Hospitals run by military lack basic capabilities

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Hospitals run by military lack basic capabilities

Soldiers are at risk because the central military hospital has no ability to operate on gunshot or explosion wounds.

When a land mine planted by North Korea exploded inside the demilitarized zone in Paju, northern Gyeonggi, on Aug. 4, it wounded both lower legs of Staff Sgt. Ha Jae-hun. The 21-year-old soldier was transferred immediately to the Armed Forces Capital Hospital, the largest military hospital, in Seongnam.

The surgeons at the hospital, however, had no ability to treat him. There was only one specialist capable of treating the damaged tissues and minimizing the wound. Operating on Ha was impossible and the hospital arranged a transfer to the Seoul National University Bundang Hospital.

“Ha is just one case,” a military medical officer said. “Right now, the only thing the military hospitals can do for the soldiers wounded by gunshots or explosions is to provide vehicles for transfers to other medical centers.”

Over the recent month, the military had a series of serious incidents including the planting of land mines by the North. Four additional accidents took place over the past month with the latest being a grenade explosion at the 50th Division on Sept. 11. In a total of five incidents over the past month, one soldier died while eight were injured.

Only two of the eight wounded soldiers, however, were hospitalized at the Armed Forces Capital Hospital, and only one of them underwent surgery there.

Staff Sgt. Kim Jeong-won was the other victim of the land mine planting by the North. Kim, who lost a foot, underwent surgery at the military hospital.

Another staff sergeant who was wounded by a South Korean land mine on Aug. 23, is also staying at the military hospital, but his surgery was done by experts from Seoul National University Hospital.

Of the eight wounded soldiers, seven were treated by medical experts outside the military.

When soldiers are treated at civilian hospitals, they are sometimes not given top priority. Ha, who was treated at Seoul National University Bundang Hospital, is an example. He arrived at the hospital around 11 a.m., but waited four hours to enter an operating room due to prescheduled surgeries. “In the case of a wound from an explosion, the area of injury is large, so there is a high risk of infection if a surgery is delayed,” a medical expert said.

Military medical experts said at least 30 experienced trauma surgeons in various fields are needed for the military.

The Armed Forces Capital Hospital currently has 140 doctors, but most of them are doctors doing their compulsory military duties shortly after completing their medical training.

The hospital has tried to recruit specialists in trauma cases, but there aren’t many in Korea. “In other words, the hospital has no medical capability to treat a gunshot wound,” a retired army doctor said.

The military hospitals also have poor facilities. They do not have intensive care units and even the Armed Forces Capital Hospital does not have an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine, so it has no way to treat a soldier with a gunshot wound to the lung.

The hospital said it will have two ECMO machines by the end of this year, but it doesn’t have the budget to hire specialists capable of handling the device.

From 2010 to 2013, an average of 1,453 soldiers received treatment from civilian hospitals and the military spent an average of 3.2 billion won ($2.7 million) of the defense budget on their bills. The military has demanded an exclusive trauma center with experienced surgeons.

The Ministry of National Defense is planning to sell some land to raise 100 billion won to fund the project, but it recently faced an obstacle. The Ministry of Strategy and Finance recently said it wants to use the money in the general budget, not as a special budget for that particular project.

Rep. Chung Doo-un of the Saenuri Party, chairman of the National Assembly’s National Defense Committee, deplored the situation.

“We are a country still at war,” Chung said. “It is ridiculous that military hospitals in a country under a cease-fire cannot treat a gunshot wound. The legislature will think about a plan to support the establishment of a military trauma center.”

BY NAMKOONG WOOK, SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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