Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Your friendly neighborhood apothecary

Over the weekend I was out and, as often happens in crowds, I was bumped into and proceeded to lose my balance and fall. Not a bad fall, just awkward really and I had both hands free to stop it from being anything more than an embarrassing moment. I dusted myself off and went on my merry way but come Monday I began noticing that my right wrist was feeling awfully sore. Tuesday it felt about the same but last night when I crawled into bed it was really starting to bother me so this morning I googled "wrist sprain" and ran down the list of symptoms. Turns out that pain, swelling, and warmth on the sore area are all things your body brings to a sprained wrist party. Since it didn't feel so bad to warrant a visit to a doctor (which would require actually figuring out how to swing that) I put some ice on it then headed to the store before work to look for a wrist bandage.

I wandered around for a while trying to find the medical stuff aisle and finally found a little area with a few boxes of band-aids and some first aid kits. The kits had ace bandages but I didn't want to have to buy the entire kit and I couldn't find any other aisle that seemed promising. So I did the next best thing and headed to the pharmacy.
(I don't actually have a picture of a pharmacy here yet so I borrowed this from Google. The big 약 you see though is pretty much the universal symbol for a pharmacy here so if you're ever in need just pop into a store that has that on the window)

I love Korean pharmacies. You can find them everywhere, sometimes two or three to a single street, and most of the grocery/department stores have a pharmacy. I've been to the pharmacy at the local Lotte Mart several times now and it's always been a positive experience. Once I went looking for a certain medication and brought a sheet of paper that said, "Do you have [medication]?" written out in English, Korean, and phonetic Korean. I tried saying it in Korean to the pharmacist first but then she looked at the paper, laughed to herself over my phonetic Korean and brought out exactly what I was looking for. She even told me to just bring back the same box each time I need that medication just to make it easier.

Another time I went when my lips were crazy chapped and I asked the pharmacist, in really bad Korean, "Do you have something for lips?" and basically just gesticulated at my mouth. He showed me a bunch of different chap sticks and was patient with me while I tried explaining that I needed something stronger. That's when he hooked me up with that Uriage chap stick which pretty much saved my life until I was able to track down some Vaseline.

So when I went today for my wrist I found a whole bunch of wrist/knee/elbow type bandages right by the counter. The wrist bandages come in small, medium, and large so I picked up a medium and asked the pharmacist if she thought it'd be right for me. She immediately pulled it out of the box for me to try on and then suggested I see if the small would fit better. She let me try that one on too, made sure I was happy and comfortable with it, and rang it up.

For a foreigner who doesn't have a regular doctor and just needs to get some medicine now and again, Korean pharmacies are pretty great. The pharmacists at the ones I've been to so far are very friendly and helpful and experienced in deciphering weird foreigner charades. One of my co-workers gets car sick a lot so if we're taking a bus or a long taxi ride she grabs some motion sickness meds beforehand. She goes inside and more or less just charades being sick in a car and immediately they hand over a little bottle that's the perfect amount for her needs. Some of the bigger pharmacies have blood pressure monitors and most of them also carry other items like contact lens solution and toothpaste, similar to the states.

Probably the biggest reason to love Korean pharmacies though is that medicine here is often cheaper than back home and some medicines that you would need a prescription for in the states you can get here just by asking. Birth control for instance is available at Korean pharmacies without a prescription and with some brands you can buy a monthly pack for as low as ₩6,000 (less than $6). That's pretty amazing considering that most women in the US are spending anywhere from $10 to $50 a month on birth control, and that's only if they have insurance to pick up the rest! Not to mention that in order to get that prescription to begin with you need to visit your doctor first, where the price tag shoots up when you add on a co-pay and the cost of any exams necessary prior to walking out with that slip. I don't have any sort of exhaustive list of which medications you can get without a prescription but there's a good chance if you give the pharmacy a shot first before heading to the doctor's you might just get lucky.

Unless my arm is actually falling off or I go into a sugar coma from eating the tub of Funfetti frosting that just arrived in my care package from home, I pretty much plan on relying on the pharmacy for all my medicinal needs. So if you're in Korea and you get a headache, run out of sleeping pills from home, or your life starts turning into one of those Pepto Bismol commercials, get thee to a 약 and start playing charades. It will be cheap and worth it.

Trivia of the Day:  Modo Island is a small island in Jindo County, South Jeolla province, South Korea, just off the southwest corner of the Korean peninsula. The tide-related sea level variations result in a local phenomenon (a "Moses Miracle") when a land pass 2.9 km long and 10–40 meters wide opens for an hour between Modo and Jindo islands. The event occurs approximately twice a year, around April-June. It had long been celebrated in a local festival called "Jindo's Sea Way", but was largely unknown to the world until 1975, when the French ambassador Pierre Randi described the phenomenon in a French newspaper. Nowadays, nearly half a million foreign and local tourists attend the event annually. It is accompanied by local festivals which include Ganggangsuwollae (Korean traditional circle dance), Ssitkim-gut (a shaman ritual, consoling the souls of the dead), Deul Norae (traditional farmers songs), Manga (burial ceremony songs), Jindo dog show, Buknori (drum performance) and fireworks.

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