|Key Dong-hune, a professor at the Emergency Medicine Department at the Catholic University of Korea Yeouido St. Mary’s Hospital (Credit: Key Dong-hune)
Key Dong-hune, a clinician and a professor at the Emergency Medicine Department at the Catholic University of Korea Yeouido St. Mary’s Hospital, headed to Daegu, a southeastern city hit hardest by the new coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in Korea, on Monday.
His departure was neither a part of efforts to dispatch doctors there nor an order from the hospital. He requested the hospital for work adjustments to volunteer to work in Daegu. Upon the hospital’s approval, he packed his suitcase and set off for Daegu.
Key’s volunteering to combat an infectious disease is his third. The first was when he worked as a first-year public health doctor during the flu pandemic in 2009.
His second volunteering was to fight the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak in 2015. He was a second-year resident at the emergency room of Gangnam Severance Hospital at the time. After Samsung Medical Center was shut down due to the outbreak, Ki had to take care of urgent patients scrambling to come to Gangnam Severance Hospital. Especially when a suspected MERS patient acted violently at the emergency room, a professor and two residents had to be quarantined. The incident gave him a particularly hard time because the emergency room was short of the workforce.
After battling the two epidemics and hearing that Daegu was short of doctors, Key determined to volunteer. He spent his money to buy medical supplies, including protective clothing and face masks. On Tuesday, he started working at the isolated examination room for outpatients at Keimyung University Dongsan Medical Center.
“Because I experienced the flu pandemic and MERS outbreak, I thought I could do something in Daegu, too. That is why I came here,” Key told Korea Biomedical Review. “Since I quit my residency at the dermatology department and chose an emergency department, I have wanted to work for Doctors Without Borders or work in a disaster-hit region. Now, Daegu is the most disastrous region in the world, except for Wuhan in China.”
Key’s parents did not seem to be pleased with his decision, but they did not stop him either. After he chose to become an emergency medicine specialist, his parents let him decide what he wanted.
After checking the situation in Daegu, Key recalled the swine flu epidemic in 2009 and the MERS outbreak in 2016.
“The current situation is similar to the time before Tamiflu was available during the flu epidemic. People are panicking and social cost is huge. I think about those times a lot these days,” Key said.
He recalled how tough it was to deal with the MERS in 2015. When an unconscious patient came to the emergency room, Ki could not find out whether he visited Samsung Medical Center or not. So, he had to wear Level-D protective clothing to stay near the patient for three or four hours, providing intubation when necessary, until the patient was stabilized.
Key did not worry about getting infected or wearing Level-D protective clothing.
“I wore Level-D protective clothing a thousand times. I can’t say I’m completely free of the worry, but as long as I wear the protective gown, there is no risk of infection,” he said.
Key said he was more used to wearing protective clothing than any other doctor because he had already done so many times during the flu and MERS outbreaks. “That is why I don’t worry so much.”
On the first day of his volunteering, Tuesday, Key collected specimens from suspected patients and interviewed them for medical checkups at the isolated examination room from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. He said the facility still lacked the medical workforce.
The isolated examination facility at Keimyung University Dongsan Medical Center had so many visitors, compared to those in Seoul, Key noted.
The high demand for testing weighed on medical workers, so not only emergency medicine specialists but doctors from other departments were offering hands, he added.
A nurse who used to work together in the isolated room got suddenly ill, was replaced by another. Working for more than two hours with an N95 medical mask and Level-D protective clothing will be particularly challenging for nurses, he said.
The isolated examination room needed more healthcare workers, Key said. “Although there are trainee doctors who started an internship in March, I hope the isolated examination room or the emergency room could bring more experienced physicians,” he added.
Lastly, Key encouraged the medical community to overcome the difficult times by working together.
“When seeing patients, all physicians have to take the risk of getting their medical institution shut down in case an infected or confirmed patient is found to have visited the institution,” Key said. “I hope everyone can stay healthy and be strong. Together, the medical community will be able to overcome difficult times, as they did against the swine flu and MERS.”
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