Thursday, July 7, 2011

Japan and My Tonsils: Under the Knifu

Read part 1, 2, and 3 here.

Part 4

Welcome to the exciting climax of my Japanese tonsillitis adventure. I had tried everything but the one thing that I knew would work, cutting those suckers out. At the hospital the doctor agreed and scheduled my surgery in two weeks time.

After my meeting with the doctor was finished he told me to go with the nurse who would explain what I should and shouldn't do prior to surgery. The first thing she told me was "don't get sick." Very good advice, I thought. After that she told me the week prior to surgery I couldn't drink any alcohol, caffeine, or take any medicine or vitamin supplements. She also told me not to eat any garlic. Garlic? I think that was more for the surgeon's benefit than mine.

The nurse sent me upstairs to get all my pre-op tests taken care of. First was the urine test. I was handed a cup and was a bit dismayed to see that I didn't get my own private room to take care of it. There was just a normal bathroom with nothing but two urinals at which two guys were taking care of their cups. I waited until they left. I guess I'm shy. Next they took some blood. The nurse noted that my hands were sweating and asked me if I was scared. I told her that my hands always sweat when I'm incredibly manly. Also it was 100 degrees in there and I was dressed for the wintry weather outside. After that I had to get my chest X-rayed to make sure I had the correct number of organs. Next was the final step: the heart and lung test. For the heart test I had to lie on a table and the nurse put sensors on my ankles and wrists. I was a little embarrassed about the ankles since it was a cold day, which means I was wearing two pairs of socks. Don't judge me! We don't have fancy heaters in Japanese classrooms like your bourgeoisie country. My heart appeared to be working. Next was the lung test. I had to exhale into a tube while a computer measured my breathing. The nurse said I had to exhale in a very specific way. I had always thought I was pretty good at breathing since I practice literally always, but she kept saying I was doing it wrong. In the end I don't know if I ever did it to her liking but she stamped the sheet and let me go anyway.

The next two weeks passed by quickly. One week before surgery I had a "last night I can drink beer for a month" dinner at my favorite okonomiyaki restaurant. I had a big mug of the dark draft. It was delicious. I think I shed a tear.

The day before my surgery I was admitted into the hospital. I had a meeting with the surgeon and the anesthesiologist. My Japanese tutor, Mr. Ohta, and his wife were kind enough to come with me for this. My plan was to do this all myself relying only on my own Japanese ability, but then I realized I don't even understand everything English-speaking doctors say and it'd be safer to have a native speaker there with me so I don’t misunderstand something and end up with a kidney gone.

The anesthesiologist explained what would happen when I woke up. First they would ask me to open my eyes to make sure I'm conscious, then they would ask me to raise my hand and give the OK sign to make sure I can move, then they would look at me to make sure I'm not making an expression of excruciating pain. If everything looks good, only then will they take the breathing tube out of my throat.

I was shown to my hospital room. I was hoping for a private room, of course, though I knew that would be unlikely. The room was big, and held eight people who were all separated by curtains. It was actually not awful. Everyone had their own tiny fridge, a little safe for their wallet or watch, a desk, a closet, a TV, and of course the standard inclinable hospital bed.

That night I had my first Japanese hospital meal. It was spaghetti with meat sauce and it wasn’t bad. It was better than my own cooking at least.

I woke up early the next day, shaved, and brushed my teeth. I knew it would be the last time I would for awhile. I put on my hospital gown. A nurse came in and gave me a pill to help me "relax". I don't know what it was but I was suddenly drunk. I definitely didn't worry about the surgery any more though. It was more like "Woo! Surgery!"

"Woo! Toga!"

They wheeled me into the surgery room, which was huge and futuristic. The anesthesiologist hooked me up to the IV and began to reiterate the steps that would occur after surgery. I started to feel myself begin to pass out while he was talking and realized he was already giving me the anesthesia through the IV. I wasn't expecting that and wished he had let me know before. But whatever. Blackness.

I woke up and could have swore I'd been dreaming but I couldn't remember what. They made me open my eyes and give the OK sign. After that they took the breathing tube out of my throat. I was still out of it so I hadn't even noticed it was in there. I couldn't talk but for some reason I felt I had to thank them right then. So I gestured to a nurse and wrote "ありがとう" (thank you) with my finger. I don't know if she understood.

