Sick in Japan

I’m a few days post my first ever doctors visit in Japan and so I figured this would be a good time to tell you guys all about it before the memory fades. Today there are no lessons or steps, just a storytime so it’s a bit longer to read but I hope you enjoy. 

Some background: Most of my early childhood was spent as a sickly child. One of my first memories is of myself waking up in the hospital from inhaling too much carbon monoxide. From what I’ve been told and some of what I remember, my dad’s old grey Chevy had some sort of exhaust problems while we were still living in Witbank. Despite this, we had driven home from somewhere or the other and sometime during this drive; I fell asleep in the back seat. When we reached home they couldn’t wake me, so they had to just drove me on to the hospital. Sure, this incident had nothing to do with my physical ability to be human, but I’ve always taken it as a slight against my body and immune system because I was the only one that it happened to. During those early years (I’m talking around 5 to 7 years old now), I was always sick. Most of my pre-school and creche photo’s show a girl struggling to stay alive. 

Poster child for sickly children

Like most children, I went through most of the common illnesses: Chickenpox; Measles; Tonsillitis; Ear infections; and Smallpox. These are just the ones I remember, there could have been more. My skin was sensitive, I puked all the time, and I just wasn’t healthy! If I ask my dad about it now, he’ll usually say some bizarre thing like “Light skin children are always sickly. The lack of complexion just makes them sickly people.” A strange sentiment inspired by the fact that both his most sickly children happened to be light-skinned (not strong evidence to prove this hypothesis, to be honest), but one that I can absolutely believe too because wow guys. 

More like HOW??

When we moved over to Johannesburg in 1998, my health took a turn. I was finally okay. Except for tonsillitis. Tonsillitis was my new identity. Every year without fail I would get an infection. This went on until high school. Luckily in the second half of high school, I didn’t struggle too often with my tonsils. At this stage, you are probably wondering why my doctor didn’t chop them out? Good question. Beats me. But I was okay with it because whenever I would bring it up to my dad or mom, they would reassure me that it was for the best. According to them, people who had their tonsils removed also lost their ability to taste things. 

Come time for varsity and the frequency and intensity of my tonsil infections shot up. When I trace back each infection that I had, they would always spring up a week or two before big semester tests or exams. Yes, that’s basically tonsillitis 4 times in a year because of stress. Again, I would forgive you for asking why my doctor didn’t chop them out at this stage. Again I say, that’s a damn good question! I raised it with one of the campus doctors when the infection I had was a particularly green and nasty one and he just chuckled and said it would pass and that I shouldn’t stress. I went as far as going back to my home doctor at a later stage when I was healthy to ask for the operation and was told the same thing. This time the doctor added his two cents worth about it being a painful operation and how it sometimes doesn’t take out all the tonsil anyway, so it could be a wasted medical expense. This man was more concerned about my medical aid than he was about my health. 

Anyway, I left Tuks and started University at UNISA and I was cured. The workload was greater because I was playing catchup but the stress was so much better. Something about not being accountable in front of a class of your peers was somehow working to make me less stressed. I also overcame my test anxiety during this time which is probably what decreased the number of test-related outbreaks I was getting. I think I had one tonsil infection during this time and after treating it at home with some saltwater gargling and aspirin gargling, that was the last time I had to deal with my tonsils in any significant way. Until now.

I had a really great long weekend a week or so ago and I was still so happy on Tuesday night. I made myself a lovely meal and set up a mini romantic dinner for myself. I had had lunch with my favourite first graders earlier that day and that had put my mood on the next level. I’m telling you, I was having the best day; I swear.

Best day ever vibes!

I went to bed that night with zero problems or pains in my throat. At 3 am I woke up with the worst headache and what felt like a fire burning in my throat. My ear also felt pressed and I knew something was wrong. I got up and tried to drink some water and that was the first time I realised I might have a real problem on my hands. Swallowing that sip of water hurt so much that at that moment I made peace with the fact that I wouldn’t be having breakfast that day. I wandered into my dark kitchen and ran some water into a glass. I’m so glad I stocked up on pain medication in South Africa you guys because Disprin is still king. I went back to bed, hopeful that it had just been a bad reaction to the lovely meal I had made for myself the night before. It wasn’t. By 3 pm I had a fever, and I was beginning to struggle to talk, which is a problem since my job involves a lot of standing in front of children and speaking at them. I’ll be honest, in my old age, I’ve become averse to going to the doctor for every little thing. The way I see it I’ve spent enough time in medical care as a kid to know when to take things seriously and when not to. And having successfully lived through 5 months of chronic sinusitis in Japan without ever needing to see a doctor, I did consider doing the ol’ salt and warm water mouth wash to get rid of my infection. 

