Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Japan and My Tonsils: An Epic Tale of Love, Tribulations, and Redemption(?)

Part 1

I hate my tonsils. I hate them and I want them out. Years I've spent alternating between agony and fear. Agony as they swell to the size of
golf balls in my throat, raising my temperature, and preventing me from eating delicious foods since starving always seems the better option to the pain of swallowing. The fear would set in as soon as I felt better. As soon as they shrunk to a size that could pass for normal I'd worry about the next time. Possibly the cruelest part was that one of my greatest joys, a night out with friends singing karaoke and drinking beer, seemed to be the magical combination that would nearly always lead to my personal tonsil apocalypse.

Why don't I just get them out? The issue is complicated by my current location. In America I'd simply go to an ear, nose, and throat doctor, pay $5000, and my tonsils would be gone as soon as the check cleared. But I'm not in America anymore. I'm in Japan. The medical system here works a bit differently. But I'm not going to tell you about it. I'm going to show you. I will take you on my
adventure from my very first week in Japan until today.

July 2008

It was a long flight. I left from Los Angeles International Airport and arrived in
Haneda after 11 hours of flight time. It was also a late night as my new friends and I celebrated our first night in Tokyo, Japan. Long flights, new germs, lack of sleep, and alcohol: the perfect recipe for getting sick. My comrades and I spent four days in close quarters as we attended lectures on how to adapt to our new lives as English teachers in Japan. This time for me was one of wide-eyed discovery. To the new, unwelcome residents of my tonsils however, it was the incubation period.

The morning of the fourth day we set off on the
Shinkansen to Osaka. I noticed I had a bit of a scratchiness in my throat and voiced my concern to my new friend, Brian. "It's just allergies!" Oh the young fool I was believed him. We enjoyed the 3 hour trip, making new friends and drinking green tea.

We finally arrived in Osaka and switched to buses to continue our journey to
Hyogo Prefecture where we would meet our representatives from each of our respective schools. I was starting to feel a bit cold despite the hot, humid, Japanese summer. I felt a pang of worry as I realized I was indeed becoming sick. "No matter," thought I, being the burly, young man I was, "Immune system! I leave this to you! I have other matters to attend to." My immune system was too busy to respond. My mind moved on to other things as we arrived at the meeting hall. There I met my school's representative who was to be my English speaking go-between. He would help me in all matters in which I may need help while adapting to Japanese life. I said goodbye to my new friends, swearing to contact each other once we acquired mobile phones and the Internet, and continued traveling to the high school in which I would be an English instructor.

The ride was pleasant with interesting conversation. I was happy to learn I would be teaching with this person. My new friend.

Arrived at school. Something wrong. I was hot now. Couldn't think... straightly. Tired. Meeting principal. Hello! Bow. I
konnichiwa... hajime... yoroshiku... Bow? Ah tea, yes tea is good. It reminds me of... other hot drinks I've drunk. Yes, let's see the school. It looks nice... where are your beds? I would like to try out... pillows. Tired...

After a couple hours it was finally time to see my apartment. My go-between and the office clerk took me. The bed looked wonderful and I yearned to simply jump inside. But first I had to be shown all the other wonderful details of my new apartment. Push this button for hot water, push this button for hot air, push this button for flushing the toilet, buttons, buttons, buttons. Switches for lights, switches for power, switches, switches, switches. Plugs and outlets and appliances and machines. Cracks and holes and dents and dings. How much time had passed? I wasn't sure. Now it's time for the tour of the city. "NO! BED! Bed would then be too far for sleeping in!" the voice of my immune system yelled in my head.
Ol' immuney finally spoke, and he was right. I was sad to admit defeat after trying so hard to make a good first impression as a young, go-getting teacher, but I was finished. I told them I felt sick and just needed to sleep. My predecessor was still around the city and he could give me the tour later. They exchanged looks (concern? disappointment?) and wished me well.

The next day I decided I was sick. Seriously sick. My throat hurt. It was a test of will to swallow. My tonsils were not looking good. They obviously were taking one for the team. I knew what was wrong now though. I had seen this before in childhood. Strep. I was sure of it. I got it fairly often as a kid but hadn't had it in years. I had just arrived in Japan but I thought it was already time to meet my first Japanese doctor.

Strep throat isn't a disease to be taken lightly. Caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria, strep throat usually starts with the swelling of the tonsils which soon become covered in white patches. Other common symptoms are pain/difficulty swallowing, nausea, high fever, and low energy. It differentiates from other throat infections by a lack of coughing and congestion. It is very common in children but rare in adults. It's seen as an annoyance nowadays. Start on a
regimen of antibiotics and you'll feel better almost immediately. It's easy to forget the days before Penicillin. This disease was the deadly and feared scarlet fever. If you've ever read the children's story The Velveteen Rabbit the very sick child had strep. Strep if left untreated can do serious damage to heart, kidneys, and other organs. Friends of my parents made the decision to let their daughter recover naturally from strep without antibiotics. Sadly, a month later, she passed away from a ruptured appendix. The link between the untreated strep and her appendix was theorized but not proven. Having recently heard this story I knew that I needed some good, strong medicine.

I went into work and talked to my go-between, "I need a doctor. And medicine." OK! Phone calls were made and he took me to a nearby English speaking doctor. It was his one day a week at that location so I was lucky. I explained my problem, told him I was allergic to Penicillin, and he prescribed me another antibiotic, a
cephalosporin. Four days worth. Four days? I thought the worldwide standard for antibiotics was seven to ten days? Isn't four days the point when you feel completely better and stupid people stop taking their medicine and end up creating unstoppable, drug-resistant super-bugs? Well, maybe this is some powerful stuff. I paid my 1000yen, about $10 then, for the drugs and office visit (thank you cheap, Japanese health care!).

I took the medicine and after four days felt great.

But it was not to last.

This tale is not over. It is merely beginning. This was simply the first act. The start of my three year tonsil hell. Stay tuned for the next edition, Japan and My Tonsils: The Healthcare Strikes Back!


  1. Oh man... that's a horrible tale. Doctors are really stingy with medicine. Had an infection, got 3 days of pills. My tonsillitis? 3 days of pills. I just fractured my nose and got 3 days of pills for that too. =/

    That was my one and only experience with tonsillitis, which is why I'm not getting my tonsils out. But good luck with yours and I hope your tonsil tale will soon come to a happy ending! :)

  2. I think it's the mold. The whole country is full of black, growing mold on everything. It can't be good for your respiratory system.

  3. I'd tend to doubt that it's mold... This started before I moved to my place (though I admit the outside of my apartment complex is covered with some sort of brown mold which can't be good) and antibiotics work so I'm thinking it's bacteria.