Expedition: Infertility in South Korea

Today’s post comes from someone special in my life, my niece, Shelley. Shelley lives with her husband and two Maltese dogs in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. Her husband, who serves in the United States Army, got orders to Camp Humphreys, an army base near Pyeongtaek in 2011. I really shouldn’t say that her husband got orders there because in a military family, where one spouse might “officially” serve the military, ultimately it is both spouses that are placed in service.

military-spouseIt’s not easy for military spouses. You’re either left to sit home while your spouse is gone for six to nine months, handling both your and your spouse’s day-to-day chores, raising any kids all alone; or, you quit your job, pack up the house, kids, and animals, and follow him (or her) to another city, state, or country – having to re-gain employment in unfamiliar surroundings, make new friends, find suitable living arrangements and create a somewhat stable home all over again.

All I can say is thank goodness for Skype and Facebook. This is the longest we’ve ever been apart and it feels like forever since I’ve seen her. We’re looking forward to being reunited in June, 2014, when her husband’s tour ends and can’t wait to sit down at our favorite sushi restaurant and have our “girl” time.

I really don’t need to give a synopsis of her post, it explains it all. The reason I wanted to highlight it for you today is twofold: One, it might help someone else out there who is going through the same thing to know they are not alone; and, Two, I have been encouraging Shelley to write. I think she has “it” in her. I read her emails describing her life in Korea, the writing assignments she completes in the college courses she has undertaken while there, and, all prejudice aside, I think she’s pretty damn good for being a novice. In fact, while the post you’re about to read is her own true story; she wrote it as part of a college assignment she completed last week. So, without further delay, I give you…


Expedition: Infertility in South Korea

By Shelley Gentry

Attachment-1I’ve been waiting seven years for this day to come. With an unknown outcome ahead of me, I patiently wait, no pun intended, to hear Dr. Lee, my Korean infertility specialist, tell me whether or not I’m going to be a mother. I believe there is more to this moment than a simple qualitative result. Seven years of disappointments don’t resolve themselves with one answer. Besides the countless monetary and psychological investments made up until this day, there is the toll of the journey itself. If this were to read more like an expedition rather than the treatment of a chronic condition, I would come out sounding like an adventurer of sorts, strong and capable despite the forces of Mother Nature. The leaps and bounds by which I attempt to obtain my ultimate goal are not a simple matter of deciding between a morning and afternoon appointment, they are a matter of endless obstacles coming from all angles. From seemingly helpful members of the mommy brigade with their uneducated opinions, to doctors desperate to root out some underlying causations so they can justify failure, I have met a wide assortment of discouraging individuals.  Not to mention the financial setbacks and dangerous commutes my husband and I endure which take a more physical type of claim on our lives.  With all this being said, I wish to impart a bit of my experiences throughout this journey to make light of my situation and let off a little dark humor in the process.  Since today is such an important day, why not begin here? 

There’s no point in mentioning a detailed and boring recap of the past.  Just know that infertility ruined everything for me.  The subject became even more pronounced when I moved to Korea.  Camp Humphreys is like a breeding ground for little Americans.  I’ve watched families increase by two in my time here while I wait in hopes of one.  Lucky for me I met a lady named Sarah with twins that recommended a reputable Korean infertility hospital.  She and her husband had been trying for a couple years and found success after only a few months of visits.  Equally appealing was the fact that they only paid a quarter of what I’d been told the going rate was.  I made an appointment that day. 

Dr. Lee is a very serious little man with a big head and tiny shoulders.  His grey suits are always immaculate and compliment his carefree salt and pepper hair nicely.  He wears no glasses, which is uncommon in Korea, and his attempts at humor are horribly funny.  Upon our second or third visit he finally opens up asking, “Why are you so nervous?  You seem, nervous,” to which I reply, “I’m just a quiet and calm person, not nervous”.  He laughs and probes further asking me how I feel about the plan he set forth, a plan I’ve already tried six times before, and I decide to be brutally honest.  I tell him that I’m only going along with his plan out of respect for his position (they’re big on that here) and that he has one month to figure things out before we proceed to the game changer procedure, in vitro fertilization.  He catches on quickly and asks more questions. I go on about the posterior pituitary gland’s role in stimulating the ovaries and so on. Thankfully these medical references are universal in language and Dr. Lee decides I am not his average American patient. To his surprise I am educated.  With this in mind he agrees with my timeline and we started the injections the following month. 

