Med Student Aids in Rescue That Echoes His Family's Journey

Ryan Syrek, MA

December 03, 2019

David Oh was on a family medicine rotation in Brunswick, Georgia when he got a surprising call from his father in South Korea. News had just broken that a large cargo ship had tipped over just off Georgia's coast. Four South Korean crew members were still trapped inside. David, a fourth-year medical student, soon found himself playing a critical role in the rescue operation. The experience has not only impacted his future but brought back memories of his family's struggles when first coming to America.

Why did you decide to get involved with the rescue operation?

I'm an immigrant. I came to the United States when I was in the eighth or ninth grade. I know how uncomfortable it is to try and speak English when you go see a doctor because you don't really understand a lot of things. I went straight to the emergency department (ED) and left a note that said, "Hey, I know the four people who are still in there only speak Korean, and I can help. Because I'm already rotating in this hospital, I can look at the medical records."

At that point, we didn't even know if they could be rescued or even that they were still alive. But the next day, I was doing my work in the outpatient clinic, and I got a call from the ED. I told my attending that the four workers had been rescued and that I was being asked to come in. He said, "Go help them." 

What did you find?

To respect those patients, I won't talk about their specific diagnoses. But I can tell you that for 40 hours, they were completely in darkness. They weren't able to eat anything. They had no water. They were getting dehydrated and really hot. So they decided to submerge themselves in the engine oil at the bottom of the ship.

The first things that we were worried about were severe dehydration and mental status. They also had rashes that were oil-induced. When we first saw them, we were actually pretty relieved because they looked a lot better than we expected. 

As a medical student and as a fellow Korean, I also really wanted to make sure they were mentally okay. They're in a foreign country, specifically very rural Georgia, where you don't expect to find any Koreans, right? So I started by just trying to make conversation with them in our native tongue. I said things like, "I know you went through a lot, but you guys are strong enough to get through this." The next thing I did was ask if they wanted to talk to their parents.

The Korean news didn't know that they had been rescued. They were all young kids, younger than me for the most part, early 20s. Two of them were college students. Thankfully, I have this Korean app that lets you make international calls for free over the Internet. I let them talk face-to-face with their parents.

The crew members were very calm, but the parents were crying all over! Everyone said something like, "Mom, I'm alive, don't worry! I just wanted to tell you that I'm fine."

What did you do next?

I asked them if they were hungry. To my surprise, they all said, "No, I don't want to eat." But I looked up local Asian restaurants anyway. Brunswick is a really small city, but there was one Korean restaurant there. Unfortunately, it was closed. So I went to a local Japanese restaurant and bought a bunch of food. I said, "It's okay if you don't want to eat, but I'll just leave this here just in case." Yeah, they were immediately eating like crazy…

As they were eating, we were running labs. We were pretty happy with how they were doing. Some had to get some x-rays. I stayed with them basically the entire hospitalization, until they got discharged. I would turn on some Korean TV shows that they're really familiar with so they could feel a little more comfortable. 

How did you feel as a medical student suddenly being thrust into the middle of all of this?

All I had in my mind was, "They need me." I felt very privileged in that situation because although there were many doctors there who obviously are much more knowledgeable, I could do something that other people couldn't. 

As an immigrant to the United States, my family had to go through a lot of linguistic, emotional, and financial hardships, especially in the beginning. When we first came to America, my family didn't speak English at all. We got into a pretty big immigration fraud scheme because of our linguistic disadvantage. We lost most of our money. We lost our house. We were uninsured until Obamacare kicked in.

Thankfully, these nonprofit organizations and people from church, emotionally, financially, and linguistically helped our family. They would give us what would be just a couple days' worth of food for someone. But to us, that was hope. That's when I kind of decided that I want to do something where I could make a positive difference in people's lives. Medicine is really the best way I can really give back to a community and make a difference in people's lives. 

How do you think this experience will shape you?

In medical school, everyone teaches you that you need to empathize and be able learn from the patient's perspective. Before this incident, I knew that these things were important, but I feel like I wasn't really doing that while I was rotating. I was too focused on technical aspects. This experience made me realize that I've been thinking more about the disease and not about the patient. It really made me think about what I would want if I were those crew members. If I were them, I would want to contact my mom and dad and tell them that I'm alive. If I were them in this foreign country, I want to be a little bit more comfortable.

I'm so glad that I chose this profession. Medical training is hard, sometimes brutal, and so it's very long. But despite all the sacrifices that we all have to make, it's such a rewarding career. This was a special case, but this is what physicians do every day, right? We help those who need medical attention, and we do our best to take care of those problems to make a really positive impact on these people's lives.

Ryan Syrek, MA, is Section Editor, Medscape Medical Students and Residents.

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