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Floating clinic: general hospital for island residents‘A Hospital Ship’ – similarities, dissimilarities between drama and reality
  • By Song Soo-youn
  • Published 2017.09.07 16:07
  • Updated 2017.09.13 16:17
  • comments 0

There is a patient with appendicitis in an island, urgently needing an operation. It takes two to three hours to go to the land for surgery even with the maritime police’s help, however. It happens that a hospital ship was visiting the island, but surgery is unthinkable. It is against this backdrop that a new surgeon at the ship starts an operation on a dentist’s chair using suction and other devices -- and makes it.

So goes an episode of the MBC drama, “A hospital ship.” As shown in the soap opera, a hospital ship visits residents in islands and treat them. There is one each in Incheon, South Chungcheong Province, and South Gyeongsang Province, and two in South Jeolla Province, which has many islands. The drama bodies out a real hospital ship relatively faithfully. Except for the setup of a “ship where they can conduct a surgery.” Nor is there a female surgeon, Song Eun-jae, a character played by actress Ha Ji-won. Physicians, dentists, and herb doctors working in these ships are all general practitioners.

6-ton Chungnam 501 started its journey in 1971. It became 135-ton ship in1978 and has been operated for 22 years. Currently, the hospital ship built as a 160-ton ship in 2001 is being operated.

Upon the telecast of a hospital ship drama, this reporter visited Daecheon Port in mid-July to cover the hospital ship “Chungnam 501” operated by South Chungcheong Province. Chungnam 501 has treated the largest number of patients among five hospital ships since 1971. It visits 29 islands in the province more than once a month. It makes a tour of three islands per sailing by population.

Hospital ship is a ‘general hospital’ for island people

On that day, Chungnam 501 visited Sapsi Island, an hour’s streaming from Daecheon Port. Sapsi is relatively big among the province’s islands with about 500 residents. A public health center is the only medical institution in the island that has not even a pharmacy. That makes residents feel Chungnam 501 visiting them twice a month like a “general hospital.”

Chungnam 501 left the port at 10 a.m. and was anchored nearby the wharf an hour later. It then carried people to the hospital ship in a small boat. “We use a boat to bring patients because other liners and fishing vessels may find it uncomfortable if we go into dock,” said Captain Oh Jong-myung오종명. “Sometimes, we land on islands to treat people.”

In Chungnam 501, people can receive internal, dental and Oriental medicine treatment as well as take clinical pathology tests and radiography. There is a pharmacist's office, too. But there are no operating rooms or a similar space as shown in the drama. Because there isn’t enough room and equipment, it focuses on providing primary treatment for patients with chronic diseases. Chungnam 501 also has ultrasonic wave device, dental unit, X-ray, absorptiometry, and electrolyte analyzer.

Residents in Sapsi getting on the hospital ship with a boat(above) submit applications to Choi Kun-yong(left below) and wait in front of a doctor's office.

“They can get free treatment. Most people suffer from chronic diseases such as hypertension,” Captain Oh said. “If they don’t come to the ship for two months, we send a notice saying if they fail to appear once more, we will stop giving prescriptions.”

An island resident backs him up. “I came here because they would not prescribe hypertension drug if I skip the visit once more,” said Shin Myung-ja who runs a restaurant on the island. “Otherwise, I have to go to the Daecheon Port to get the treatment and drug, which isn’t easy. The hospital ship is essential for us. It’s like a general hospital.”

A medical resident serves aboard the hospital ship for two years

In Chungnam 501, an internist, a dentist and an herbalist were working as public health doctors, just like the drama “A Hospital Ship.” On that day, they were hectic to treat people. Usually, they see about 60 patients a day on average, but about 80 patients visited the ship during the day.

Jung Sang-ok, who has served as a public health doctor at the internal medicine department, Yang Byung-jin, a dentist, and Choi Hyung-jun, an oriental doctor in Chungnam 501 are treating residents(from top).

Most crowded was, as expected, the internal medicine department. Internist Jung Sang-ok정상옥, who has served as a public health doctor for two years, started service aboard a hospital ship in South Jeolla Province. After nearly two years on board, Jung has yet to overcome seasickness. The best he can do is lay in the engine room after the boat leaves the port and got up when it anchors off an island. “If there are big waves, I spend a whole day lying down. I can’t get used to seasickness,” Jung said.

Yang Byung-jin양병진, a dentist in his first year aboard the ship, decided to take the job upon a senior doctor’s recommendation. But Yang feels something lacking because there are not many things he can do. “Some people want to pull out teeth, but I can’t do easily except when the patients have extremely loose teeth because of difficulties providing follow-up care,” Yang said. “I feel particularly sorry because I can’t give endodontic treatment. Equipment is good, but people have to get the endodontic treatment every three to seven days, but I can’t meet them so frequently.”

Choi Hyung-jun최형준, an oriental doctor in his first year as a public health doctor, said he also volunteered to work on the hospital ship.

“It's hard to stay on the ship for a long time, but I feel rewarded treating people on remote islands. Sometimes, when land on the island for treatment, people bring, and I can feel their attachment,” Choi said.

Old members of Chungnam 501

They can hardly be called the fixture of Chungnam 501, though. Choi Kun-yong최건용, who has served as radiographer since 1991, and Lee Yong-woo이용우 who has led clinical laboratory since 1992, are them. Choi, who also is the manager of Chungnam 501, has lived with the ship for 26 years. “Because of severe seasickness, I thought I couldn’t work here for a long time, but it has been 26 years in the ship. Next year, I will retire. Ten years ago, I detected a strange spot in the lung in X-ray photo of a person and told him to go to a large hospital. The person was diagnosed with lung cancer at an early stage. Later, he came to me and said thank you. An experience like this drives me to work here,” Choi said.

Captain Oh said the hospital ship is essential to people in the islands where there is no pharmacies or hospitals, but he missed the absence of government support. He pointed out it is operated based on the ordinance from the local government, and there is no legal basis at the central governmental level.

“Because of high oil price, it's hard to operate the hospital ship. As it is run by the ordinance from local government, we can’t get support or protection from the central government. I think this explains why we do not see the brisk activities of hospital ships in other areas,” he added.


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