05 November 2010

"Suntan" and the Japanese Healthcare System

Just over a month ago, I sustained some pretty bad sunburn while surfing (aka lying like a beached whale on my surfboard and plunging headfirst into the water each time I tried to stand up) at Shizunami beach. This is the story of the extremely unpleasant week following..

On the Saturday itself we didn't wear wetsuits because the weather was warm..and who would have known that that came with its own perils? I usually make a habit of lathering myself with sun cream if it's not cloudy out and that fateful day was no exception. My face, arms and neck were completely covered. Of course, I neglected to put any on my legs because I was thinking...sure my legs will be underwater right? Wrong...my legs were on the surfboard. I practically sunbathed on my stomach for 5 hours with no sun cream, and 3 more hours with it after some (wonderful, wonderful) person pointed out that the back of my legs looked sort of red..I guess it could have been even worse!

On the way home I knew that something was up..I had extreme shivers and started feeling sick. At home I covered my legs in after sun and went to bed early. I knew that it was bad sunburn, but I was hoping that it wasn't seriously bad. I'd seen third degree burns from the sun before, with blisters and bandages, so since I couldn't see any blisters I was hoping that it'd be alright.

I woke up, sometime between 12 and 1 and felt super warm and dehydrated. When I went to the kitchen to get a drink the nausea started, awful, head-swimming debilitation. With a lot of difficulty I walked back to my room to get my phone to call for help before I blacked out. I was so uncoordinated that I actually stumbled and smacked my head off my bedside locker. It was like being really, really drunk!

Unsure of who to call I started with my supervisor, whom I felt terrible for waking up! As I lay on my bed the darkness encroaching on the sides of my vision retreated a little so we decided that I didn't need to be taken to the hospital immediately. (Even if I did...how scary would that have been, in an ambulance unable to communicate with the paramedics?) After I hung up, the nausea got worse again so I called my JET neighbour who totally saved the day. Having reassured my parents on the phone, she googled sun stroke and made me an ice-bath. It was a fully blown battle of wills to get me into the bath, but my legs were burning and I was still really sick and confused so I did it.

The recovery was incredibly fast! I was shivering and shaking all over, but suddenly coherent again. That cold water stayed in my bath for the next 48 hours and I got back into it whenever my legs felt too hot. In the meantime, I began sleeping in my aircon room and drinking lots of water. Sunstroke crisis averted!

At school, most of the teachers were pretty amused by my 'suntan', which meant that I couldn't walk properly (the skin at the back of one of my knees had melted together). I've since come to the conclusion that Japanese people very rarely get sunburned, because few of them seemed to have the slightest idea what I meant by the word. They kept referring back to it as bad 'suntan'. At one point, a teacher confided in me that I should look after myself very well because suntan could in fact be like a real burn...at which point I had to stop myself from bursting in to song, someone understood!

Despite their difficulty in understanding my condition, the teachers were amazingly kind and helpful to me during that week and the next. Initially I thought I didn't need a doctor, but having spoken to a VHI nurse in Ireland on the phone, I decided that I did. At this point I'd developed a few blisters on the back of my legs, they were still burning all of the time and it was pretty much impossible to lie down, sit or walk normally. So that Thursday, 5 days after surfing, I applied for my nenkyu, recruited my translator, and prepared for my first encounter with the Japanese Health System.

Two hours later, we were still cuing at the dermatologist. I learnt that there are no G.P.s in Japan. People go straight to specialists. Luckily, it was pretty obvious which one I required, and my teachers were able to recommend a good, nearby one. Having filled out a form (surprise!), we joined the long cue in the waiting room. The receptionists wore surgical masks and each time the door to the doctor's room opened, I could see two nurses with masks, hospital style pull-around curtains and a doctor with (I'm pretty sure) surgical scrubs on. It was pretty damn intimidating!

When my turn finally came, I was probably relieved and terrified in equal measure. In the room I had to take off my trousers (funtimes, my JTE translator was male) and
lie on their table thing. The worst part was not being able to see what they were doing behind me. At first, there were 4 people crowding around, staring at my legs. Then, the nurses were running all over the place applying stuff with cotton buds, prodding and poking etc. At one point, I glanced behind me to see one advancing with a scissors...I was like WTF? No way...

Unfortunately, I had precious little say over what happened. The JTE seemed to translate only a small portion of what was said and the doctor didn't seem happy with my asking questions. Having treated the burn in various mysterious ways, he gave me stuff to put on it and told me to return the next day. He also refused to prescribe aspirin for me because, as he expertly derived from my medical form, aspirin gave me asthma. When I tried to protest we were ushered out of the room...NEXT!

I had to go back twice more, though it would have been more times had I not headed off to Tokyo that weekend and been more available. Instead they weighed me down with medical supplies and instructed me to change the bandages myself twice daily. This turned out to be not only complicated, but pretty painful since the nurses stuck the surgical tape on skin that ripped away when I removed it, ouch/itai!

Fortunately, whatever the dermatologist did worked, because the burn improved, I stopped developing blisters and the skin at the back of my knee magically unstuck itself so that I could walk again. Walking when you haven't been able to for even a short period of time is the most amazing feeling!

The 'suntan' episode was probably my worst JET experience so far, but I survived thanks to quick-thinking friends and wonderful Japanese teachers. Let's just say that I don't care to require the services of the Japanese Healthcare System again any time soon...and always. remember. to wear sun screen.

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