They wheeled me back to my room. I passed Mr. Ohta and his wife on the way but they weren't actually allowed to visit me then. I slept for two or three more hours. The nurse came and told me that if I needed to use the bathroom within the next two hours a nurse would have to go with me. Seeing as how I hadn't eaten or drank anything in the past 16 hours it wasn't an issue.

The first day and night were by far the worst. To coat the wounds my body deciding making gallons of saliva was the best way to go. I felt like I was drowning all day. I couldn't sleep for more than an hour or two because I'd have to wake up to spit. Also, I could constantly taste blood which they assured me was normal, as long as I wasn't bleeding profusely. But they said that I shouldn't swallow because the blood could make me throw up. Throwing up right after throat surgery sounded like the worst thing ever. Fortunately I was nausea-free. Also pain-free due to my constant companion, the IV.

The next day I was already much better. The saliva factory that was my mouth had calmed down. At 7AM my surgeon and a nurse came in. The nurse took my temperature and gave me a new IV. The surgeon looked in my mouth and declared that everything looked normal. I asked him (by way of a portable dry-erase board I brought) about when I could eat. He said lunchtime. I was looking forward to it.

That lunch was the first of many identical lunches. The only food they had for people like me was called kayu, which is just watery rice. Do you remember that scene in The Matrix when they're eating in the real world? Their food is described as both runny eggs and a big bowl of snot. I bet dollars to donuts that they were eating kayu. I ate juicy rice for three meals a day for seven days. Never had my taste buds been so underused. By the end I was surprised they hadn't atrophied and died. One time they gave me some kind of fruit paste for dessert. It was like a mini Christmas. That mashed up fruit was the best thing I had ever eaten. It was strange; my biggest craving the whole time I was in the hospital was bread. Just some bread. I would have killed for a piece of toast.

I guess I should have mentioned that Japanese hospitals work a bit different than the ones in America. Not only is the health care socialized but it's also much, much cheaper. This plus them being extremely cautious about their patients lead them to not kicking me out the next day like I would have been in America. I had seven days to kill. I passed my time in my little curtained room studying Japanese, reading manga, and playing my DS. My friends and my girlfriend were nice enough to visit me a couple times, and I appreciated the company. But also, to be honest, I didn't mind my alone time. I'm usually so busy with work it was nice to just have a whole week to myself where my only obligation was to rest and get better.

I was by far the youngest person in my room. I made friends with a guy named Mr. Fukayama who had been in and out of the hospital for a year fighting off lung cancer. He had the bed next to the window, which was prime real estate. We would sit and talk about random things. It was all harmless conversation until one time he inevitably started talking about the war. He didn’t fight in it since he was ten at the time, but he sure had a lot of opinions about it. He wasn’t very sympathetic to my gaijin ears and talked too fast for me to catch everything. Old people love to bring up the war, especially if you happen to be an American. Of course I was negative 40 years old when the bomb was dropped so my end of the conversation was mostly looking solemn. Despite the war conversation he claimed to love Americans. He had traveled all around America as well as many other countries. He just kept saying how great everybody was. “Spanish? I love the Spanish!” “French? I love the French!” “Russians? I f***ing hate Russians.” Yeah, he wasn’t a fan of the Ruskies.

You'd think being in a room with seven other people would have been loud and annoying. But everyone kept their voices down. Well, except for one guy. He had sleep apnea and snored louder than I have ever heard a person snore. He slept constantly all day long: a never-ending snorefest. Fortunately at night the nurses would come and wheel him out of the room. I wondered where they took him and imagined a soundproof room covered in that black foam they have in recording studios, or somewhere underground.