Day ten began early. My alarm sounded off at 0430 with Quagmire doing an impression of the music to the movie Jaws, which always seems to make me smile no matter how many times I’ve heard it, making it the perfect alarm for me. I let it play once and head for the shower.  As I open the door, the pungent smells of the Korean waste water system smack my eyes open and slam them shut along with my nose as I fumble for the light switch. Why they don’t believe in water traps here I’ll never understand. Quickly the odor dissipates to the sweet smell of my expensive shampoo and my senses temporarily relax. After a little primping, a cup of fake (decaf) coffee completes my morning ritual. My husband and I set off through the pothole ridden alley that leads away from our apartment building, or villa as they call it, thinking we’d better hurry before our commute turns ugly. Thirty minutes of familiar twists and turns have passed and we enter the Big 1 Highway unscathed and intact. The Koreans call their country the land of the morning calm, and from what I can see, maybe it is by their standards of calm. It’s only calm outside because the people are still in their homes, eating kimchi leftovers from the night before, and frothed eggs. The masses have yet to flood the roadways and the dense fog has yet to recede back up to the hilltops. Big 1 greets us with an easy merge pattern. This time I am the passenger, free to observe my surroundings. The sun gets busy highlighting buildings and trash alike. We pass our first set of many apartment complexes that reach twenty, maybe thirty stories high, always skipping the fourth floor believing that number to be unlucky. Their windows are littered with plants and hanging laundry. I never see a person standing there to take in a morning view.  So many people cramped in such a small place with all those smells make me claustrophobic.  Once on a subway ride to Seoul, I experienced this feeling first hand. We were packed in like sardines, one shoved tightly against another, a fire inspector’s nightmare scenario. Despite the stereotypes, Koreans are much taller than me. At 5’1” I was half way between two orifices; one breathing hot kimchi, the other relieving hot kimchi. The smell still triggers an immediate need for fresh air. I crack my window and check my husband’s blind spot so he can safely change lanes. We are entering Suwon, a sort of suburb of Seoul and the rice fields give way to city. This blending of agriculture into city is more gradual then you would think. Every spot of dirt is cultivated to include plots adjacent to the highway, gas stations, and abandoned properties. I don’t believe this is out of a need for food, but a cultural need to express their inner farmer. My guess is Korea experienced a growth so rapid that the generations hadn’t enough time to progress naturally. The elders are content squatting in their gardens, just like their parents did, amongst the straw hut communities of their war ridden childhood. Women tie their children to their backs and remain bent over a basket of beans or peppers, sifting out the inedible parts and suddenly, I’m brought out of my distant thoughts by an abrupt jerk of the wheel. My husband is cursing, and rightly so. He’s been cut off a third time now by another impatient driver squeaking his way past our bumper with only a hair’s width to spare. If there were one word to describe the collective Korean lot, it would be impatient. I’m not sure if the virtue exists in their language.  When expressing to Dr. Lee the source of the concern lining my brow, he agrees to come in earlier so my husband and I can avoid most of the traffic, hence the 0430 wakeups. Wanting to be a parent as badly as I do, means driving through hell and back for each appointment. I despise those mothers who claim I must not want a child bad enough. They reason that since it hasn’t happened for me, I must not want it bad enough. I’d like to see those women survive Gangnam traffic on a Friday afternoon weaving between homicidal bus drivers and countless maniacs on mopeds. Seoul is a cluster fuck of ten million dark haired people (two more million than New York City) with only thirty years of driving experience under their belts coupled with a collective passion for doing everything as quickly as possible. All this and a unique distaste for Americans equals the average Korean driver, most of whom are middle-aged men. Traffic signs are largely universal, meaning that any driver from anywhere in the world can recognize and obey them but they serve as little more than a suggestion here in Korea. Like Zoolander, you can’t turn left; the list goes on and on. All in all, for better or worse, my trips to and from Seoul are just another necessary evil. After safely arriving at the all metal, rickety parking garage, we are directed to back into a space too small to open both our doors, so I get out first and my husband hugs the passenger side so his 5’10” muscular frame can squeeze out the other side. I’m guessing personal space is not valued in Korea either.  

Before I moved to South Korea I had undergone many stages of evaluation and treatments. As a resident of Virginia, my insurance is not required to pay for infertility treatments so I was limited in what my husband and I could afford. After meeting Sarah we were excited to get busy trying again. The treatments differed little from the U. S.; they are slightly more aggressive, however the bed side manner, their general attitude, and their compassion was palpably different. Koreans take family very seriously. I was happy to discover that although they may not value patience or personal space, Koreans strongly value family. Their attitude towards infertility is that it must be rectified not labeled. With this in mind I escape my most recent battles with the mommy brigade and the trips through traffic to enjoy the silver lining of my cloud. I am prepped for the procedure in a giant pink striped moo moo gown, hair cover, and flip flops then told to situate myself upon the surgical table. Dr. Lee begins to strap my arms down and I panic wondering if he changed his mind about the anesthesia. I ask, “this is the part where you knock me out right,” and he replies behind his surgical mask with extra squinty eyes “Ah, yes. I am giving you the same medications that Michael Jackson overdosed on”. Knowing he’s only trying to relate something I’m familiar with, I tell him MJ was crazy and my nose better still be here when I wake up. While laughing, my hand begins to burn cold, then I’m out. I wake up in pain thinking through all the scornful words of jealous and unhappily burdened moms, sneering doctors that would rather assist an easy patient as opposed to a mystery diagnosis patient like me, financial burdens of overpriced institutions, driving through a hellacious rendition of Need for Speed Most Wanted (the real edition), and the smells, let us not forget the smells, realizing my journey more like an expedition. I prefer to project the stronger image of an adventurer as opposed to a defeated barren woman lying bleeding on a table.  Perhaps my imaginary journey is just another coping mechanism. To this I say, a coping mechanism is just a logical response to problems so why discredit it? The future remains unknown, the past remains the past, and the here and now is cautiously ecstatic. On such an important day, knowing my outcome still uncertain, I impart with a bit of my experiences appropriately interlaced with a hint of cynical humor to make light of my life and its occasional epic voyages.


