Friday, September 17, 2010


Five days ago my wife gave birth to our first child, a boy. Over the last couple of years, we'd talked about whether it was better to have a baby in England or Korea. I've always been impressed with the Korean health system - yes, it costs money, but it is fast and efficient in comparison to the slow lumbering bureaucracy of the British National Health Service. Korea seemed to be the clear winner. Now I'm no longer sure. I want to document my experience here as a possibly cautionary tale for other people who find themselves in the same position. Had I known a few months ago what I know now, things may have worked out differently.

I'm splitting what I have to say into the before and after - a tale of two halves if you will, and then there may be quite a lot of post-match analysis, so if you don't want to know the result, look away now.

She's Having a Baby

My wife's water broke at 9.35pm on Saturday evening. The hospital said she had time for a shower before checking in. That's important because Koreans firmly believe that women can not take a shower or bath for a week or more after giving birth otherwise it will damage their health for life - after giving birth Korean people's bones are 'brittle'.

An hour later we arrived at the hospital. It's not a huge state-run complex of buildings as you would expect to find in the UK, but rather eleven stories of a very small office block situated on a major road. Like most Korean hospitals, it's specialised - in this case, as a maternity hospital. When we reached the delivery floor, we stepped out of the elevator into a small empty waiting area. I soon discovered that the entire floor was being staffed by one nurse, although since there was only another patient there, who was busy screaming in agony, perhaps that was the appropriate staffing level. The nurse split her time between checking us in and disappearing into the first delivery room to admonish the woman for her behaviour. Really.

Korean Mother was with us, and she went down on the forms as the next-of-kin. My inability to communicate at the level of Korean necessary to deal with a medical emergency made it necessary, but that was to prove only the first of a series of unhappy experiences during the next few hours.

The Red Gloves

The unseen woman gave birth and the baby cried for around a minute before silence descended on the otherwise unoccupied delivery floor. Retrospectively, I see now I should have seen that as a clue, but my head was full of other thoughts. We were in the next door delivery room by now with my wife lying on the bed. The nurse entered with heavily bloodied surgical gloves and much to my shock began adjusting my wife's bed and bedding. Korean hospitals have always seemed to have good hygiene standards so this wasn't what I expected at all. It turned out my wife was already 30% dilated so we were told the baby was likely to come by the morning.

I suppose the room wasn't quite what I expected either. It was very cramped - only wide enough for one person to stand on either side of the bed - and it didn't fit my possibly wrong image of the clinically clean environment I'd expected. It was really just a room, with some rather dingy circa-1970s wallpaper.

I'd chosen to be present in the room during my wife's birth. I don't think this is really negotiable for British people and it would be very unusual if you didn't want to be. I got the impression that Korean men are not so enthusiastic about the idea, and I was told the husband of our neighbour stayed outside for the big moment. But again, the reality was different from my expectations. Korean Mother and I were regularly told to leave by the nurse and the pedometer that I wore eventually told me I'd walked over a kilometre in the corridor outside, partly out of frustration and partly just to keep myself awake. Korean Mother took to crouching by the entrance to the curtain-off delivery room chanting Buddhist mantras over and over.

The Wreck of the Mary Celeste

It was while I was pacing up and down the narrow and claustrophobic corridor of the Mary Celeste Maternity Hospital that I finally started looking at the crib positioned near to the door of my wife's delivery room. A green blanket sat in it and it was stained with blood and other bodily fluids. Another equally stained blanket lay underneath it. I suppose the hospital would argue that they were perfectly clean despite their appearances, but I was so surprised I took a photo of it. Unfortunately, I'd left my DSLR in the maternity room and was only carrying my compact digital camera, which I discovered had developed a fault preventing me from altering its settings, so the noisy picture didn't do the reality of it justice. Anyway, I was rather surprised, and not in a good way.

My wife was determined not to be a screamer so only moaned occasionally, but even after two epidurals she was in considerable pain by 3.30am, which is when apparently to her great surprise the nurse discovered that my wife was 80% dilated, suddenly moving the expected time of arrival up a number of hours. The nurse had now been the only person we'd seen since arriving five hours earlier, but she began making phone calls to a doctor, giving me some comfort that we really weren't the only people in the entire building. But lingering questions remained in my mind - if there was an emergency, how equipped was a small hospital like this to cope with it? How long would it take a crash team to get here? Did they even have one? No, say what you like about British hospitals, at least you probably have every conceivable specialist to hand if there's a problem. I began to think a larger Korean hospital might have been a better plan.

Push Pull

Within half an hour the nurse was giving instructions to push but there was still no sign of the doctor despite a series of phone calls. In my mind I'd editorialised them as increasingly urgent pleas of 'where are you?', but perhaps it wasn't.

Twenty minutes later the nurse, whose attendance throughout the night had been sporadic despite the theoretical one-to-one ratio of nursing care, disappeared, leaving Korean Mother to work with her daughter on the pushing. When the nurse returned, with the doctor, a second nurse, and a large vacuum pump in tow, we were bundled out of the room. I discovered later that the baby had been judged to be stuck, but my language isolation prevented me from understanding what was happening and Korean Mother didn't appear to know either. Her Buddhist chanting became louder which I didn't take as a particularly positive sign. It was a critical time in the delivery, and we were kept outside for twenty minutes, but they hadn't properly closed the curtain to the room, so occasionally I managed to see beyond the medical staff to the horrors that lay beyond. My wife had clearly lost quite a lot of blood. It's hard to know at the time what can be considered normal, so I wasn't especially worried, but later she had to have a transfusion.

30 Seconds Over Tokyo

We were finally called in three minutes before the birth, and for the first time we had to wear gowns - but no masks. Because of the cramped conditions - caused in no small part by the large vacuum pump that was already attached to my wife, I could only stand at the top of the bed, so when the baby came it's the only angle I could see it from. The umbilical cord was clamped and I was given what felt like the world's bluntest scissors to cut it with. Yes, Korean men apparently might sit out the actual delivery, but its normal for them to cut the umbilical cord.

We'd had all these grand plans about taking lots of photos and even filming the moment of birth, but in the reality of the situation it seemed heartless to take pictures like a tourist when my wife needed my full attention. When the birth happened at 4.57am it was so quick that I was taken aback. I didn't understand how rapid the vacuum pump could be, although having seen my baby sucked out of its home head first like that I think I understand why so many people in the modern world have nightmares about being abducted from their beds by aliens. I was quickly conscripted into cutting the cord and then the baby was passed to its mother while I struggled - and failed - with the now certainly faulty camera I had to hand to take a shot. I couldn't reach my DSLR in time. Thirty seconds later the baby was bundled outside by the nurses and I once again tried and failed to take a photo in the corridor despite the protestations of the staff. Blink and you'll miss it. Our baby was hurried away.

In the end, while giving birth is a terribly hard thing to go through, it ended up being comparatively straightforward. The baby was fine and after a couple of days, my wife was much better too. But a mistake was made during that thirty second period and it was going to linger with me and cause a great deal of unhappiness and frustration.


Anonymous said...

WOW!!! Congrats both of you!! Sorry to hear about the culture shock though.

//New reader Moa

Mike said...

Thanks Moa. I suppose Korea wouldn't really be Korea without a healthy dose of culture shock. Thank you for reading!

Talking to myself said...

Congratulations on the birth and it's good to read mother and baby are doing well. Sorry to read that the process was tougher than it needed to be. As someone who is married to a Korean woman I find your posts insightful and food for thought...

Mike said...

Thank you.

Mosher said...

No need to say more than "congratulations"! :)

Mike said...

Thanks Mosher!

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