It’s been a very down and up couple of months.
At the end of January, as it usually does, my irritable bowel syndrome flared up and got progressively worse. Although I’d been worried about this when I moved to South Korea, when I settled in, my guts calmed down into a nice one-toilet-trip-a-day kind of rhythm. Things were going well enough that mid-way through January, having come to the end of the supply I brought with me, I stopped taking my mebeverine tablets. (Mebeverine is an ‘anti-spasmodic’ that I was prescribed about two years ago after my only other serious flare-up. They seemed to have a good effect and I had been taking them ever since.)
I’m not entirely sure that stopping taking these pills led to the illness that followed. I feel it’s more likely to have been the usual seasonal stress: cold, dark weather and, more importantly, holiday depression. Anyway, as soon as I started needing multiple toilet trips per day, I resumed taking the pills. I got prescriptions from a doctor based near my hagwon. Having been used to getting enough to last a month or more in Britain, I was a little dismayed that he would only give me a couple of weeks’ worth. After the second prescription and my health had continued to deteriorate, I went back after one week and he referred me to another doctor – a gastro-intestinal specialist.
This second doctor (also very close to the hagwon. Both of these doctors spoke passable, but by no means brilliant English) gave me about five, maybe seven (and a half) pills and a gel to take three times a day. None of which seemed to help much. I was getting weaker and weaker, my intestines were getting sore and I was spending stupid amounts of time on the toilet.
At the beginning of March I began a new schedule at the school – one that saw me drop the morning kindergarten classes and just teach in the afternoons and evenings. However, I was spending every five minute break between classes in the bathroom, and even then I sometimes needed to leave a class halfway through. So I spoke to the head teacher and told her I needed some sick leave. I hoped that the rest would do me some good.
Actually, it didn’t. A day or two after I got my second batch of medicine from the second doctor, the head teacher and the hagwon’s director took me to another doctor in Jungang, central Ansan. Here I was prescribed yet more pill. And they didn’t do that much either. By this time my appetite was very low and I could hardly bare to eat the kinds of things that had previously been my staples: bran cereal, bread, noodles. I even (shock, horror) went off tea.
I had a total of eight days off work, and by the end of the second week the head teacher told me that if I could come in next week she’d have to hire someone else. I don’t really see why they couldn’t have taken on a Korean teacher temporarily to replace me, but I had no option but to agree to try. (I suppose I could have quit and looked for another job later on, but that just promised far too much complication and stress.)
So when I went into to work the following Monday (still going to the toilet every break) I was continually asked by my students, ‘Are you sick, teacher?’ To which I would wearily reply, ‘Yes, I’m sick.’ Of course, that week was report-writing week, so I had to write evaluations for students I’d met once or twice. There was a greater than usual reliance on empty phrases such as ‘Jane is a pleasant student,’ or ‘John has a reasonable level of English.’
On Thursday of that week I went back to the doctor’s for a colonoscopy. On the Wednesday night I had to take half a small bottle of laxative. Which tasted vile. Then I had to drink at least two litres of water. As soon as the laxative kicked in I realised there wasn’t much point doing anything but sitting on the toilet. So I sat there with a book and a bottle of water with liquid gushing out of me every few minutes. Oh, what fun. Then I had to repeat the process at five o’clock the following morning. After about half an hour of the second laxative session I was sick. At first, I was just vomiting water on to the bathroom floor, but then the laxative started coming back up.
Anyway, the director’s husband took me to the surgery, where I was given a pair of comedy pyjama pants with a hole and flap at the back, curled up on a bed and connected to a drip. The nurses took a blood sample then injected me with a white fluid. The doctor put a dab of lubricant in my anus and then I was left alone thinking, Well, this anaesthetic isn’t having much effect. Then I fell asleep.
When I woke up it was apparently all over. For some reason, the director’s husband wanted to watch me get dressed, but I made it clear I’d prefer him on the other side of the curtain. I probably could have found some toilet roll on the shelves, but I wasn’t feeling too sharp and ended up wiping my arse on the pyjama bottoms. When I went into the doctor’s office (actually, there are two doctors at this surgery (or hospital, as Koreans inexplicably call it): the first one speaks very good English and is a kind of jolly, rather rotund fellow who specialises in cardiology; the second one is the intestinal doctor, but his English is merely kenchanayo (‘passable’, ‘OK’). I was now seeing the latter) he had pictures of my lower intestine on his computer. Even to my untrained eye it didn’t look very healthy – lots of red rather than the pink one might expect. He diagnosed ulcerated colitis (basically, inflammation and ulcers all along my lower intestine. He also mentioned that a biopsy might change this to Crohn’s disease. The biopsy proved negative) and said I should begin a course of steroids.
On the way out, the first doctor spoke to me and reassured me that the steroids would do the job. He also went on at some length about how ulcerated colitis is a Western disease and its not at all common in Korea. After that it was downstairs to the chemist to pick up my new medicine: 12 steroid pills to be taken after breakfast and three other tablets to be taken three times a day.
The following day, I took my first dose of steroids and, after an hour or two when I was still using the toilet very frequently, by bowels went to sleep for about six hours. Success! you might think. Well, yes, but it was also rather disturbing. After a few hours I started thinking I was going to explode any minute. By the end of the working day I was making trips to the bathroom again, but the effect of the medication was impressive.
Since then, there has been a slow – sometimes imperceptibly so – improvement. Up until last weekend, anyway, when there was another noticeable positive change. Today I don’t really need to worry about needing the toilet during the day, and just go a few times during the late evening, night and first thing in the morning. A lot of people have commented on how much better I look now, and several have commented on how pale and albino-like I looked at the height of the illness.
I’m still building my energy up to pre-shits-city levels; for instance, going up stairs two at a time is more difficult than it ought to be. I’ve also lost weight – mainly muscle, as I don’t really have that much fat on my body at the best of times. Having spent the past year and a half doing excerises to improve my upper body strength (for which read ‘appearance’), much of that has now melted away. But at least I’ve started doing five minutes with my dumbells twice a day in the past week. I suppose the steroids might help get some of that muscle back.
So the prognosis is good. At this rate, I should be back to normal by the summer. Which reminds me, I have another colonoscopy to look forward to in June. The doctor also said I should have one once a year to check for cancer, as ulcerated colitis doesn’t help on that front. Which leads me on to another point. When I made the appointment for the first colonoscopy, it was pretty much a case of, ‘When do you want to come in?’ ‘How about tomorrow?’ ‘Fine.’ It cost nearly 85,000 won – about £45.
On the NHS, while it might be free, it would take ages to get an appointment – I’ve read a couple of articles on the BBC News site in the past couple of weeks saying as much. When I had my bowel X-ray nearly two years ago, the doctor said that it was normal apart from a suggestion of burnt-out colitis. Ergo, I was stuck with the diagnosis from, what? five, six seven years ago of IBS. I wonder what would have happened if I’d had that X-ray (and the sigmoidoscopy I had just beforehand) at the height of my illness two years ago. Would I have been diagnosed with UC then? Would I have developed it now? Instead, these examinations took place after the fact and didn’t shed a whole lot of light.
To conclude, I’m feeling a lot more positive about the immediate future, and I’m happy that I’ve now got a diagnosis that seems more solid (IBS being rather vague). But I’m also worried about my future plans: I want to travel with the money I’ll have saved at the end of my contract, and this illness, if it reoccurs, could cause me further problems – not helpful in strange lands.
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