Examining History

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Examining History

Emily Goggin, 3-months-old, is bundled in her mother's arms, waiting in the reception area of the International Health Care Center at Yonsei University College of Medicine, Severance Hospital, Seoul. It's about 5:30 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon. The Goggin family arrived in Seoul from the United States only a few weeks ago and the infant is vomiting and has diarrhea.

Upon examining the baby and hearing the mother describe the course of her illness, John Linton, M.D., 42, director of the center, orders an IV and blood sample. A gastrointestinal specialist from the hospital is called in for a consultation and the two doctors agree to tell the mother that the baby needs to be admitted. "She is just dehydrated, it's nothing serious," says Dr. Linton, attempting to calm the mother, who has begun sobbing. "I think she could even be discharged tomorrow," he adds.

A nurse's aide whisks away Emily's mother to another part of the building to get the paperwork done while the nurse starts an IV line on the baby, who is still lying on the exam table, blissfully unaware of the flurry of activity around her, gurgling back to the nurse who coos to distract her.

Meanwhile, Dr. Linton catches up with a Canadian patient in the Health Care Center, a man he examined earlier in the afternoon. Guiding the patient into an examining room, Dr. Linton explains the man's test results. The man, 44, is a pilot for Korean Air. It's his first hospital visit in Korea in the five years he has lived in the country.

Sturdily built, Dr. Linton has a gentle, comforting manner. He often touches patients on an arm or shoulder as he talks to them. To alleviate fears, he frequently resorts to humor. When a woman accidentally knocked over a vase in the clinic's waiting room, and wore an expression of great embarrassment, Dr. Linton quickly responded, "Oh, I'm so glad you did that. Nobody watered that plant anyway."

Back in his office, Dr. Linton draws blood from little Emily Goggin's wrist, a challenging task given how tiny her arteries are.

That taken care of, Dr. Linton leads a tall German man from the waiting area to another room to update him on the condition of his wife, who was admitted the previous day with a ruptured disk. The husband has just flown back from a business trip to China. To better illustrate her condition, Dr. Linton brings in a model of the spinal column.

"The ruptured disk between No. 4 and No. 5 here is pushing against the nerve, which explains the pain down on her left side," he says. Although the man's wife wants to return to Germany for surgery, Dr. Linton affirms the specialist's recommendation that she get it done here. "Personally, if I were to need back surgery, I would fly to Korea to get it done," Dr. Linton tells the man. "The doctor doing the operation has done that procedure more than anyone else in the world."

By now it is 7 p.m. Since 2:30 p.m., when he came on duty, Dr. Linton has seen more than 20 patients. And this on a not terribly hectic afternoon. On his way out to a dinner appointment, Dr. Linton drops by the crowded, bandage-decorated emergency room to say hello to one last patient. "This is what I call a 'Gone With the Wind' scene," Dr. Linton says, referring to the chaotic hospital scene in the Civil War movie.

Sitting up in a bed is Huh Chun-sik, a 19-year-old ethnic Korean from Yenben, China, who received a bone marrow transplant at the hospital in June. When Dr. Linton heard about the plight of Mr. Huh, who wanted to be treated in Korea but did not have the 100 million won ($78,000) for the surgery, Dr. Linton raised 80 million won, appealing to anybody who could help. "You figure out ways to help where you can," he explains.

With a mask over his mouth, the gaunt Mr. Huh is complaining of diarrhea and fever. He has been in the emergency room for more than 24 hours because he cannot pay for a hospital room. To the young man's guardian, Dr. Linton says, in Korean, "He will pull through this, and adjustments have been made to his medication so he won't have those side effects." When the guardian asks again if Mr. Huh will be all right, Dr. Linton, who has a way of reassuring people, simply says, "Oh, you don't need to worry. He has to get better." As he walks down the hall, Dr. Linton shakes his head and mutters, "It doesn't look good."

John Linton speaks fluent Korean with the intonation and accent typical of someone from the Jeolla provinces, so it is not surprising to learn that he is from that area. Dr. Linton was born in 1959 in Jeonju, North Jeolla province, to Hugh and Lois Linton, American missionaries working in the region. His Korean name is "In Yo-han." In fact, Dr. Linton is a fourth-generation American transplant to Korea. His great-grandparents, the Reverend Eugene Bell and Lottie Witherspoon Bell, from Georgia, arrived in Korea in 1895 as Southern Presbyterian church missionaries.

Mr. Bell and his wife worked in the southwestern part of the country, organizing several schools for girls and boys. Their daughter, Charlotte, born in 1900, married William Alderman Linton, who came to Korea in 1912 as a missionary.

Known as "the educator in Jeonju," Mr. Linton established several schools, culminating in the founding of Hannam University, Daejon, in 1956. Hugh Linton, Dr. Linton's father, was born in Gunsan in 1926, and returned to Suncheon in 1954 as a missionary, along with his wife Lois and three sons. He and his wife are most noted for their work with tuberculosis patients in Korea.

Dr. Linton and his brother Stephen, 51, carry on that legacy today, albeit in quite another part of the peninsula. Stephen Linton is the chairman of the Eugene Bell Foundation, founded in 1995 in memory of their great-grandfather. The foundation sponsors humanitarian and medical programs in North Korea.

Since 1997, the foundation has been working to treat tuberculosis, the No. 1 health concern in North Korea at the moment. There are 13 provincial and special city hospitals for TB in the North, including three in North Pyeongan province for surgery, and 62 care centers, according to Dr. Linton.

To help out the care centers, the foundation created its Partner Package Program, which gives each center an initial six-month supply of medication and x-ray equipment along with fertilizer and a tractor; each center has a 5-hectare farm. The cost of each package is 41 million won. Re-supply kits, each with provisions for six months, cost 1.37 million won. Currently, about 15 Korean churches have been matched to support the centers. Dr. Linton is guarded about the specifics of the foundation's work in the North. "We should have respect for their dignity and pride even as we assist them," he points out.

Asked to give the magnitude of the problem, he says only, "The North Korean facilities can handle some 10,000-20,000 people a year." Another clue is that some 900,000 x-rays have been taken in the last three years. Perhaps it is this cautious approach that has earned the foundation the trust of its counterparts. "Since the June 15 Joint Declaration last year, we have been able to put donors' names, in Korean, on the kits," Dr. Linton says.

Although their family has a long tradition of working in Korea, his experience is different, Dr. Linton says. "We are not missionaries," he points out, explaining that while missionaries often have an obligation to serve, he and his brother enjoy working in North Korea.

Calling Eugene Bell Foundation a "mule" foundation - one that merely carries the goods - Dr. Linton explains the "sunset clause" in the foundation's charter. "It's time to quit when South Korean health officials and South Korean church people can freely do this work."


by Kim Hoo-ran

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