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[Special] Deceased professor’s e-mails reveal his ‘loneliness’ in TB research
  • By Song Soo-youn
  • Published 2019.12.18 17:03
  • Updated 2019.12.18 17:06
  • comments 0

The news that Koh Won-jung, a professor of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Samsung Medical Center, took his own life saddened the medical community in the summer this year. People lamented that “the star of the Korean medical community has fallen.” Koh not only made great achievements but drew much anticipation for his future research outcomes.

Physicians said it was hard to believe that he killed himself because he had more passion for patient care and research than anyone else. Just before he died, he was about to have a fresh start after 18 years of work at Samsung Medical Center.

Koh was exhausted. He worked day and night for 18 years and became an authority in the field of tuberculosis (TB) and nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM). However, the for-profit system at the hospital did not support him.

He was a professor at one of the five largest hospitals in Korea, got envied by others, and won many academic awards for his outstanding research. In reality, however, the hospital went cold against him. The hospital wanted a professor who is good at making profits, rather than a good research professor. His specialty in TB did not “make money.” It was the same with NTM.

The late Koh Won-jung, a professor of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Samsung Medical Center, who died on Aug. 21. (Photo provided by his family)

Koh was the only one who treated TB, NTM patients

Koh graduated from Seoul National University College of Medicine and completed medical training at the Seoul National University Hospital. However, he chose to work at Samsung Medical Center because he wanted to focus on clinical research in NTB.

Later, he made up his mind to leave Samsung Medical Center because he could not do so. His e-mails, sent to Samsung Medical Center President Kwon O-Jung and the head professor of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine on Jan. 24 and Feb. 16, showed why he decided to leave.

The e-mails that his family revealed to Korea Biomedical Review showed his agony as a medical doctor and a clinician.

“As I have said for a long time, Samsung Medical Center and the Pulmonary Division are not the places I knew before ... I hope you remember me as someone who didn’t know much about the world and knew only TB and NTM.”(Koh’s e-mail on Jan. 24)

“I don't think I can continue patient care and research in TB and NTM anymore. I can't do it anymore... Recently, people say the hospital should send TB persons to another hospital. It's hard to accept it, working as a TB expert here.” (Koh’s e-mail on Feb. 16)

At Samsung Medical Center, Koh was the only professor who took care of TB and NTM patients. As he has been demonstrating excellent research performance, more patients rushed to him to get treated.

Koh’s wife, Lee Yun-jin, said, “After work, he always worked at home. It was the same on the weekends. He worked at least 80 hours a week. When his back hurt so bad that he couldn’t get up, he had someone carry him to the hospital to see patients.”

For the past several years, he asked the hospital to hire a professor for TB and NTM treatment, but the hospital refused to do so, she said.

‘We need a decade to nurture an international expert’

The reason Koh demanded additional recruitment for TB and NTM was because he wanted Samsung Medical Center to maintain a leading status in the field.

“My husband had a lot of affection for the Samsung Medical Center. During his 18 years of work there, he made an internationally advanced cohort data in TB and NTM. It must have been difficult for him to leave the hospital and such data all behind,” Koh’s wife Lee said.

When Koh was told to reduce the number of TB patients, he felt frustrated and pressured to see more patients, she went on to say.

“If my husband had been a cancer-treating doctor, not an expert in TB or NTM, this would not have happened in the first place,” she added.

At Koh’s memorial service on Monday, people said Koh demanded many things to the hospital. Still, there was only one thing he wanted, and it was hiring a TB and NTM specialist, Lee emphasized.

‘Many physicians suffer from burnout syndrome’

After deciding to leave Samsung Medical Center, Koh said he “gave up his desires and accepted the reality,” in his several e-mails to the hospital president and the head professor of his department.

Koh was supposed to begin a new life at Ajou University Hospital and work from Sept. 1.

However, he did not have a new start. On Aug. 21, after participating in a farewell party with the medical staff at the Respiratory Medicine Department at Samsung Medical Center, he went home and killed himself.

“People said my husband had a psychological pressure and made a tragic choice, treating him like a patient. That is not true, however,” Lee said. “He must have been depressed because he liked Samsung Medical Center, and he had to leave such good cohort data. It was a natural situation, and it wasn’t serious.”

Koh’s son, Seong-min, said he felt sorry for Samsung Medical Center at the memorial service.

“Professor Koh was a respected father, a sweet husband, and a good co-worker. At his work, however, he was treated as an oddball,” his son said. “Because my father regarded his patients and research more important than the name of the hospital and his title, he decided to leave the hospital last winter.”

Koh’s son said he would do what he could to reveal the truth of his father, who had to end his life by himself. He hoped that no one else would suffer his father’s pain.

Koh’s death was a great shock to the entire medical community.

Park Hae-sim, director of the Research Institute for Innovation Medicine at Ajou University Hospital, who had been waiting to work with Koh, said his death was “a great loss for Korean medicine.”

One professor at one of the Big Five hospitals said Koh’s death was not just someone else’s story.

“Most professors working at large hospitals are probably suffering from burnout. They can’t avoid the pressure to see more patients for profit. Even if your research work is excellent, you get pressure if your patient care performance falls.”


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