multiple sclerosis in Takayama

I had the most delightful pantomimed “discussion” with a young MD in a Takayama hospital the first year we went to Japan. I had picked up the flu, most likely on the plane given I later found my specific symptoms to be similar to what was circulating in the area I reside, but I ended up in the hospital in Japan. I had called my MD stateside when I began to have bizarre symptoms, and he advised me to go the nearest hospital to have my lungs x-rayed—immediately. Clearly he was being very cautious given my history. With me, caution is a good thing.

Our hospital experience in Takayama, a small rural mountain town, was exceptional in many ways. I believe we’d been in the country less than a week–time to check out the medical facilities, right?. It was our first experience with the Japanese medical system, so we had NO idea what to expect. I found the staff to be most gracious even though we did not share a common language. After being x-rayed, I was retracing my steps back down the hall and stopped when I noticed a young white-coated man watching me. I smiled. He bowed and approached me; I noticed his official-looking name tag and thought he must be an MD. He pointed to his head with a questioning smile and said, “Cerebellum?” At this point I must interject that Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a disease of Caucasians. It is basically unknown to Asia. I didn’t know whether he thought I had suffered a stroke previously or whether he knew of this disease. I smiled and nodded, but also pointed at my spine as there could also be a spinal cord lesion but did not know whether this was true. He nodded (whether he understood the implication, I have no idea). I begin to exaggerate my deficits which at that time were on my right side. I showed him the bottom of my shoe where it dragged, my weak arm, and particularly the ulner side of my right hand. All of this was done with much smiling, much bowing, and the occasional giggle. He bowed as I reflexively did the same before continuing on my way. I always wonder whether he just wanted to speak to a blond gaijin or whether he thought he recognized a disease he had only studied or heard about.

PS We continue to travel to Japan. I now know that the Japanese are always gracious, they love to speak with foreigners and practice their English, and the constant bowing and shyness is simply their custom. We continue to travel to Japan, and we, unfortunately, have had ample opportunity to log more hospital experiences.

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