Going to the Emergency Room in Japan

If you’re reading this because you’re feeling unwell and you’re pondering whether you should go to the Emergency Room or not, here is the short version: GO – NOW. Don’t wait until it’s 5 am and you feel like you’re dying.

Which of course is what I did.

As a follow-up to the posts Going to the Doctor in Japan and Sick on Term Break – Teacher Life, here comes the story of when I went to the ER of the nearest hospital at 5 o’ clock in the morning. By myself. In pajamas.

2 weeks ago I got severely sick on term break, which was diagnosed by a doctor as a common cold. Rethinking the whole event, it might have been pneumonia. Since I’m a self-proclaimed workaholic, the idea of not going back to work and see my kids was unbearable, so that’s where I went on Monday after term break, still not fully recovered. Which came round to bite me in the ass, or to be more precise – in the lungs. After coughing my way through the week, Friday morning I had to leave work because my difficulty in breathing had become so severe that I could barely talk. I went to see my physician here in Yokohama and he upped my dosage of antibiotics. Saturday was going ok, but only really when I didn’t move much at all. On Sunday, things started to get very unsettling.

It started with a coughing fit at 11pm that lasted about 10 minutes. After that, it felt like the foot of an elephant had made itself comfortable on my chest, because I couldn’t breathe properly anymore. I was afraid to suffocate in my sleep in case things got any worse, so I barely slept at all. At 5 am, I got so scared of the idea that there was no one to call for help but me (the downsides of living alone), that I threw on a jacket over my pajamas and some things into a bag and ventured out into the slightly foggy but definitely still dark Monday morning.

The receptionist in the ER was nice and helpful, but didn’t speak any English at all. I don’t blame her, but me for not having studied hospital vocabulary yet. As a consequence of our language barrier the whole process of filling out paperwork took about half an hour. She asked me if I was there by myself, in Japanese. That I understood.

I was then guided to a bed behind a curtain where I would spend the next 4 hours. First, a nurse ran an ECG. That’s when I cried the first time. Not because it hurt in any kind of way, but because being in a hospital by myself is one of the most terrifying scenarios for me personally. The nurse was so sweet though, she held my hand and told me things would be ok. She asked me if my family lives in Japan. That made me cry even more. I got asked that same question several times more from different members of staff in the course of the day. Me living in Japan by myself seemed to surprise them.

Second on the agenda was a blood test. I hate needles. More than anything in the world. Redundant to say I cried more during that. I also squeezed a nurses hand so tight that I felt the need to apologize a lot of times. Again, the staff showed a lot of compassion and I heard the nurses talk about me in Japanese, calling me cute.

After that, I was sent to the first floor by myself, with a map that was supposed to guide me to the radiology to get an x-ray done. Reading maps is not my strong suit. Especially not after panicking over a blood test. At this time of the day, the hallways were deserted and naturally all the signs were in Japanese. I dizzily wandered around until I met someone I could ask for the way.

Back in the ER, I spend a few more hours laying around, waiting for results from the tests, until I needed to leave the bed to make space for a new patient. I was relocated into the hallway, right next to a guy stuck to an IV, just laying there, moaning. Little did I know at that point that this would be me later that day.

I then was informed that I was going to see a pulmonary specialist in the respiratory center on the 2nd floor. I was working my way up through the hospital, so it seemed. Since it was now 9am and every ill person in my ward had woken up by then, the hospital had become very, very crowded and waiting times has increased immensely.

For this was another department, I had to fill out forms and register with my hospital card, that I got from the reception, again. An hour later, at 10am, it was my turn to see the pulmonary specialist. And hallelujah, he spoke English very well. I could tell instantly that he is a very kind and patient person, too. He had also been sent the test results from the ER. Which were all normal.

To get to the bottom of my breathing problem, I was sent for more testing, this time to inhale a bronchodilator. I was told this would most likely make me be able to breathe normally again. I couldn’t wait for that to happen.

And this is where things went wrong. A nurse sat me down to wait in front of a room where the testing would happen. Strangely, it was never my turn. Every other patient walked in and out, but I was never called in. After an hour, it was now 11pm, a doctor from the the ER this morning stuck his head out the door (How the hell did he get up there? Does he work in all the departments?), saw me, looked confused and asked me why I was still waiting. I then found out that what I should have done was to register for a THIRD TIME, which no one had told me about and I honestly didn’t expect.

I was called into the testing room then and asked for my hospital card there. At that point, I had been suffering from difficulty in breathing for about 12 hours in total and I was barely with it anymore. When I couldn’t find my hospital card in my bag, I broke into tears yet again. They asked me if I have difficulty in breathing and I told them, sobbing, that I’d been in the hospital because of that since 5am. That made them stick me to the machine immediately. The inhalation made me able to breathe again and thereby confirmed the pulmonary specialist’s suspicion: Bronchial Asthma.


Now, at 27.

Here, in Japan.

The reason is most likely allergies, but what exactly has yet to be found out. Is it caused by the Japanese cedar trees? Stress at work? The cold autumn air? Allergies that run in my family genetically and have finally hit me now? I just really hope it’s not something that’s going to make me hate my decision of moving to Japan. Not that that would change anything. It’s just human nature I guess.

I will need time to wrap my head around having this medical condition and the implications for my work and personal life.

The story doesn’t end here though. My lucky day wasn’t over yet. Oh no.
I was then informed that my worst nightmare was about to happen: Being stuck to an IV for 2 entire hours. Once hooked on the thing, I lost it and cried for the millionth time today, but severely hysterical this time. The nurse told me in English: “If you continue to take these short breaths, you will hyperventilate and get paralyzed.“ Paralyzed? PARALYZED?!!??? Like that info would stop me from crying. Especially because I could already feel my hands getting numb. I desperately tried to think of something happy to distract me and calm down.

The only thing that came to my mind were my students. I forced myself to recall each single face and name of them. That did the trick for a while. I then changed my distraction techniques to quietly sing to myself several songs from Jesus Christ Superstar and Les Miserables. The doctor was back to check on me. I asked him how much longer. He said: “It’s been only half an hour.“ I cried again and he talked to me to calm me down. It worked. What also helped was a visit from the pulmonary specialist who explained to me that the correct translation wasn’t paralyzed but numb. And that as soon as I’d breathe normally, my hands would be fine again. I was then so exhausted from this whole day that I spent the last hour on the IV in a calm and sleepy state.

To wrap up my experience in a Japanese hospital:
Every member of staff I met that day (and the number was rather big), even the ones who had to deal with my anxieties and crying, never lost their patience and professional behavior. I can only speak for this particular hospital of course, but its staff wasn’t only as friendly as if they had stepped out of a Mary Poppins movie, but they must have also learnt their fair share of what can be called psychological care, meaning distracting a panicking patient with random questions like “So where did you last go on holiday?“. Even staff that didn’t speak English did an amazing job at that. Holding a crying person’s hand is pretty universal.

When it was time to say goodbye to the pulmonary specialist, he smiled at me with kindness. I said: “I bet this hospital has never seen so many tears in one day. From one person.“ His response was: “Maybe you need your family.“

Maybe I do.


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