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SMILE Eye Surgery in Korea: Potions and Miracles (Pt 2)

Two men in operating room waiting for SMILE eye surgery

Patient Stories: Paul from the United States (Part 2)

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 Part 2 from software engineer and self-confessed over-thinker Paul, from the United States, about his experience with SMILE eye surgery in Korea. Check out Part 1 here

[Interview lightly edited for clarity and length]

So let’s talk about SMILE eye surgery, Paul. How was it? How was your doctor?

The doctor was great, and he spoke way more English than I expected. I think it would have been fine in any scenario. At that point, the procedure leading up to the SMILE eye surgery was quite nice . You go through all the machines, you get checked through all the machines. It’s the first time I’ve walked into that hospital, so they don’t have any patient records on me, but they administered this vision test in a really professional kind of quick manner, and at the end of it they basically told me exactly what [my prescription] was and that I have astigmatism, and I was like, if you can dig out that information in like 30 seconds of like this quick, efficient process, I was already comfortable.

And the doctor was super nice, friendly, the kind of face that just calms you down because it’s attentive. He was warm and understanding and friendly. He spoke decent English, so that definitely was a nice surprise. Even if the guy didn’t speak any English at all, I would have been comfortable with him. The Care Planner was there and they had some side conversations when there was some miscommunication. Then he would translate for me and that kept the conversation moving. And that was nice, I didn’t have to context-switch in my head and get into this “Oh I’m a foreigner” thing and try to draw some pictures with my hands. So that was really nice and a good part of it too. If that doctor was my uncle, I would totally have a casual drink with him. He was chill.

[Laughs] That’s great! It sounds like there was a lot you liked about the experience. But is there anything you wish you could have changed?

I knew that the Care Planner didn’t have a medical background and was probably at the same level as I was, but obviously more because he had looked at [the research] more, but in terms of medical terminology, which is somewhat difficult to translate, that maybe would have raised red flags for me. Not like, red flags like I want to stop this process but maybe like, this is kind of weird, like this feels kind of unsettling. [Editor’s Note: We’ve heard Paul’s feedback and will make sure our Care Planners are knowledgeable about the procedures they help future clients with. Thanks, Paul!]

I also think it wasn’t quite clear what the exact process would be going into it. I don’t know how much people want that information, but I’m pretty happy at this point, living four years in Korea, with just following directions. There’s clearly like a directioned way of doing things here and if you just flow with it, things flow a lot better. I’m okay with that, I think that I guess that if I was the kind of person who wouldn’t be okay with that, I should have asked more questions in the beginning.

But maybe just some general information, like “Here’s a rough series of events of what’s going to happen with the SMILE eye surgery” and then just to have that information so that I know this is what’s happening here, not just what I’ve seen on Youtube or read on a blog. A little bit more framing would have been nice.

Of course. I mean, this is just useful for us to know, because we’re trying to gather as much feedback as we can to improve how we do things. So this is great to know!

It’s all kind of a trip when you don’t know what’s going on with it, for me. I walked in, and I see the rows of machines and I think, “Am I an assembly line product right now?” Like, I get it. I get that there’s a high volume of people moving through there. In this society, things should be orderly and calm, so I get it, but it’s also a bit desensitizing for me? [I’m] from a small town background, so when I know my doctors, I know them from talking to them for an hour in a patient room. So it’s interesting for me to come in here in a highly dense, highly populated city like Seoul, and see this process. But I’m sure that’s more specific to my background than anything else.

Right, but it’s still good to know. Well, how do you feel now? How was the recovery process? What’s life without glasses like?

This is gonna sound so cheesy and cliched, but it’s amazing. It’s so good! Both of us, our minds were blown because I think we both kind of had more information about some of the other procedures, like LASEK or LASIK, not SMILE eye surgery. So both of us kinda thought that I was gonna be completely blind walking out of the surgery room. But right after the process — which was quick, painless and professionally done, the doctor was speaking English to me and was calming, there were no complications — but also just after the SMILE eye surgery procedure was done, I could already see better than without my glasses before. [Editor’s Note: Oooh damn!] That blew my mind. That was like some miracle work stuff. That was great.

The recovery process was quick — I went home and I just kinda crashed. I was just like, psychologically tired. [laughter] Like “Wow, that was an intense experience!” Even with how quick and clean and professional the doctor performed the SMILE eye surgery, it was also pretty intense. So I went home and laid down and just listened to some podcasts and chilled out, and marveled at the fact that I was already seeing better than I did before, which was really awesome. But I was also being really careful, taking my eye drops and following the instructions, and the next day I woke up and I already saw like, really damn well.

That’s incredible! I can’t even imagine what that must be like. At the checkup too, your vision was fine following SMILE eye surgery?

