Friday, December 22, 2017

my visit to the haneuiweon

My visit to the haneuiweon (Chinese-medicine clinic) lasted the better part of an hour. It felt a lot like my visit to that clinic in Hayang, back when I had that problem with my hip joint. I secretly snapped a few selfies while I was being treated this evening, so here they are. Look away now if you're unprepared to see me shirtless. I tried to keep the camera at a tasteful angle so as to minimize my pregnant stomach and man-boobs.

First up:

That's me getting the electrified acupuncture.

When I entered the clinic a bit after 6PM, all was quiet. There were no patients, and the lady at the front desk was so unoccupied that she had a sewing machine set up and was doing some seamstress-y work. The lady asked where my pain was; I told her it had started in my neck and had been migrating down my left arm. She noted this, then told me to fill out a patient-registry form: name, ID number, phone number, home address, etc. She called back to the doctor, whom she addressed as weonjangnim, which initially felt incongruous because that's the term we in the language biz use to describe the president of a language institute. I quickly realized, though, that this was a haneuiweon, with that final syllable, weon (pronounce it like "one"), being the same syllable in eohagweon ("aw-hah-gwunn"), i.e., a language institute. The head of any sort of weon is a jang, and out of respect, Koreans add the honorific particle nim, so of course the manager of a Chinese-medicine clinic would also be a weonjangnim.

The witch doctor, who was youngish and in his early fifties, ended up looking like a regular doctor, white lab coat and everything. He wore a face mask that, at that moment, covered his chin and exposed his facial features; that was about the only strange aspect of his apparel. He interviewed me about my pain and ended up telling me that I apparently have two problems: one related to my neck vertebrae (specifically, the disks) and one related to my shoulder. Not long after his explanation, he began the acupuncture, gently sticking pins into my skin. The pins generally didn't sink very deep, but there was one pin in particular that, when he stuck it into my skin, caused the muscles along my trapezius to spasm repeatedly and uncontrollably. The situation was hilarious in spite of the pain, and the doc said, "See? That's where the main pain is." Yup, pretty much. In that moment, I became convinced that those martial arts that teach one how to strike vital pressure (or nerve) points on the human body might really be on to something. It wouldn't have taken much to ratchet the pain up to blinding levels.

After sticking pins along the left side of my body, from my neck to my left wrist, the doc told the lady (who, when she wasn't sewing, doubled as a nurse/assistant) to hook up two or three of the pins to a machine that generated a gentle electric current. That's what you see happening in the above photo. I sat patiently for several minutes while the current made my skin tingle; there were a few moments during which I stopped feeling anything, so I called the lady in to ask her whether a needle might have fallen out. She said the loss of sensation was normal, but she cranked the machine up slightly so that I could feel a tingle again.

After a few minutes, the lady removed the alligator-clipped wires, pulled out all my pins, then brought out a new bit of equipment to run yet more electric current through my body. This machine was exactly like the one I had experienced in Hayang: it had wires and suckers, and it ran the current through me more strongly than the previous machine did. These machines always make me feel as if I'm being attacked by an octopus. See the photo below:

I sat with those suckers on both sides of my body (I had noted to the doc that the pain had migrated to my right shoulder) for about ten minutes, contemplating my involuntarily twitching muscles. The lady came in, took off the suckers, and said something like, "I'm going to remove some blood now," after which she took out a pistol-like device that gently punched tiny holes in the skin over my left trapezius; the procedure felt like a series of very quick pinpricks, and it wasn't painful at all. With my skin now slightly punctured, the lady brought out a mean-looking suction cup that she placed over the punctured area. I sat with that damn thing sucking the life out of me like an alien beast from Star Trek:

—and then it was over. The lady removed the vampiric suction cup after a few minutes, then placed a hot compress on my shoulder. She told me the "therapy" would be over once the hot compress was removed, so I waited patiently (I was a patient, after all) another five minutes. The compress came off, and the lady told me I could dress again.

Here I am with the hot compress, which smelled weirdly of stale chocolate cake:

I wasn't all that impressed with the clinic's infection-control procedures. The bed on whose edge I sat was covered with something that was halfway between a large towel and a thin blanket; this piece of cloth had obviously never been changed while patient after patient used it day after day. This is a far cry from the disposable-paper surfaces that you find in American medical facilities—surfaces that get changed out with every patient. It didn't help matters that the bed was heated: I imagined billions of bacteria happily multiplying inside the bed's warm covering. I don't consider myself a neurotic germophobe (that's my brother David), but I came away thinking the clinic was filthy. Was Madame Seamstress giving the various machines she used a good swabbing or wipe-down with disinfectant? Probably not.

I ended up paying W11,900 for the visit—about $11, US. The doc told me I should come back if I still felt pain; I nodded politely, but in truth, I probably won't go back. At the end of the session, despite all the needles and the electricity and the blood-sucking and the heating pads and the pestilential mattresses, I came away feeling pretty much unchanged. When I walked across the street and got back into my company's office, I told the boss that I felt this had been a waste of time, and he said that such treatments usually require several sessions. My boss is a believer, you see, but he was tolerant of my skepticism.

And that was that. I did note, upon reflection, that the doc never once used the spooky language of ki or meridians or balance or blockage in describing my medical condition. He used only terminology that would have been recognizable to a doctor trained in Western medicine. It was simply the treatment that was alien to me, not the rhetoric. But the treatment was alien enough that I'm not motivated to go back for more.


Charles said...

Finally back in the ROK, trying to catch up on things.

The electric suction-cup thingies are pretty standard in physical therapy and not really a haneuiwon-specific procedure. It is very similar to TENS (Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) therapy in the west. I had that same treatment for my neck and it did work, but you need to go back on and have it done on a regular basis--or at least I did. But I had mine done at a regular hospital/clinic. I think if you went to a regular clinic they might just prescribe some PT with the electric octopus and possibly some other things. I imagine this would be cheaper (I paid about $4 per session).

Kevin Kim said...


Yeah, when I last encountered the electric octopus, I was at that ortho clinic in Hayang, getting my hip worked on, so I know it's not part of the witchcraft. At the same time, I found the repeated treatments to be of dubious benefit. Ultimately, the hip pain went away on its own (I was still in pain during the treatment), so I had, and have, no clue as to what caused the pain to begin with.

Just visited my regular doc today and told him about the pain. He said I should visit another ortho clinic and get a proper X-ray, then bring that back to show the doc so we can decide where to go from here. I don't know why the doc told me to go elsewhere for an X-ray; I recall getting an X-ray at his office almost two years ago. Then again, my current doc, a younger guy, isn't the same as the former doc, a much older gent, who used to work at that naegwa clinic. Maybe some facilities were removed when the new guy took over...?