Bedside What? (A Totally True Story)

We took our son to the doctor last week. It was the weirdest doctor’s appointment I’ve ever been to, seriously. We’re actually seeing the doctor again today. I’m curious whether he’s still going to behaving like Rain Man, M.D. Anyway, I did it up as a little script, because it was the only way I could prevent myself from launching into, er, obnoxious editorial commentary on the experience.

The couple enters the waiting room. It’s a university hospital, busy and a little noisy. They seem exhausted from their long trip to the hospital. Their CHILD, a toddler, is sleeping in his MOM’s arms as she sits down. DAD is limping, but doesn’t sit.

MOM

Do you have the recommendation paper the pediatrician gave us?

DAD

Yeah, it’s here.

DAD fishes the envelope out of his backpack and moves toward the counter, holding it out toward the NURSE behind the counter. She smiles, confused. The MOM looks up from their CHILD, whose coat she was removing.

MOM

No, you just have to give it to the doctor directly.

DAD

Oh, okay.

He bows awkwardly to the nurse with an apologetic smile before sitting down. Then he checks the time on his cell phone.

DAD

Just on time. I guess it did take one hour, then.

MOM

What time is it?

DAD

Ten minutes to two.

MOM

Oh, good.

They sit and wait quietly, while other, older patients filter into the room. The oldest ones practically shout at one another, they’re so near to deaf. MOM places her hands over the toddler’s ears protectively, while DAD casts a momentarily annoyed look toward at the elderly people shouting. Without noticing this, the old people quiet down, and everyone in the room eventually descends into silence, a wait that is interrupted only when one of the nurses opens an examination room door and lets out a previous patient with a few soft words, before announcing the name of the next patient. MOM holds out the appointment booking paper to DAD.

MOM

You need to show the nurse this paper too…

DAD takes the paper and show it to the NURSE, who takes the paper from him and looks at it.

NURSE

(cheerfully, in Korean with clear subtitles)

Okay. Please wait outside examination room 3.

They pick up the now-sleeping CHILD and their bags and try to move closer, only to find all the chairs in that part of the waiting room are occupied. They a few seats closer though, since that’s the best they can do.

A NURSE opens the door to the examination room 3, letting out an elderly woman clearly suffering from extreme osteoporosis. The old woman begins the laborious process of walking away from the room, and the nurse calls out the name of the toddler.

MOM and DAD rise and follow the nurse into the room.

INT. EXAMINATION ROOM 3.

It’s a large room, lit by the sun through a huge window. The examination chair is close to the doorway. The DOCTOR is seated approximately four meters away, a desk where he sits staring at a pair of screens and typing. He continues typing and does not look away from his screen as MOM and DAD carry the child in, and MOM sits down in the examination chair with CHILD in her arms.

DOCTOR

(speaking in Korean, patchily subtitled in English)

************* problem? ************* consult *********** treatment.

MOM

(same patchy subtitles)

*********** recommended ************* Sejong City ************* professor.

The doctor continues to type rapidly as he speaks, asking short, clipped questions that MOM answers, and then asking clarification questions. He does not look up from his screens. This continues for approximately thirty seconds.

DAD (VOICEOVER)

I thought he’d finish up whatever he was typing, but he never did. He did stop typing a couple of times, though. Once, when the nurse passed him the letter…

DAD hands the letter to the NURSE, who carries it across the long room toward the doctor. DOCTOR lifts his hands from the keyboard long enough to give the letter a passing glance, and then drops it onto his desk and returns to rapid-fire typing as he asks a few more questions.

Finally, the DOCTOR rises from his seat, turning toward the family and approaching them, without ever coming close to making eye contact.

DOCTOR

(to MOM)

Please hold him still.

The NURSE approaches the MOM as MOM takes hold of the CHILD’s arms. The DOCTOR adjusts the CHILD’s legs, telling MOM to catch them between her knees, the better to immobilize the CHILD, while the NURSE grips the CHILD’s head. Even now, the DOCTOR has managed to avoid eye contact completely. The DOCTOR inserts the camera into the CHILD’s ears, snapping photos of each ear canal. He looks at the screen, and then without giving MOM, DAD, or CHILD so much as a glance, he returns to his desk and begins typing and speaking at once.