In the same wing of the hospital but in a different hallway were women and small children. There was one shower room to share with everyone. Because of this, for only two days a week us men had a four-hour window to take a shower. I was forbidden to use the shower after my surgery in case of... something. I was finally granted permission on day five of post-op. This was by far the longest I've ever gone without taking a shower. Entering the shower room I was not surprised to find it was a Japanese communal shower and bath similar to a sentou, a Japanese bathhouse. My high school didn't have communal showers, I've never been in the army, and so far I've kept out of prison so I never had the pleasure of having to shower with a bunch of naked guys. The idea never interested me, which is why I've never gone to an onsen, a Japanese hot spring, which some people find blasphemous. "You live in Japan and have never been to an onsen? They're TO DIE FOR!" That may be so, and you might think I'm shy, but I'm not. And maybe I will go someday, but I wouldn't want to go alone and hang out with a bunch of naked strangers. But also I can't imagine going up to my friends and saying, "hey bros, let's get naked and take a bath together because that is a normal thing that people actually do." I had one experience in a Japanese sentou while staying at a ryokan, a tradition Japanese inn. It was just me and a Texan named Woody who kept talking to me while I did my best to ignore the fact that I was talking to a naked Texan named Woody. Anyway, at the hospital, I was so happy to finally get a shower that I actually enjoyed making small talk with the extremely old naked guy at the shower next to me. It totally didn’t feel weird. Which was weird.

At one point during my stay I had just been given a new IV and was sitting on my bed. Suddenly everything seemed to sway and I felt a little nauseous. I thought the IV was making me sick but then I noticed the IV line was swaying as well. “Just a small quake,” I thought. That turned out to be the Great East Japan Earthquake, one of the five worst quakes ever recorded. It was over 450 miles away.

I have nothing but good things to say about my stay in that Japanese hospital. All the staff were extremely polite, friendly, and helpful. My surgeon was great and I recovered much quicker than the Internet would have led me to believe. I was never in any real pain and every day I felt drastically better than the one before. That being said, there was one issue I had which is more of a Japanese thing than a specific problem with the hospital. Payment. No matter where you go in Japan, money is the most inconvenient thing. It seems like they haven't completely figured out how it should work. For example places that accept credit cards are rare, banks close hours before you get off of work, and even ATMs close because for some reason even machines need a break. Also your own bank's ATM charges you a fee for using it after the bank is closed, as if you have a choice. These are minor quirks compared to the problem I ran into at the hospital. The rules are as follows: A, you aren't allowed to bring large amounts of money for fear of theft. B, there is no ATM on site. C, they don't take credit cards. D, you must pay when you leave. Meaning you're expected to pay the equivalent of thousands of dollars in cash with money you’re not allowed to have and which can only be gotten from a place you’re not allowed to go until you pay the thousands of dollars in cash. In the end Mr. Ohta was nice enough to pay up front then drive me to an ATM so I could immediately pay him back. But that's not a payment system. That's the complete lack of a system. And this happens with every patient?

But besides that, my experience with a Japanese hospital was nothing but good. At first I was worried about getting my tonsils out in Japan instead of America, but in the end it couldn't have gone better.

To sum up this four-blog-entry-long tale: from the time I first got sick I had felt a healthy dose of frustration, disappointment, and fear in dealing with Japanese doctors and health care. But in the end it all worked out. I feel so positive about the whole experience now that I forget that there was a time when I was cursing Japan and it's health care system. Now I can't help but praise it. To any foreigners living in Japan who are in need of surgery: you may be considering paying the extra money to fly to your home country and getting it done there. No need! Believe it or not their techniques and medicine are just as good as back home, and in some cases much better judging from the horror stories my friends have told me about getting their tonsils out in America. It's been three months since the surgery (I'm pretty bad at getting these blog entries out in a reasonable time, aren't I?). It's the longest I've been without strep throat in years and I think I can knock on wood and say that part of my life is over. Now I can go do karaoke without fear of getting sick the next day.

I also want to add a message to all those adults out there with tonsillitis because their parents didn't love them enough to get their tonsils out as a kid (just kidding Mom!): just get the dang surgery. And hey, might as well do it in Japan, right?

Good night, and good luck.


  1. Thank you for this! I'm a JET living up in Aomori who will be getting my tonsils out this upcoming March. Reading this was both informative and entertaining. I'm Canadian and was actually on a surgery wait list for three years before giving up my spot to move to Japan.. so I'm very pleased to be having it done here.

    1. How did it go? I'm just now starting to consider getting mine out down here in Mie. Don't know the first thing about finding a doc around my particular inaka to take them out, but starting to think it's a necessity.