Homeless hospital on life support

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Homeless hospital on life support


Sister Park Young-ran has a lot on her shoulders besides a rosary. She doesn’t let the stress of caring for seriously ill patients while filling the very big shoes of her predecessor show, though. “I hope I can follow in the footsteps of the former hospital director, Kim Seung-gon, and help out struggling patients, no matter how many times they need to be treated,” she said in her office on the fourth floor of the Seongga Hospital in Hawolgok, in the Seongbuk district of Seoul.
Sister Park is the new director of the hospital, which was started in 1958 by the Seongga Nuns’ Association as the Seongga Clinic. It became a free hospital in 1990, providing the homeless and people living in poverty with medical treatment.
At present, the building has a huge crack in one wall and the basement parking lot has sunk deeply. After two years of discussions with a construction company, the building’s reconstruction began on July 18. It will take more than a patching trowel, however, to solve the hospital’s problems.
The hospital has no medical affairs director; Kim Seung-gon, who last held the position, passed away in June from lung cancer. So far, nobody has been found to take on the job. A full-time internal medicine doctor is also leaving at the end of this month for personal reasons.
“For a doctor, the low salary is a problem, but it is also hard to find a replacement for doctors because many do not understand the special traits of the patients,” Sister Park said.
She got her nurse’s certificate after becoming a nun. She was a part of the group that started the hospital. She returned after 10 years in February to take over as director. “When I first came into this hospital in 1989 as a nurse, there were 20 or more doctors. Now there are only two full-time doctors and 100 beds, as opposed to 250 when the hospital first started,” she added.
The hospital survives without government support and relies on contributions ― even the nuns use their own money to keep it afloat. Seventy to 80 percent of the patients are homeless; the rest are living below the poverty line or are senior citizens who live alone. A total of 450,000 patients have been through its doors in the last 16 years.
“In the case of the homeless, there are many situations in which a relapse occurs, because many of these people fight loneliness and hunger with alcohol,” Sister Park said. She said she can recall people saying that the nuns were being rash and naive when the hospital started providing its services for free, but many “guardian angels” ― corporate supporters including Hankook Tire and Kyungdong Pharmaceutical, and about 3,000 individual sponsors ― support the hospital. Many have given donations for more than 15 years.
Three years ago, the area was designated a “new town,” where construction and reconstruction are supported by the government. That was when things started going downhill: A big apartment complex was built near the hospital, and the residents have demanded that the hospital move, saying it has held down housing prices, according to Sister Park. The hospital had also provided free meals for the homeless, but stopped because area residents complained so much, she added.
The hospital celebrated its 16th anniversary on July 21. “I will do anything to keep this place going,” Sister Park said.

by Kim Jung-soo
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