For a 19-year-old in the late 1990s who had never been out of Australia or New Zealand, going on exchange to University in Japan was like having your head opened up, your brain taken out, someone playing a few round of tennis with it, then putting it back in your head upside down. It changes you. It literally shows you a completely different way of thinking and living. It is a gift. But a gift that comes with many challenges.
After being there for a month, getting ‘settled’ with my homestay family (more on this in another post…), making friends, and getting into the rhythm of Kansai Gakokugo Daigaku (Kansai Gaidai for short – my new University), I found myself getting regular, debilitating asthma.
Adjusting to life with asthma
Asthma was new for me. I only got it in my last year of high school after I had a three-month break from school with glandular fever (mono for any Americans). It was my rugby coach who picked it up when I came back to school. I thought I was unfit because I had been asleep for three months. After a quite spectacular (if I may say so myself – clearly I’m still grasping onto the glory…) full field run to score a try, I was doubled over and gasping in ways he wasn’t used to seeing. He sent me to the doctor and I was sent home with a Ventolin inhaler.
But it was never really THAT bad. Of course major exercise exertion was one trigger. I was never one to consciously notice if I was really stressed about anything, but asthma became an inbuilt barometer where I would get it and go, “Huh! I guess this really IS bothering me.”
I would take a couple of puffs of Ventolin and yes, it would make me feel a lot worse to begin with, but then my breathing would calm down and the problem would be solved for the foreseeable future.
Now it was becoming a problem
Suddenly in Japan, I was getting asthma everyday up to three times a day. I was taking the dreaded Ventolin each time. I didn’t like Ventolin. It made me feel sick, and I felt it made the asthma worse before making it better. This was fine when it was the occasional remedy, but every day? Three times a day?
Friends I grew up with had asthma, so I knew there were preventative puffers you could get which I hoped would reduce my reliance on the dreaded Ventolin. In order to do this, I had to go and see a doctor.
I mentioned this to my Spanish friend I took a lot of classes with, Diego and he said he was having issues with his ear and would like to come too. We went to the International Student Help Centre, they fixed an appointment, assigned a woman to come and help translate for us, and we made it happen.
A routine trip to the doctor…
The next afternoon we hopped on the train with our translator and headed to the local City Hospital. The first thing that smacked us in the face as we entered was the thick cigarette smoke. This did not compute. Were we in the right place? It couldn’t be.
Diego was a smoker but even for him this was not the time, or especially the place.
“I thought Japan was supposed to be a developed country,” he said with a look of pure horror on his face. “I’m from a third world country and our conditions are better than this!” (Of course Spain is not a third world country, but Diego was prone to dramatization back then.)
We surveyed the situation as our translator gestured for us to come to the front counter. We then looked at each other and, in that moment, decided to roll the dice.
I had diligently learned the word for asthma, zensoku, but we had only been in Japan for a month, were FAR from fluent in Japanese, especially in medical terminology, so our translator was very much required.
I guess they do it differently here!
Not just for the language either. The way the operation worked was very different to what I was used to. In Australia we go to a General Practitioner (GP), sit in a nice, smoke-free waiting room, get called in, and go and see a doctor. They will then do all of the things necessary, spit you out the other end with some advice, and possibly a prescription for some kind of medication which you can fill at any pharmacy at your leisure.
In this place, you told the registrar what was wrong with you, by some magical process they would work out a range of tests or procedures you would be called to do at different windows, and only THEN would you get to see the doctor.
My first assignment was to pee in a cup. Huh. Peeing in a cup for asthma? I’ve never done that before… But okay… Where do I get the cup? What? Where?
I was sent into the bathroom at the end of the smoky waiting room, which had a line of urinals and at the end, and an open door which lead to the only western, lady friendly toilet. Just before the line of urinals was an open cupboard with some clear plastic cups, which looked exactly like the kind we might have used at barbeques in Australia before we were environmentally conscious and didn’t want to clean up. Huh. Alriiiiiiiiight…. Here goes nothing!
I took the, I’m assuming, less than sterile cup out of the open cupboard and waltzed past the urinals into the toilet down the end. I did the needful, came back into the smoky waiting room with my clear, lidless cup full of warm, yellow pee thinking, “Cheers everyone!” then handed it over to the appropriate counter. I was then called to take my blood pressure in one window, then to have my finger pricked, and I presume my blood glucose levels taken at another counter.
Finally time for the doctor
Finally it was time for me to see the doctor. I walked in with my translator, sat down, and he said to me in English, “There’s nothing wrong with you.”
I said, “I know, I’ve got asthma.”
“Oh, well let’s take a look at your breathing.”
“I don’t have it right NOW,” I impressed upon him, but he wasn’t having it.
He asked the nurse and my translator to leave which I thought was weird. I didn’t care if they were there. He was sitting about a metre away from me when he asked me to take my top off.
He did the most unmistakable, exaggerated double take leaving his head very close to my semi-naked boobs.
“Yes, I KNOW they’re spectacular but you’re a doctor for god’s sake,” I was thinking. Then it occurred to me, a doctor who usually sees Japanese boobs… Notoriously smaller… But COME ON!
He checked my breathing and as expected, it was just fine because as I explained, I was not having an attack right then. I put my top back on, and he called back in the nurse and the translator.
I explained the history of my asthma, the change in the pattern, and that I wanted a preventative puffer like the ones my friends had when I was a kid.
THAT he could do, but he explained to me that I should only take the puffer the three times a day he was prescribing when I thought I was going to get it, because if I kept taking it, my face would get big, red, and puffy.
