When you step off the escalator that leads you to the front desk of Yonsei Severance Hospital, you can’t help but tilt your head back and admire the orientation and organization of architectural elements on the landscape through its sloping walls and state-of-the-art LED screens that blended in with the natural surroundings of their gardens.
Even though it is the oldest western-style hospital in the country, founded in 1885, Severance Hospital seems almost brand new and modern with its clear-white walls and blonde-haired foreign employees chatting cheerfully in perfect Korean.
I was greeted and guided to a small room where the interview would take place. My interviewee was shy and soft-spoken but when she spoke about her career, there was a note of confidence in her voice and a proud smile etched on her face.
Please introduce yourself
My name is Eugenia Lee and I’m from Panama, newly graduated from Urology. When I applied to Seoul I was a Urology resident and I am 33 years old. I came from a hospital in Panama called Hospital Santo Tomas which is the largest hospital administered by the Panama Ministry of Health and is also the most long-serving hospital in Panama.
Why do you want to study in Korea?
I did not have any real plans in coming to Korea before. When I was doing my residency on the first year, I had a friend that went to Korea and told me she had such a great experience in the fellowship. My friend worked in another hospital in Panama so I didn’t know how she went to Korea so I asked her. She said it would be good for me because I was studying Urology, another sub-specialty. So I inquired her about Uro-oncology; how many cases are there on cancer and she explained that there were a lot. Uro-oncology is Urologic-Oncology; urooncology is urology but dedicated to genitourinary malignancies (cancer). Neuro-urology is functional urology; they specialize in people that have overactive bladder. I asked my friend because at that time I was looking for a reasonable place to go and train for a short amount of time. I considered Mexico, United States and how long it would take for me to go there. Of course it’s better to go to first-world countries to do your specialization because there are a lot of limitations in developing countries.
What are you studying right now?
Urology as specialty can have doctors focusing on pediatrics, functional urology, urologic oncology, andrology. I am training within the field of Urologic Oncology to take care of genitourinary cancers. The volume of expedition like the amount of surgery specifically in cancer is very large. In the variety of clinical stages you can learn a lot.
My professor has a lot of experience with this specific type of patients that’s really beneficial for me. Why I chose urology is a funny story: when I was a residency, I entered a program in general surgery. When you see TV channels about medicine, all the characters were in ER doctors or surgeons. That was my first impression I had before entering Med School, so I always wanted to be a surgeon. At first I thought going through surgery because it’s the only way. In Panama it’s not the direct way to go to cardiovascular or plastic surgery. But in the meantime, I entered the residency and I was pretty focused during med school that I would get into surgery but not as my primary goal.
So when I was in the general ward I had long hours of work and I thought that this is not what I was expecting. So I changed to Urology which I believe it was a leap of faith because I made a wise choice at a time where I was really lost. What I wanted to be for my whole life turned out to be something so different. Then I thought how many years would it take for me to become a specialized surgeon; I didn’t like most of the specialties and the ones that I did like would take too long to get into. I saw Urology and realized that it’s always developing and a fast-growing specialty now so I believed that this was suitable for me.
How did you apply?
Yonsei has a very up-to-date website. There you can find general information about the hospital, its system and some of their education and visiting programs. With that and the information my friend gave me, I wrote to Yonsei and sent the applications.
Did your government or Hospital help you?
In Panama they do help you; they do give interest in you working in important fields, but all of the work is mainly you proposing to them what you want to do, writing the paperwork by yourself and they will support you with all the documentation that you need. I wish my hospital had relationships with other hospitals in the world so young physicians like me can experience broad opportunities. I came to Korea with special funding from the government; a loan per se, specified for education purposes. But I wasn’t lucky at that time because now there’s scholarships provided. Now Panama wants us to come back to teach and to show new doctors what we learnt.
What’s your visa status?
Mine is D4 student visa. All the international trainees get this visa. At first I got the visa from the embassy where they place it in my passport. Once you get the documents from the hospital proving that you’re working there I got my alien registration card.
How long are you staying in Korea?
I applied for a program that is one year. This is the usual length for foreign trainees because of the visa. This is my 4th month in Seoul.
I heard that your husband works in the same hospital.
Yes, he is a radiologist. It’s very difficult to find a hospital can place both couples together. There are more opportunities around the world for urologists and Urology is the most popular department to receive the fellowship because of the robotics center. It’s great because we wanted to come and train together. It’s very difficult to be recently married so you either “get your profession and postpone your personal life” or “get married and postpone your profession”. But we managed.
Can you compare your national healthcare with Korea’s? Was there anything you were impressed with?
I looked into the history of Korea and it’s impressive what they have done in a few decades. Panama should be in this place by now. We have the money and the people; why are we not in the same level? This is the question I asked myself a lot. But I think politicians and their relationship networks on who wants to favor who, it gets in the way of every major accomplishment in health and education. Panama politicians do not count the human resources and how trained they are. They only count on people they know and only them.
It’ll be lucky if those people are really good at their job, but you will waste a lot of money paying them to be in a position that they cannot manage. What I was impressed with Korea is that one person alone, for example my professor Yong-deuk Choi, held an entire specialized cancer center for Urology. The amount of patients in Urology is huge but he cares for 6 patients a day robotically. So it’s really impressive to see how dedicated and focused Korean doctors are on their quality, given the best circumstances. They don’t waste time and they want to provide the best in every field.
How do you have the funds to live in Korea?
My husband has a scholarship from his Cancer Institution in Panama called The Oncologic National Institution of Panama. The scholarship plus his salary as a junior consultant in radiology covers for our rent and living expenses.
How can you communicate with your team? Did you learn Korean?
I’m trying to learn Korean; every day I put a lot of my attention to learn everyday sentences. There is a barrier if you don’t know any Korean for example missing an important detail in your work. My professors and most of the staff speak English so it’s not difficult.
What do you think will benefit studying in Korea and going back to your country?
You have experience and knowing how things are done. One of my consultants always told me during my residency to go out at least for a few months to a year abroad to see what’s happening in the rest of the world. I know now that I have a lot of surgical opportunities and because of this I have a broader knowledge of how to run your own practice. Maybe the surgical techniques you have learnt in your country are good but the ones you see abroad are better and you can compare the results.
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