SMILE Eye Surgery in Korea: Potions and Miracles (Pt 1)

Two men smiling while waiting for SMILE eye surgery in Korea

Patient Stories: Paul from the United States (Part 1)

We want to highlight the real stories of foreigners who have received different medical services while abroad. From the good to the bad, the ugly to the hilarious, we hope to demystify accessing healthcare far from home. Hopefully, sharing the wisdom of those who have experienced it will help you too! If you’re interested in sharing your story with us, contact us here! We’d love to feature you in a future post. This story is from software engineer and self-confessed over-thinker Paul, from the United States, about his experience with SMILE eye surgery in Korea.

[Interview lightly edited for clarity and length]

About Paul

Hello Paul! Thanks for sitting down with us today. Let’s start with an easy question. Who are you? What’s your story?

Hello! My name is Paul, I’m a Korean-American, and I came here to Korea about four years ago on the tail-end of a seven-month trip through Southeast Asia and China. Originally I wasn’t planning on staying, but a lot of positive circumstances kept me here. Right now, I have the fortunate opportunity to be working at My Music Taste, in my field as a software engineer.

Why Paul Decided to Use Jivaka Care for SMILE Eye Surgery

Thanks for the introduction. So how did you hear about Jivaka Care? What were your first impressions?

Well, I first heard about you from my CEO. He and another one of my co-workers are friends with my Care Planner Youngjoo, and he introduced me to the service and gave me some information about it. I didn’t have a lot of information about medical care in Korea at the time, and I had a lot of friends who had anecdotal experience, so I wanted to know more about it.

Great! That’s what we’re here for. So speaking of your Care Planner, what did you think about him and the service? How did he help you specifically when you were getting SMILE eye surgery? You can be honest, it’s okay. [laughter]

Since I’ve lived here for 4 years and speak pretty pidgin Korean, I experienced getting skincare done, going to doctor check-ups, but mostly as a mute, just following simple directions and hand gestures. So my first impression was wow, it’s really nice that, if I feel like I don’t trust something, [and I don’t know whether it’s] because it’s inherently untrustworthy, or just something I don’t understand, it’s amazing to just kind of look [at the person], and get a clear answer for what it is. So yeah, my first impression was, “This is really nice.”

I see. So having a translator was really important for you?

It’s interesting because the translation part is definitely the most valuable, it’s the thing that I felt I needed the most and was missing the most in my experience here. But of course, translation is a difficult thing. The Care Planner, his English isn’t perfect [Youngjoo frowns in mock hurt, to laughter] but to me, there’s the sense I get where like, someone is translating information to me, rather than someone is telling me something to just move the situation along. And I felt like Youngjoo translated the information to me. I felt comfortable with that, especially about something like SMILE eye surgery.

There were some slight things I had to work through, because now it’s a two-part translation, it’s Korean to second-language English to native English, but it was really good. It was interesting. My favorite part about it was that he kept calling the different kinds of medicine, like eye drops, that I would need to take…potions? [laughter]

I was really kind of curious at the time, like, that’s a really interesting word choice. I work in software, so I play games, right? So I was like, I have experience playing games with potions. [laughter] We were talking about random things later and he told me a story about playing an RPG game and it kind of clicked for me. That was fun, kind of piecing out some of those interactions.

two men smiling at a SMILE eye surgery clinic in Korea
Arriving at the clinic with my Care Planner

Why Paul Wanted to Get SMILE Eye Surgery in Korea

Ah, I will only refer to medicine as potions from now on. [laughter] Alright then, about SMILE eye surgery itself — how long were you thinking about it and why did you decide to do it in Korea?

I had been thinking about SMILE eye surgery for a while, in the sense of…well, I would think about it and then say, “glasses aren’t that bad” and “contacts are okay, I can do sports and enjoy my life, I’ve been living this way my whole life, it’s my eyes, it’s expensive,” so I made a lot of excuses for myself basically. Then what happened was, about a year ago, when my good friend left Korea, he got the surgery. He had been thinking about it for a long time, and I’m the kind of person, maybe slightly old school, where a trust network is a really important thing, and that’s where I get my information from.

So watching him go through the process, and his Korean is…ah I hate this word, but worse than mine? So it went really well for him and he now sees 20/20 or better, I don’t know, it’s not my life. [laughter] So that’s when I first started…we had had conversations in the past like, glasses are irritating in all these different scenarios but X, Y, Z. But immediately after he was like, “This was the best decision I ever made.” And I was like, “Huh, maybe that’s the best decision that I could have ever made too.” So that’s kind of when it started.