Thanks for taking the time to give it a look. Shelley hears what I say about her writing, but I don’t think she’s quite convinced she has a writer’s voice. So, if you’d like to leave any comment or critique at the end, or, let her know that her story has touched you in some way, I’ll make sure it’s passed on to her. 

Never Enough Books

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7 Responses to Expedition: Infertility in South Korea

  1. dustymom says:

    Wonderful;y written! I hope you’ll post “the rest of the story” once she’s had time to process it.

  2. You know it’s funny you mentioned the part about the “writer’s voice” at the end because I read the posting more interested in her experiences since my wife and I went all the way through invitro without success (turns out at 40, the viability of eggs, if shown on a chart, drop straight down and my wife had just turned 40). So I was cheering for your niece! But the thing I noticed was the outstanding quality of her writing.

    Shelley: I know a writer’s voice when I read it, and whatever it is you end up writing, please believe it when you hear it. You ABSOLUTELY have a writer’s voice.

    I will stay tuned for an update on the fertility attempts. Ours were preceded by a miracle pregnancy when my wife was 38, a Christmas Day birth, a perfect son in every way, and then a death by SIDS at two months old—so remember in your struggles, there are always folks that have it harder (not just those who you see having baby after baby, which I totally get hurts).

    Your resolve is amazing and your attitude convinces me that you are going to succeed. Just keep that up!!! And whatever you do, or however it goes, WRITE ON. From the heart, as you do. That’s what makes a great writer—even if it comes from pain. And the world needs more voices like yours (and your aunt’s). 🙂

  3. Chontali says:

    I wish the best for Shelley and am anxious to hear the news. Crisis can breed great writers — powerful writers with the ability to uplift those who feel discouraged and forgotten. I encourage Shelley to continue creating wonderful prose while she’s on her way to creating her wonderful baby. I’ll be back to read more!

  4. Claudia Cane says:

    That was unbelievable, Shelley. The story and the telling of it. I’m not one to read anything long on the computer, but with you I got the, Hello?? Did you not hear me? From my husband. LOL I’d love to stay posted, hear what’s going on in your journey and listen to you tell it.

    Sending you all good thoughts!


  5. Shelley N. Gentry says:

    @dustymom I won’t know anything till the 20th. I hope to hell this week goes by quickly! Whether I’m crying tears of joy or tears of pain or just plain stupefied, I want to remember my moment of resolve in a written account. I have a feeling that it’s going to be a good story no matter the results.

    @R. S. Guthrie Thanks so much for the encouraging words and yes, it does help to know you’re not alone when dealing with these kinds of problems. My professor didn’t care for the narrative too much. Aside from a few grammatical errors he commented that infertility was too big a subject to include other “observations”. Apparently talking about Korea and infertility was too much and in his opinion all my references to life in Korea were simply “distracting”. I argue that life is distracting so shouldn’t first person narratives reflect that as well? Any thoughts?

    @Chontali This paper is the first I’ve put out for others to read. I will do as you suggest and continue to write! I’ve got a few crisis’s up my sleeve that could use some letting out. I’ve been reluctant to write about the infertility issue because it’s so damn depressing. Do you think that there are some stories that shouldn’t be told?

    @Claudia Cane I love it when I get hooked into a story so deep that makes the rest of the world disappear. It makes me smile to know that I got you! Thanks so much for the good thoughts! I’ve got 7 more days of relentless thinking, dreaming, worrying, pondering, contemplating……. good thoughts are in high demand right now!

    • One comment for you: there is an old saying “those who can’t do, teach”. Your professor is far from having any reason to discourage your writing. In fact, every famous writer has at least one (if not a half dozen) teachers and/or professors in their past who told them even worse things (like, “you’ll never amount to anything”). Do what you must for the grade and then realize that if your professor were a great writer, he’d likely not be lecturing but rather doing interviews and selling books.

      Don’t ever let people make you think they know more than you do, especially because they have a piece of paper. Do you know what they call the person who graduated dead last in the worst medical school in the country?



      • Shelley N. Gentry says:

        @R. S. Guthrie Love the doctor joke! I’ll be sure to sift out the good from the bad in class and keep on writing!

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