I’m impressed with their efficiency and modern society (ahead of us in some ways). However, I’ve thought of Germany as being efficient (although I haven’t been there) so the contrast is striking.

  2. I guess it all depends on the country but also on the size of the city you are. By reading your post I don’t think you were in a big city. Thus, that and the fact that South Korea is a first world country that worked in your favor. On the other hand, I’ve been to hospitals in first world countries but in big cities and I spent 7 hours to check for a lower back pain and to get the wrong diagnostics. In sum, I wasted 7 hours since they did x-rays when they should have done a ultrasound or CT scan and told me I just had a back pain caused by my long flight instead of finding I had kidney stones that were moving and causing the pain. 🙁

  3. Glad your son is okay, and you did discover the secret to Korean medical care: almost everyone in the hospital knows “medical English.” They can’t tell you where the pharmacy is, but so long as you stick to nouns, everything gets done.

    For anyone who doesn’t want to take the risk of not being understood, there is a national help line (1330, I think….) that can get you translation help in a pinch.

    Now, for a comment that may surprise those in the west….280,000KRW! Ouch. By Korean standards, you got charged the rich foreigner price. To be fair, Sixt also sent you to a high end hospital for something that here would be handled in a doctor’s office or by appointment.

  4. Well, you are not making a fair comparison.
    Korea, Japan and Taiwan are three countries with most efficient health care system in the world. Medical practices in these countries are professional and pleasant. Health care system in other countries are totally different stories. As for US, you know, many people call US health care system the worst health care system in first world countries.

  5. Normally, All of Koreans have NHS system like UK (and some lots of foreigners who residing in – Korean govt allowed to join in) when I visited ER in Seoul last time due to injuries, I just paid below 100 bucks. Incl all of emergency care, (partial) medical checkup, etc. There system and doctors are quiet good enough and medicines are cheap.

  6. @MM9U – Originally it was 1339(for information of clinics and hospital, sickness), but now it has been combined to 119(like 911, emergency line). Ask for English-able operators and they’ll wait for u 24/7.

    In normal situation, 1330 (Korea Travel Organization) and 1588-5644 (BBB Korea) will help your communication problem in Korea. Also they will be wait for u 24/7.

  7. Having to go to a public Ecuadorian hotel room at 2 in the morning after a very alarming bug bite was not the most reassuring place to go with some large rusted oxygen tanks in the corner. All free though, got an anti-venom shot of some sort, some heavy duty ibuprofen, and luckily had a spanish speaker with me as the hospital employees spoke zero spanish. I was in and out in an hour but it was in a smaller town, not Quito where I imagine the hotel would have more emergencies.

  8. Glad it worked out well and your vacation wasn’t delayed too long.

    To those who complained about having this split in two parts…so petty. You couldn’t stand the suspense? 😉

  9. I’m impressed you found doctors and nurses who knew some English. When I was in Seoul last month I was shocked by the near complete lack of English skills (or any other non-native language since combined our small group also had people fluent in French, German and Spanish). I have traveled extensively and have never been anywhere (outside of the USA) where the people seem to have so little command of a 2nd language. This was particularly surprising since our hotel was only a KM from one of the largest US military installations in Asia.

  10. I’m more interested in how you’re pregnant, being a guy and all, as you write about in the paragraph about the X-ray.

  11. I’m glad your son is OK. It’s funny that your pregnant wife is worried about ambient radiation from your son’s x-ray… when the plane flight to Korea from the US probably had about 3-5x the dose of radiation from a single x-ray….

  12. Yep, having lived in Jeju for 8 months and Busan for close to 2 years, Korea’s Hospitals and Doctors are top notch. And the price is very reasonable. My buddy was sick in Jeju and he had to stay overnight at the hospital after going to the ER. Total cost, $150. That would’ve cost about 20x that here in the states.

    America’s healthcare system is crap.

    Hope you got to see all the sites in Jeju. My favorite is Udo Island.

  13. The good thing about most of asia is that most people have access to doctor’s offices that open late or even 24 hours. So not many people are flocking to the emergency room. Doctor’s in asia are not like lil princesses in Canada and the US who mostly only work office hours and there are sooooo many doctors and private clinics you have 2 or 3 ever block or so.

  14. Santastico — I believe the city of Jeju has a population of over 400,000. That’s not that small, at least by my definition.

  15. MM9U — Interesting. Maybe that’s why my wife said he seemed ashamed to tell her how much it costs. We thought it was cheap! And I’m happy that Sixt sent us to the best — that’s what I would have done too if I were them.

  16. Garkman — Says right at the top that my wife took him into the ER while I stayed with our daughter in the van. So she’s telling the story.

  17. Dan — Actually, my wife and I tend to agree with you about Korea, and the lack of English, at least compared to many other parts of the world. But as others have said, “medical English” seems to be more common. Of course, I think that walking in to the ER with a gaping hole in your head probably makes it pretty clear what the problem is.

    Also, as others have pointed out, the national helpline (which I forgot about), is really cool and sort of acknowledgement that perhaps they should offer some resources to help tourists. Seems like a brilliant idea. Wish I had tried it out.

  18. @garkman, it is clearly stated, “My wife took him into the hospital and told the story from there.”

  19. I’ve been to emergency rooms in Canada twice. Both times it was so easy….they accepted my health insurance from the U.S. The only thing I paid for was my prescriptions.

  20. @wendy I’m Canadian it really depends on where when etc.. it can get pretty bad, because like in the US we have lack of 24 hour clinics etc and a lot of people do not have family doctors, we have a bit more walk in places but that only makes up for the lack of a family doctor and primary care…not as good as they have here in asia in terms of prevalence and opening hours.

  21. I’d rather have a “crap” medical system and all the opportunities for extremely low cost luxury travel then to live in say Germany where they apparently have pretty good healthcare but essentially no opportunity for the comparatively lucrative travel rewards.

    @Jay – with two or three doctors and clinics every block or so in “most of asia” (whatever that means) I imagine the bureaucratic oversight set up to ensure quality care is quite good. Or on second thought maybe not so much.

  22. Hmmmmm… That top photo looks like성산일출봉 ( Sanseong Ilchulbong), although I’ve never seen it from that angle. Lucky your son didn’t fall down there! (Although there are stairs to climb all the way to the top)
    I’d highly recommend a stay at Bulteok Guesthouse @ about CAD$12/nigh.t. Jaeki will give you a ride into the nearest town, where you can ‘rent’ a bike ( it’s actually free!). Ride the coastal road, about 25 km each way — you’ll catch a local flavour, although don’t expect people to speak English.
    Hardly for your chain-hotel type, but that’s hardly what traveling’s about at all. Enjoy.
    And I hope yr son gets well soon. I’m sure his hospital visit in Jeju-Si was WAY more pleasant (and cheaper) than in an American hospital:-)

  23. Mick — Yep, we climbed up Sanseong Illchubong to the crater! It was beautiful. And yeah, the steps are steep.

  24. Al — No idea what you are talking about since not a single comment of any nature has been deleted from this post.

  25. @Tom: You’re exaggerating a bit – nearly the exact same thing happened to my son and he required 3 stitches on his upper lip. We do have insurance, but it’s of the high-deductible sort, so I had to pay the cost out of pocket. At least in NV, it was $971.

    I broke my hand when I tripped while jogging in Istanbul. In a foreign city with no idea how to get to a clinic or anything, I was a bit nervous. I was scheduled to come home the next day anyway, so I wrapped up my hand tightly, and found a pharmacy to buy some painkillers and waited to get home before seeing a doctor. Maybe not the best decision, but my hand is fine now.

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