Tuesday, 3 June 2014

NICUs in Korea

Updated 30 June 2017

Preemies are not the only babies put in the NICU. Even full-term babies are put in the NICU here in Korea. Below you can find out why and what you can do if your baby has to go to the NICU. You might also be interested in reading about hospitals and birthing clinics in Korea.

Western Culture
As an American, I would only go to the hospital if something is severely wrong, for example, I needed surgery or there was an emergency. Even with insurance, health care is very expensive. When I was little and had a cough, or runny nose, or stomach, my mom would keep us home from school and give us OTC medicine. If we had strep or pink eye, we'd go to a local clinic, the doctor would look at us, prescribe medicine and that was it. No IV needed. Americans pride themselves on independence and being tough. For example even when I've been violently ill due to food poisoning, I'm more likely to say I'm fine and don't need to go to the doctor. I know it'll pass and I'll be ok.

Korean Culture
Korean medical centers seems to error on the side of caution. Western medicine has become more popular and Koreans like big hospitals such as university hospitals. They believe that if you're sick you should go to the hospital, even if you have a cough or a sniffle. Hospitals like IVs. If you're at a hospital you'll see just about everyone with an IV or two in them, from infants to old people. Vitamin drips used to be more common than before with them automatically given, but now you have to ask for them.

Healthcare in Korea is very affordable. NHS is a good system and it serves the millions of people who live in Korea. Korean's have a group culture where there's focus on being independent and they're more likely to ask for help. When Koreans are dealing with foreigners I think that they're extra careful. They really, really don't want anything to go wrong. They want to take care of their foreign guests and give them the best treatment available. There's also the cultural side to doctors. Doctors are seen as all-knowing experts who should never be questioned. Their word is law.

What This Means for Westerns in Korea
When these things come together foreigners can have problems.
  • Error on the side of caution
  • Affordable healthcare
  • Group culture
  • Koreans taking care of foreigners
  • Doctors being perceived as all-knowing
If there's a minor problem with a newborn or the doctors think there might be a problem, the baby is sent to the NICU. One example is jaundice, which 80% of babies have. In the US they probably wouldn't put the baby in the NICU for jaundice unless it was severe. In Korea, they'd probably put the baby in the NICU even if jaundice was mild.

What You Can Do
Ask questions. If your doctor comes to you and says that your baby has jaundice and needs to go to the NICU don't automatically consent. You need to know what the bilirubin level is of your baby as well as what the normal range is. If your baby is only a little outside the normal range you might want to try alternative forms of helping jaundice, such as putting your baby in indirect sunlight and breastfeeding more often. If your baby is far outside the normal range you would probably consent to the NICU.

Ask other people. There are plenty of FB groups and forums and websites for parents where you can find answers. Internet searches can also help. Gathering information and getting firsthand accounts is useful, but in the end you will have to decide what's best for you and your baby.

If Your Baby is Taken to the NICU
NICUs usually only allow parents to come in two or three times a day for 20-30 minutes. That's it. Being completely cut off from you often isn't the best for you or your baby since babies thrive on physical contact, but that's the way it is. If you have a preemie, the father might not be able to hold the baby right away. Sometimes they only let the mother hold the baby until it gets bigger. It can be hard to see your baby in the NICU day after day, documenting their milestones can really help.

I know that Samsung is the exception to the rule and for the most part you have unlimited contact to your baby when they're in the NICU. People have said you can go from 9am-11pm.

Every person's situation is different, but you have a couple of choices if your hospital limits contact with your baby.
  • First, moms who cry constantly for a day or two and lament over how sad they are to be separated from their baby are often allowed to see their baby more often, like every couple hours. Sounds bad, but tugging at doctor and nurses' heartstrings can work.
  • Second, try to breastfeed as often as possible. Ask for your baby to be given expressed breastmilk. You may have to supplement with human milk fortifier. You will have to buy this online. It's hard to find in Korea and it's twice as much as what you would pay abroad.
  • Third, you might want to see if you can take your baby out of the NICU. This will depend on your baby's condition and what alternatives you have available.
  • Lastly, talk to other parents. Talking to others who have been in your situation will help you tremendously. Also ask for help once you and your baby get home from the hospital. You can try contacting doulas and breastfeeding counselors.

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