So then Korea specifically, what were the pros to getting SMILE eye surgery done here instead of waiting when you went back to the U.S.?

I cared about cost the most. I’m not trying to cut monetary corners on something like my eyes, but it’s like this. If I believe that the technology is good, that the doctors are good, that the healthcare is solid, and all things being equal, why should I pay four times the price? There’s this ancient part of my mind that’s like, “It must be better because it costs more!” But that’s not…that’s totally BS! [laughter]

I know I would come back and visit Korea later, but I knew from talking to my friend that the process should be kind of extended, there’s a one month checkup, a three month checkup, and like, maybe I wouldn’t want to be on vacation while doing it. So being stable and living here, having a routine and pattern, it seemed like a better time to take care of getting SMILE eye surgery. So definitely money, and also just like, the convenience of it. And then, on top of that, having the resources.

About the SMILE Eye Surgery Experience

Great! So then, during the SMILE eye surgery itself, I mean, it’s like, THERE’S A LASER CUTTING YOUR EYE, it’s terrifying! What was going through your mind, before and during the surgery? Tell us about it.

Feeling words, yeah. [laughter] Here’s how it went. I kind of convinced myself that this is good idea and this is gonna go well, so even though I was nervous I didn’t want to read any more information about SMILE eye surgery. So I just wanted to not freak out and kind of just have the thing be done the way it’s done for everybody else. I was also hyper-aware of everything, and sitting there in that waiting room, making small talk with the Care Planner.

And just sort of being in that space, there were a lot of things going through my head. Like, am I gonna walk out BLIND? That was obviously the first worst-case scenario thought. Also just, not doubts or regrets, but my mind was really busy. It was pretty funny actually, there was a mother and her son who was getting the surgery before me, and she was a wreck. And I was thinking “Hmm, should I be nervous too? Should HE be nervous too?” So it was really nice, to have somebody there. We were just talking and trying to keep things calm.

I’m glad to hear that! So tell us about the experience itself.

My experience with the whole procedure of SMILE eye surgery…we were sitting in the waiting room, and I guess I have kind of outdated ideas of hospitals. Or maybe it’s just Korean hospitals and I’m not familiar with them. But we were sitting there, and in my head I guess I imagined “operating room” as this space far away behind locked doors and only accessible by like, five key cards and fingerprint scanners and people with hazmat suits. [laughter]

So like, it was really calm and professional, but calm in a way like, that was professionally designed to be calming. And that was really interesting for me like, on a surface level, if I wouldn’t have thought too much about it, I would have felt really calm. And having someone sitting there with me would have felt really calm. Even if I would have had that mother who was sitting there like, scratching her knees off. It was still calming.

That’s so interesting! What about the operating room itself, then?

The surgery room was really interesting, because it was right in front of us. Like, it’s a glass room, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls. And they had turned on this digital display that made it just a blank wall. And then they turned it off and I could see everything inside of it. I was like “WHOA.” Because I saw a kid in there getting the surgery done! So I was like, “That’s gonna be me!” So that was my first thought, it was kind of shocking. But then I looked around the room. It’s like, professional equipment and there’s doctors and the fixtures you’d expect. And my favorite part was…I learned that I was gonna be totally awake during the surgery. [Editor’s note: I may have given a small, strangled screamed when I heard this]

Oh my…I could not handle that! Why is that?

Because in Korea, they have their own policies around anesthesia. But I learned that and I thought, that’s gonna be pretty screwed up, but I’ll get through it. But one thing that’s really interesting, for me, was that I looked at the beds that the patients lay on, and there was a giant stuffed animal on all of them. [laughter] That was amazing to me, only in Korea would this happen! I was both amused and kind of a little shocked but also immediately happy to be able to hold this like, plush cute happy thing while my eyes were getting operated on. So yeah, it was pretty great! We had a solid laugh about it because I was like, only in Korea. Fast forward during the thing, and it was actually like super calming to have like a, plush reindeer to hold.

Man preparing for SMILE eye surgery in clinic operating room
The reindeer in question, while preparing for surgery

Check out Part 2 here to find out how the surgery went, what life without glasses is like, and Paul’s advice for foreigners looking for healthcare in Korea.

two people sitting down and talking in front of a camera about SMILE eye surgery in Korea

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