It’s the fever that convinced me though. It reminded me of exam time at Tuks as I paged through those textbooks filled with computer science jargon, my throat burning, my ears losing hearing. This was a big one. So because I’m in Japan and being in Japan comes with the perks of regaining your childhood, I sent off an email to my work mom and asked her to book me a doctor’s appointment. 

 At 5 pm we got to the doctors’ office. It was a nice modern looking building that reminded me of the clinic that my mom spent the end of December. I had to fill in a few things on a form and the nurse brought me a thermometer as I did this in the reception area. I found this a bit strange as the thermometer is meant to go under your armpit and I felt slightly uncomfortable having to remove a few layers of clothing in such a public space (also, it’s winter so few layers is a FEW LAYERS). Anyway, I did it and got a reading of 39.5°. My work mom was shocked and asked the nurse if we could get face masks immediately. 

You see in my town, and probably most towns in Japan, we are currently trudging through influenza season. Anything that looks and smells like flu sends people into a panic, and with good cause. Apparently, the flu here has a nasty habit of shutting down whole schools when left unmanaged. We had to wait a bit longer as the front staff opened a file for me before being ushered into the inner part of the doctors’ rooms, which had its own waiting area. The nurse led us to what looked at first like an examination room. Outside the place held the modern aesthetic of pine walls but inside it was a bland white container with a single bed on the far side of the wall, a white basket at the side of the bed meant for your belongings and a random lime green fleece blanket at the foot of the bed. All the boiling that I had been experiencing up to this point was over now. Everything was shivering. Even my liver. We waited for what felt like 20 minutes in there before finally being invited into the doctor’s office. 

As doctors go, this one was no less dramatic than any other doctor who’s had to deal with my tonsils. The only difference here is that I couldn’t understand a word he was saying as he was speaking mostly in Japanese. After some back and forth of translating and me reading body language, I gathered that I had strep-throat and an abscess too. He seemed apologetic about the abscess; I had no idea what that was though, I should have known this was going to come back to me at a later stage.

So then to be cautious he did an influenza test to rule out any chance that I might have what the rest of the town has. This involved sticking a long white needle-thin pin up my nose. It felt like it went in all the way back into my brain. It wasn’t exactly painful but it felt like a bad attempt at trying to breathe water.

The next test was to check to make sure his strep throat diagnosis was correct before putting me on antibiotics for the wrong thing. This was great. I appreciated the fact that my doctor wanted to check that his guesswork was scientifically correct before just prescribing dangerous drugs to me. Not enough of the doctors I have interacted with in my life have had this ethic. So he did a swab of my throat and it hurt. My tonsil was bleeding at this point. I wasn’t surprised, I could feel the infection was getting out of control. 

We were taken back to the white waiting box with its lime green blanket. It felt like another 15 minutes before we were called back into the doctor’s office for the results. Haza! Both were clear. Unfortunately, this concerned my doctor since he was sure he was right about the strep, as he made known with his comical face of sadness. He still wanted to prove he was right, so he said he would need a blood sample. This is when things got crazy, well actually only after another 10 minute time out in the lime green blanket room of doom. So then I am taken into another office, adjacent to the doctor’s exam room that I was just examined in. The nurse gets the needles and containers she needs to catch my blood. She fetches the pipes she’ll use to squeeze my veins into visibility. She gets the cotton buds she’ll use to dab my arm with alcohol before puncturing me with a needle. It’s all fine and dandy until I notice that homegirl is not wearing gloves.

If we are looking for things to discuss on how Japanese health care is different from South African health care, this is it. This is the main and only topic on the table. I hadn’t noticed up until this point that medical gloves were none existent throughout my visit. Now please understand, it’s not that I think I have anything particularly contagious that I’m scared the hospital staff will catch but come on. In, South Africa we are taught early on that human beings are dangerous and they should be handled with kid gloves – literally. When the nurse would give us our vaccinations at school, she had gloves on. When I got in the way of a rock-throwing contest that ended up with me having a bleeding gash on my head, the school nurse had damn gloves on. When my doctor of 10 years checked my tonsils for the umpteenth time, he had gloves on. It’s standard medical practice. I am still shook that no one even considered it here. Talk about culture shock. 