WHAT? But I WAS getting it ALL the time. That was the POINT of the puffer. Were these really my only choices? Big, red, puffy face, or asthma?
Okay, screw this guy. I had already decided to take the prescription, send the information to my mother, and have her check with my doctor at home. Perhaps even send some medication from there. This was ridiculous.
We left the doctor’s office, went back to the smoky waiting room in all its glory, and I was told it was time to buy my medicine now. But I didn’t want to buy the medicine now. I wanted to check with my doctor at home first and THEN buy it or something similar. NOPE! That was not the way things worked. You went to the doctor, the doctor told you what to buy, and you bought it there on the spot. There was no coming back later. No, not buying it. You just did it.
FINE! I was on a scholarship with the Japanese government which included an 80% rebate on all medical expenses anyway, just buy the bloody thing, they can’t force you to inhale it.
A few minutes later Diego came out of a different doctor’s office with a big white bandage on his ear, and a new facial skin complexion to match it.
“What happened to you?” I asked.
Diego’s issue was he had a big lump in one his earlobes and he wanted to fix it. He walked into his doctor’s office, and the first thing he noticed was the open windows allowing the polluted Osaka air to mingle with the smoke cascading in from the waiting room, and collect on the dodgy kid’s murals hanging from the ceiling. This was not a sterile environment.
Unlike my doctor, his seemed to be apprised of what was wrong with Diego and didn’t see the need to mince words. Without saying anything, un-gloved, he picked up a scalpel, walked over to Diego, and stabbed him in the offending ear. Blood immediately jetted out in a stream, shocking him to his core. He jumped away, and yelled at him not to freakin’ touch him.
They must have calmed down for long enough for Diego let him attend to his new wound, or he would not have had the dressing that was now his most prominent feature.
We decided it was well time to put our shared desire to get the hell out of there into action. But of course, it would not be that simple.
We went to pay the bills. It was all going as you would expect until Diego and I asked for receipts. No, we could not have receipts.
No receipt; no money
What do you mean we can’t have receipts? We were BOTH on the same scholarship and no insurance was going to pay us out without a receipt. We weren’t saying it had to be in English. Even just a note from the doctor in Japanese with the hospital’s hanko stamp (equivalent of a signature there). Job done.
No, that wasn’t possible. Our translator was trying to implore us to give them the money. NO CHANCE! We were poor students. In the late 1990s the Japanese Yen was a power house and EVERYTHING there was incredibly expensive, including the medical treatment we just had. We NEEDED to get the money back for this. No receipt, no money. That was the standoff.
The familiar feeling of my chest tightening started to descend on me. I was going to have an attack. The stress of it all was clearly getting to me.
“Hey! Now I AM actually getting asthma. Shall we have the doctor come back and look at my boobs again now?” I asked incredulously.
The Japanese all stared blankly, hoping we would disintegrate into our surroundings, and they would not have to deal with us difficult foreigners who wouldn’t play by the rules. But we didn’t, and finally someone worked out how to give us receipts.
We handed over the money, got the hell out of there, and tried to process what just happened. Where the hell WERE we?
My mother checked with my doctor at home, who was quite impressed with the translation I did for the medicine I purchased. She said the medicine was fine, actually what she would have prescribed herself, and I shouldn’t worry about the big, red, puffy face. Huh. What an unnecessary drama.
A couple of months later I had cause to go to the doctor again. I needed to go onto the contraceptive pill, and had to see a doctor to get a prescription. I found an English speaking gynaecologist and bypassed the university this time.
One of my classmates had done an assignment on the very short history of the pill in Japan and told me some interesting facts. It had only JUST been legalised and was as yet not very widely used. Apparently the reluctance to introduce the pill had to do with hurting the lucrative condom and abortion industries….
I went to see the doctor, and after lecturing me about marriage and having a family, he conceded to prescribe me the pill. It didn’t look like the pills I had seen before but he told me this was the only type that was currently available in Japan under the new laws. Also, I was absolutely to take it everyday without fail, otherwise I would experience extremely heavy bleeding.
I had never heard anyone say that about the pill before. My mind cast back to my experience with the preventative asthma puffer, along with the family planning lecture I just had, and I figured this was most likely an exaggeration designed to scare me. Besides, I was planning to take it every day, so it wouldn’t be an issue.
But of course, after a month or so, in the middle of my cycle, I forgot to take it one day. The next day I started haemorrhaging blood. I couldn’t believe it! What was I taking? Absolutely no good could come from taking something like this. So I stopped and threw away the rest.
The following day one of my friends came up to me and had a word with me quietly.
“Claire, is everything alright? Is there anything we need to talk about?” she asked.
“No, why do you ask?”
“It is just that you seem to have lost an awful lot of weight very quickly…”
I told her about the pill debacle and she got it immediately.
“Oh! That’s alright then. Yes. Stay off them if they do that!”
If you get sick, go home or die.
At the end of the first six months many foreign students went back home, and a bunch of new students came. I took it upon myself to scare the crap out of the newbies. My favourite thing to say to them was, “If you get sick, go home or die. Whatever you do, don’t go to the doctor….” Then I would animatedly tell them Diego and my stories.
There was something about seeing their already overwhelmed faces register that little bit more horror that I really got a kick out of. But it was also a cautionary tale and I meant it. Hopefully things are not that dire in Japan now as they were in the 1990s, but back then I honestly believed anyone would be much better off without their medical intervention…
Until next time!