So I went in for a checkup the next day and they had me read the chart. I’ve been reading eye charts since age 4, and it’s always one of those awkward and painful experiences where like, I’m not good at this. Like I’m just, inferior. [laughter] That’s the feeling I get every time. Which I’ve gotten used to. But I sat in there, and she sat me down in the chair, and she just went straight down from like, the giant grandma-sized letters — that’s probably a little insensitive [laughter] — but like, the giant letters all the way down to the sub-20/20 letters, and I was just like “A, F, 8, 9” and I could see everything. Like, this is amazing. SMILE eye surgery is like a total miracle. A miracle that happens 4,000 times a week in Korea.

It was also interesting to me, they told me at the time that you’re gonna be a little farsighted. The word “farsighted” to me, first of all, just cracks me up. It sounds like a superpower that someone on the Heroes show would have, you know? [laughter] Like, “EAGLE VISION! I can see that man picking his nose on a mountain hundreds of miles away!” But it was cool, after that I actually did test that. If I looked at my phone things actually got a little bit blurry. But since then, one week later, it’s settled down to about 20/20 vision.

That must be a relief!

Yeah, so things have already kind of started to stabilize following the SMILE eye surgery. But they did say that the whole kind of stabilization process, and I’m sure it’s a conservative estimate, would be about one to two months. So, my eyes are still adjusting, I’m still adjusting to it, but all that kind of rationality aside, it’s a trip. It’s so fun to just wake up in the morning and see. And there’s just so many things that are happening now, like this is gonna be a whole, totally new experience that sure, in a couple of months, I’ll never think about again because that’s just how things crystallize. But right now it’s pretty great.

I got my hair cut two days after the surgery. And when I get my hair cut, I can’t see what’s happening. This may be TMI, but I also have a phobia of other people with sharp objects. So getting my hair cut was always a super stressful experience. But sitting there and watching it happen, it’s just like, this is great! I feel trust re-instilled by being able to see with my own eyes what’s happening. It’s totally different.

That sounds absolutely amazing. So thinking about your experience then, do you have any advice for other foreigners?

I’m bad at giving generalized advice. But if I gave advice it would be to obviously do the due diligence, do the research first. I…did not do that because I’m an idiot. [laughter] I’d knew about it but didn’t look up what the process is like in Korea for SMILE eye surgery. There’s a lot of good information out there already, and a lot of that information is really calming, especially when I had the thoughts of, “Am I gonna go blind in two days?!” you know? Because a lot of the information out there is very positive. And the information that’s not, it’s not too hard to see that it’s just people trolling. There’s a lot of information about procedures like SMILE eye surgery, so utilize it, but then, it’s also really nice to actually speak to, well in my case, this Care Planner, and get information that’s specific to my case, specific to me. It’s nice to be able to talk to someone directly and not just read information on the internet.

If my advice was to use a service like Jivaka Care, which I would give as advice, it would be to really trust that the discomfort you have, whatever it may be — whether it’s the language barrier or lack of experience with Korean hospitals, or maybe just that you haven’t traveled much, etc. — those discomforts don’t have to be there. If there are resources available and there’s someone who’s there to help you, use that. And I guess, definitely, it’s easy for me to say this now that I’m seeing 20/20, but if it’s something you’ve always wanted to do, there’s no reason not to do it.

What about advice on healthcare in Korea for foreigners in general?

My advice for foreigners getting healthcare in Korea…don’t be loud? It can make the feeling in the waiting room more unsettled, which will make you more unsettled. [laughter] But yeah, also, to share. I mean, I’m selfish, I’ve read the information, I’ve read people’s blogs on SMILE eye surgery, I’ve read some of the limited stuff that’s already out there, but…there is a lot but it’s very little in terms of internet volume. So, share! And talk about these experiences and ask those questions on Reddit or forums [Editor’s Note: Or with us at Jivaka Care!], share those experiences on social media and get that information out there. And research your options, because there are a lot of big-name hospitals here that have a lot more resources. It’s easy to get drawn in by them because they’re promoting so much and have so much visibility.

For me, I was really happy that I got to go to SNU Clinic. It’s not like one of these mega-clinics. SNU Clinic has a doctor that was like, the first doctor to ever perform laser eye surgery in Korea. I guess that kinda makes him a celebrity doctor? I’ve heard some horror stories of friends and family back home who got surgery at one of these larger clinics. But I would definitely like the celebrity doctor to do it. [laughter] The mega-clinics are probably great, but if you’re the kind of person who wants more personal care, there are better options out there. Especially for something like SMILE eye surgery.

So finally, you touched on this already, but would you recommend Jivaka Care to your friends, especially for something like SMILE eye surgery…?

Well, I already have! I think that answers that question. And yes, totally!

Thank you again Paul for your story and your feedback! Tune in next week for another story of getting healthcare abroad.

Two people sitting in front of a camera talking about SMILE eye surgery

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