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Hospitals left ‘in the ’80s’ after network crash

Nov 27,2018
Chaos reigned over the weekend at hospitals in western and central Seoul after they fell victim to the massive telecommunications blackout caused by a fire at a KT switching center on Saturday.

One elderly woman died early Sunday morning after her family was unable to contact 119.

Unable to contact doctors on staff via their mobile phones, staff at Severance Hospital in Seodaemun District broadcast desperate calls on loudspeakers all day on Saturday and through part of Sunday.

“It felt like a hospital in the ’80s,” one doctor said.

The working landline phones in hospital wards, serviced by SK Telecom, were in high demand among staff.

Most of the company phones provided to staff at Severance were on KT, so these landlines were the best way to communicate within the emergency ward, intensive care unit and between departments. Frustrated department chiefs eventually had to resort to exchanging working cellphone numbers through an ad hoc meeting that afternoon.

But there were far too few phones in service to maintain contact between the staff at Severance, one of the country’s largest hospitals, with over 3,700 beds.

Doctors were late and patients complained about the loudspeaker broadcasts, staff members told the JoongAng Ilbo. Department chiefs ran to different parts of the hospital all day to control the situation.

Medical doctors, who usually get two or three hours of sleep while on duty, said they were up all night, fearing they may not be able to hear their calls.

The blackout continued until noon on Sunday. Medical staff were on edge the entire time, concerned about how their patients would be affected.

“Because the broadcasts lacked detail, we weren’t able to gauge the emergency level of each case,” said one doctor. “We were worried that patients would not get enough rest and their condition would worsen.”

The situation was even worse at Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital in Yongsan District, central Seoul. The online medical records system could not be accessed in the first few hours of the blackout, which led to a total shutdown of the emergency ward. Loudspeakers made emergency broadcasts all day Saturday at this hospital as well.

There were no reported cases of medical problems caused by the blackout at these hospitals, but the incident highlighted the effect technical problems can have on Korea’s medical infrastructure.

For one 76-year-old woman living in Mapo District, western Seoul, the KT blackout ended in tragedy.

The woman, surnamed Joo, complained of pain and discomfort in her chest to her husband at around 5:35 a.m. on Sunday. He attempted various times to contact paramedics, but was unable to reach emergency services as both his and his wife’s cellphones were on KT.

Joo collapsed in the meantime.

Desperate, her husband ran out of the house onto the street. He eventually got a hold of a passerby with a working cellphone, which he used to call 119.

But by the time paramedics arrived, over 30 minutes had passed since Joo first complained of chest pain. She was pronounced dead.

“I tried to give her CPR and did everything I could, but I could not save her,” Joo’s devastated husband told a local news outlet. “Had the cellphones worked and the paramedics arrived five minutes earlier, she would still be alive.”

BY KIM JEONG-YEON, SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]


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