SEOUL, South Korea—In late November, a 24-year-old North Korean soldier dashed across the demilitarized zone separating North from South Korea. He barely escaped with his life as his former comrades opened fire at his back. The medical team at Ajou University Trauma Center in Suwon, about 20 miles south of Seoul, had no idea who he was when less than 25 minutes later, a military helicopter bearing a badly wounded patient touched down outside. But they knew he was dying.
He was losing blood quickly, and a gunshot wound to his chest made it difficult for him to breathe. A split-second decision by an American medic to perform a needle thoracostomy, an emergency procedure that involves inserting a needle into the chest to relieve pressure on the lungs, probably saved his life.
“It’s a very basic life-saving procedure,” said Dr. John Cook Jong Lee, the head of the trauma center at Ajou, “But reading or writing and doing something is a totally different thing.”
The defector had to be treated for multiple gunshot wounds—but perhaps even more shocking were the large parasites the surgical team discovered as they tried to repair his intestines, which had been lacerated in multiple places by a bullet that also shattered the his pelvis. The defector survived.
Lee, who trained as a trauma surgeon at UC-San Diego, has devoted the past 15 years of his life to creating and maintaining what he calls an American-style trauma center, where he works closely with American military surgeons. Lee told me that he sees the center as a continuation not just of American and South Korean cooperation, but the personal relationship between his family and the U.S. Lee’s father was a soldier in the Korean war, and two of his uncles served alongside U.S. forces in Vietnam.