Some Doctors Who Always Go Out on a Limb

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Some Doctors Who Always Go Out on a Limb

"Please, save the guardian tree in my town!" pleaded Wu Cheol-geun, the head man of the only village on Sonjuk Island. It is the sort of urgent request that the General Tree Hospital in Bangyi-dong, Seoul, receives all the time.

The decaying dangsan tree (a zelkova, or elm) had been a landmark in the little town in Yeosu, South Cholla province, for hundreds of years. Within eight hours, a medical team arrived at the island and diagnosed the problem as gardening soil that blocked air from getting to the tree.

Two weeks of operations and repairs immediately followed. The tree surgeons excised and sterilized the decayed parts, and filled in the empty spaces with polyurethane - they even put on artificial bark over the repaired areas.

The idea of a "tree hospital" may sound a little strange, but professional arboreal doctors are needed to repair damaged and diseased trees. They are especially essential in Korea, where many people still believe trees, especially the largest, oldest ones, have protective spirits that watch over communities and villages.

There are 10 tree hospitals currently in operation in Seoul. Some of the most proficient concentrate on healing trees that have been designated as cultural assets. Doctors might use heavy equipment if necessary, or perform tree "plastic surgery" to repair scars.

In 1976, Kang Jeon-yu, 65, became the first tree surgeon in Korea. "Tree hospitals are still new in the comparison with animal hospitals," Dr. Kang said, "but tree lovers consider them indispensable."

Tree hospitals can handle 300 to 400 cases each month. For some expensive trees under special protection, treatment can take more than three years, and fees can reach several billion won. Most of these hospitals also conduct free medical checkups. If people who have sick trees photograph their trees or send in twigs or branches, doctors will examine the tree, identify any diseases present, prescribe a treatment and estimate a fee.

"You can kill a tree if you do not know the proper treatment," one tree doctor said. "Therefore, you need to use the free medical checkups and make sure you get the right prescription."

Tree hospitals are laboratories, too: Doctors in labs study their wooden patients and find solutions. When the laboratory specialists run across any new disease, they take samples and try to develop new remedies. They also regularly collect and examine caterpillars and other bugs that live around trees. Because they often make need to visit patient trees all over Korea, doctors can be on the road for more than six months out of the year. "When I have to leave a tree that I have been treating for a long time, I feel like a mom being separated from her baby," said Park Hyung-gi, 32, a tree surgeon.

He added, "Just because trees cannot talk does not mean they cannot feel sick."

Lee Sang-kil, 37, a doctor at Han Kang Tree Hospital, said, "Compared with the qualifications required in Japan to be a tree surgeon, we still have a long way to go." Dr. Lee emphasized, "We should end the excessive emphasis on the theory of arboreal protection and focus more on practical ways to become more proficient."

For more information, contact General Tree Hospital at 02-2202-0901; Han Kang Tree Hospital, 02-424-1882; Seoul Tree Hospital, 02-579-1077, or Korean General Tree Hospital, 02-419-2990.

by Paik Sung-ho

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