DOCTOR

***************** inflammation ******** medicine ************** not serious.

MOM

************ checking ************ in case ************** recommended ***********.

DOCTOR

(dismissively)

******************* come back *********** ten days ****************.

MOM

(to DAD)

Do you have any questions?

DAD looks at MOM, baffled, as if he is just realizing the examination is over. He looks in disbelief at DOCTOR, who is still typing and staring at the screens, and who still has made eye contact with neither of them.

DAD

(hesitant)

Uh…

He glances from DOCTOR to MOM and the expectant NURSE, and then back to the DOCTOR, who continues to type and stare at his screens as if they’ve already left the room.

DAD

(more decisively now)

… No.

DAD follows MOM out, glancing in bafflement at the NURSE who follows them out. The NURSE smiles at them with what might be sympathy or mild embarrassment.

DAD

(softly, to MOM)

Did he just… did he make eye contact with you even once?

MOM shakes her head, a mystified look on her face.

MOM

(concerned)

No.

They leave the room, the NURSE pulling the door shut behind them.

INT. HOSPITAL WAITING ROOM.

The family leaves the waiting room, CHILD in MOM’s arms, in search of an automated prescription printing machine.

MOM

Maybe that’s why the nurses are so nice here? To make up for him?

DAD pushes the button to call an elevator, and then looks at MOM.

DAD

Well, I think maybe we’d better find another doctor. That’s not… that’s not normal.

MOM

Yeah…

The elevator arrives with a loud BING, and the couple gets in. As the doors shut, their eyes meet, and hold, still baffled, but… with a sense of sad familiarity.

THE END

Yeah, that’s exactly how it happened. If I’d been sitting there with a video camera, he would not have noticed. And no, despite my representing the language barrier aspect of it, I’m not saying all Korean doctors are like this. Some of the most wonderful doctors I’ve ever been to were in Korea. (Some of the worst, too, but eh.) So yes, though I’ve dropped into the “Korea” category on my blog, obviously #notallKoreandoctors.

I do wonder, though, whether a complete lack of bedside manner and, well… normal human affect is something a doctor could get away with anywhere? I find in Korea, people are quick to justify what seem to me to be very obvious markers of psychological or neurological issues as “just shyness” or as someone’s personality. I’ve seen doctors back home who were complete assholes, and I don’t mean to disrespect people who’re highly functional but maybe on the autistic spectrum a little bit… but I’ve never felt like I was in an examination room with someone halfway to behaving like Rain Man. That, I think, is a bit much to ask of one’s patients.

Likewise, I have to say I’ve heard from multiple medical students that among the people attracted to medicine in Korea are some of the most shockingly empathy-deficient individuals you might care to meet. I’ve heard stories that would absolutely shock you, believe me. (That’s probably true everywhere that medicine is a high-paying field, of course… and from what I hear most of the really awful jerks swarm into the plastic surgery specialization, because it’s where the big money is. That, too, is probably true in most places. But I also have heard things that make me suspect residents, interns, and professors alike seem to routinely get away with behaviour here that would never, ever be tolerated in most North American teaching hospitals. It’s always hard to establish norms based on anecdotes, though, regardless of how many sources you rely on, so have a grain of salt with that.)

As for this doctor up above: we’re hoping he was just having a strange day. We’ll see, though: if he acts the same way today, I’m going to insist we seek a second opinion with someone who… you know, is comfortable with normal human interaction, including maybe a moment or two of eye contact and acknowledging the other people in the room in some way other than through diagnostic questions from the far end of the room, half-audible over a constant stream of typing.

gordsellar: Your host on this site. I'm an SF writer, homebrewer, and expat teaching at a university in South Korea. My policies for commenters on this site can be read here.

View Comments (2)

  • I like how the Sino-Korean term for autism is "self-shut-symptom" (자폐증, 自閉症).

    그 싸가지 없는 의사가 자폐증 걸렸나...?

    Will be curious to read the update to this story.

    Happy Nude Deer, by the way.

    • I'd be reluctant to outright diagnose him, but the condition did cross my mind. And while people on the spectrum are capable of all kinds of wonderful things... the encounter was bewilderingly odd, I'll put it that way.

      The follow-up visit was a lot less disconcerting, though still odd. I've posted my update about it as a separate post.

      Happy New Year to you too! I hope it's going well so far. May we all avoid being nuked this year...

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