This past Monday I experienced bringing my daughter to the doctor’s office for the first time. The first time by myself, I mean. I’ve been present at most of my daughter’s immunization shot visits (my wife and I arranged these last year to fall during times when I didn’t have to work). Both my wife and I went together with our daughter when she first visited the jibi-in-koka at the start of March (I missed one doctor visit because I had a meeting at work).
But Monday was my first time to bring my daughter by myself to the byouin, and the first time to try to communicate with the doctor by myself. In Japanese.
Now, I’ve certainly had my share of doctor visits in Japan already, including visits to local jibi-in-koka (which is how I learned the term). I suffered a terrible head and chest cold my first winter in Japan, when I was living in a drafty, old, wooden teachers’ dormitory in the middle of a small country town. I distinctly remember two things from my first visit. The first was that the doctor had a rearview mirror stuck to a band around his head so that he looked like the character Floyd in “Mayberry.” The second was the absolutely medieval instrument used to test for water in my inner ear.
Basically, the doctor put one tube into my ear, put another up my nostril, and then blew compressed air through them. It hurt. I had no idea what was going to happen until the moment it happened, because at the time I was accompanied by a teacher who was translating for me. Mostly translating. Some parts were evidently left out.
Anyway, ten years later I was being instructed by my wife to take our daughter back to the hospital near the station. Sunday evening, she gave me the hospital patient card, which I stuck in my wallet. On the breakfast table she left out her kusuri-techo (medicine record) and hokensho (health insurance card) so I wouldn’t forget them. So far so good.
Monday morning my wife left for work and I finished up feeding the baby, putting out the laundry while carrying the baby, and washing the dishes while carrying the baby. I have to carry the baby on my back, because she is currently in the “I will grab Daddy’s legs so that he can’t move again, ever” stage of emotional attachment. This left me slightly frazzled. At 9:00, I got my daughter into her outdoor clothing, grabbed the day bag, and pocketed the kusuri-techo and hokensho. Out the door.
The road directly in front of our local train station is lined with small health clinics, dentist offices, and physical rehabilition centers. All within a ten-minute walk of home. Perfect. Except I couldn’t for the life of me remember which clinic I was supposed to go to.
I knew that my wife had taken my daughter to two separate hospitals before for her cold and subsequent ear infection. First she went to the sho-nika (children’s clinic), but later she went to the jibi-in-koka. Which one was it today?
I chose the jibi-in-koka, reasoning that since our daughter had a runny nose and cough, it was logical that she needed a specialist. Once inside, I handed over the hokensho (which the staff took, even though it was my wife’s—because my daughter is covered by my wife’s health insurance). Then we sat down in a small, cozy office with a mix of children and elderly patients, all of whom were waiting for the same doctor. Yes, only one doctor. Very typical at small Japanese byouin.
After a wait of about 25 minutes, we were called inside. My wife had warned that the doctor’s speaking was low, fast, and difficult to understand. To the contrary, I found the doctor’s Japanese very clear and understood with little difficulty. He asked me to describe the problem, which I did. He then commented that my daughter’s cough was likely the result of postnasal drip from her ongoing runny nose, rather than pollen (which he claimed she wouldn’t have averse reactions to until the following spring). Made sense.
I sat down holding my daughter in my lap. The doctor asked me to hold her hands together as he checked her ears, which she didn’t appreciate. Then a nurse came from behind me and held my daughter’s head as the doctor produced the medieval torture instrument. It all happened so suddenly that I had no time to react. The doctor immediately touched one end of a tube to my daughter’s nostrils and began sucking the mucus from her nose. She screamed.
It was over within less than two or three seconds. In that time, had I protested or attempted to move my daughter away it might have made things worse. As it was, I was sort in a state of shock. Why had I not seen this coming? I dimly recalled then that my wife had mentioned earlier having had a similar procedure done to her, in order to relieve sinus pressure. I don’t know if medical treatment has changed all too much in the U. S. since I moved to Japan in 1999, but I suspect that forcibly removing mucus from internal soft tissue via compressed air suction would be highly controversial back home. The doctor concluded with a final check of her throat, which made her almost gag (I hate throat checks, too, always have).
The doctor’s visit cost 480 yen. We got a prescription for some cold/cough medicine, and I headed down the street to the recommended yakkyoku (“pharmacy,” but most have special agreements to honor local hospital prescriptions and rarely get walk-in traffic). Four days of two kinds of sweet syrupy medicine came mixed together in a small plastic bottle for 430 yen. The total medical bill came to 910 yen, or about ten bucks US.
When my wife came home, she was furious. I had gone to the wrong hospital. I had totally forgotten about the card in my wallet. She called the correct doctor, and he confirmed that the medicine was still all right, just another version of what he had given her previously. But later that night, and again the following morning, my wife muttered in her sleep: “Matchan no baka.”
Some things are probably the same no matter the health care system.