Anyway, fast forward to being told by the doctor that the blood test would only come back at about 8 pm so I would need to wait before taking the antibiotics that he was prescribing. This is confidence ladies and gentleman! I proceeded to be ushered out to the reception to pay for the “maybe drugs” and I was met with another shock. As an upstanding member of Japanese society, I contribute monthly to the national health insurance that comes with the job. I was warned that the insurance wouldn’t cover everything and that I would need to pay out of pocket for the small percentage that the insurance didn’t cover but I did not expect this. After my bill was tallied I ended up paying around 3800 yen (that’s roughly R500). Now it might not sound like a lot, but as someone who is coming from a lifetime spent on medical aid, I cannot swallow this pill in peace. 

The way medical aid schemes work in South Africa in most cases is that you have a set number of free doctors’ visits a year when you spend all of them, you will start needing to spend out of pocket. You also get what’s called a “savings pocket”, this is to cover your medications for all your visits. Again, when you use this all up, you need to spend out of pocket. On top of that most medical aid packages come with a “hospital savings pocket”, which is usually a significantly large amount of money that will cover you in the event of a long stay in hospital. If you know how to stay healthy, avoid doctors (as I do), or better yet, hack the system (just go consult at a hospital yo), you never need to pay out of pocket for your healthcare. But of course, the downside of medical aids is that they are a complete scam (you pay way more than you ever receive back in coverage), but that’s a discussion for another day. 

Coming from this kind of setup you can maybe understand my shock. Also, the amount I had to take out on my end seemed a bit excessive. Maybe medication is just all that more expensive in Japan. My fee in Japan could cover the full cost of my pills back home and I’d still get enough change to pay for the consultation if I went to the right doctor.

Anyway, all that aside, the doctor kept true to his word and gave my work mom a call around 8 pm. I woke up from my fever-induced nap with a message from her giving me the go-ahead to take the “maybe drugs” because I officially had strep-throat. I opened my pills and google translated the instructions just to be sure I had heard correctly about how to take them. I noticed that I only had 5 pain killers subscribed, and they were marked “For extreme pain”. I was hopeful, I mean if you are going to prescribe only 5 of a thing it better be the best pain tablet in the history of ever. It only took a few hours for me to be sadly disappointed. I woke up at 1 am feeling like my ear was going to explode. The pills had clearly stopped working. 5 was not going to be enough and the pill itself didn’t do much to numb the pain, to be honest, it just made it bearable.

As far as my antibiotics, those worked great, by Saturday my tonsil was visibly getting better. It didn’t look disgusting anymore, just slightly angry, and it had shrunk down too. The only thing that was bothering me at this stage is my uvula which was swelled up like a balloon. I found this strange since I’d been keeping hydrated and most times when a uvula swells it has to do with dehydration of sorts. My uvula being this big made it tricky to not die. It kept trying to get in the way of my air passages whenever I would talk or lie in a particular position.

For real though

Remember that abscess thing the doctor mentioned? Yeah me neither! I got a rude reminder though on that same Saturday after I started having a weird cough. Sidebar, the next few sentences are not for sensitive readers, skip ahead to the next paragraph if this is you. So I’m coughing, I’m coughing and bam, my tooth falls out. Well, that’s what I thought. My mouth was suddenly filled with what I thought was blood and a jellylike substance. I ran to the toilet to spit out what I thought would be my tooth only to find that it was a mouth full of pus. I carried on spitting that out until I was sure there was nothing left. When I went to the mirror to inspect what was going on, all my teeth were safely still in place but right there under the tonsil that had been making my life hell was a big ass black hole. 

Visual representation of the hole in my mouth

I didn’t know there was even such a thing in our mouths. I googled it and it turns out that I had a peritonsillar abscess. Basically, that’s a puss ball that lives in the space between your tonsils and your skull bones or something like that. Look I’m not a doctor but having googled it, the doctor in this situation is meant to drain these bad boys when he suspects that they exist because you could end up with a secondary infection if you swallow it. I am not sure why my doctor didn’t drain mine, but that’s probably one of the things that will deduct points from my experience with the Japanese medical system for now. 

As I write this, it’s the last day of my 7-day antibiotic treatment. Apart from trauma and my body and brain going through PTSD from the illness, I’m happy with the progress of my treatment. I feel great, almost like I did the night before I got sick. Also, I’m alive. There’s not much more I could ask for. If you have any questions about visiting the doctor in Japan, feel free to pop me a comment below.


I'm a writer with some stuff on my mind.

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