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For North Korean soldier's recovery, South Koreans pin hopes on renowned doctor

Medical doctor Lee Cook-jong describes the parasites found inside the body of a North Korean soldier at Ajou University Medical Center in Suwon, South Korea on Nov. 15, 2017.

KIM IN-CHUL/YONHAP VIA AP

By ANNA FIFIELD | The Washington Post | Published: November 22, 2017

TOKYO — The incredible tale of a North Korean soldier's escape across the Demilitarized Zone last week has pushed Lee Cook-jong into the spotlight. 

The trauma surgeon has operated on the soldier several times and has updated the world along the way - from a video showing Lee picking 10-inch-long parasitic worms out of the man's intestines to his declaration Wednesday that the defector will survive.

"The patient is not going to die," Lee told reporters gathered at Ajou University Hospital south of Seoul, announcing that the man had regained consciousness and was stable. Although he is still in the intensive care unit, he could be transferred to a general ward as early as this weekend.

The 24-year-old North Korean soldier, who has been identified only by his surname Oh, was shot five times as he made his brazen escape on Nov. 13.

Closed-circuit television footage released by U.S. Forces in Korea on Wednesday showed Oh driving a jeep southward, before getting its wheels stuck in a ditch just yards from the Military Demarcation Line that forms the border.

Oh jumped out and started running for the line, but four North Korean border guards fired more than 40 rounds at him. One guard briefly crossed the line, violating the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War in 1953.

Then Oh is seen lying in a pile of leaves against a building on the southern side, before three South Korean soldiers crawl out and drag him to safety. From there, he was put in a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter and flown 50 miles south to the hospital in Suwon, where Lee was waiting.

"If it weren't for their emergency measures, he would have died before arriving at the hospital," Lee said.

It was still touch and go when Oh arrived at the hospital. His blood pressure was so low after losing so much blood that the doctors did not even have time to check his blood type. Instead, they pumped about 40 units - between three and four times the amount of blood contained in a human body - of type O into him.

He has had three surgeries, including an attempt to repair his damaged internal organs and stop the contamination caused by the parasites and the injuries.

Along the way, the trauma surgeon, often in scrubs, has been giving regular updates on the soldier's condition.

The revelation that the man had a severe parasitic infection - Lee said he had never seen such a case except in medical textbooks - and that his stomach contained raw corn kernels caused widespread shock in South Korea. Frontline soldiers were supposed to be elite troops, yet this man had worms not seen in South Korea since the 1970s and had been eating uncooked corn?

Oh also has tuberculosis and hepatitis B, Lee said. And, at 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighing about 130 pounds, he is several inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than the average South Korean 18-year-old boy.

There is intense interest in the soldier, with military intelligence officers reportedly eager to question him about his escape, but Lee has been fending them off. The soldier is showing signs of depression and post-traumatic stress, and it will take about a month before he is well enough to answer questions, the doctor said.

For now, Lee is keeping the conversation light - talking about the way things are done in South Korea rather than asking him about North Korea - and trying to cheer him up.

The medical staff played him "Gee," a peppy pop song by Girls' Generation - with lyrics such as, "Oh, it's too pretty, your soul's too pretty / It's love at first sight" - and he declared that he liked girl bands.

Lee also said Oh has been watching the American series "CSI" and the action movie "The Transporter," in which a former Special Forces operative hires himself out as a mercenary.

They also have hung a South Korean flag in his room to reassure him he really is in the South.

This is not Lee's first time in the spotlight. He became a national hero in 2011 when he saved the life of a ship captain who had been shot by Somali pirates.

After the chemical freighter was seized by the pirates near the Gulf of Aden in 2011, South Korean commandos stormed the ship, and the captain was shot by the pirates six times during the rescue attempt.

Lee was waiting at a hospital in Oman and saved the captain's life, making his reputation as the country's leading trauma surgeon. There was even a popular medical drama based on this story, "Golden Time." The title was a reference to Lee's frequent reminder that it is the hour after a severe injury that is most important for saving someone's life.

The 48-year-old Lee, who is blind in one eye and renowned for working 36-hour shifts, was also the inspiration for a character in another drama, "Romantic Doctor, Teacher Kim," released last year. He became such a celebrity that even octogenarians with diabetes were trying to get in to see him.

Lee became a doctor in South Korea but trained as a critical care surgeon at the University of California at San Diego Medical Center in 2003. He then went on to the Royal London Hospital's trauma center.

Returning home, he realized that there was no equivalent facility at any hospital in South Korea and estimated that about 30,000 trauma patients were dying in the country each year because of treatment delays and lack of dedicated trauma units.

He persuaded authorities to fund proper trauma centers, including his unit at Ajou University Hospital. Now, 20 percent of revenues from traffic fines are going to trauma centers around the country.

But for a trauma surgeon, Lee faces a predicament that is unimaginable for American ER doctors: He seldom gets to treat gunshot wounds because there are very strict rules on gun ownership in South Korea.

Ten murders with a firearm were reported in South Korea between 2010 and 2015, compared with 8,592 in the United States, according to figures from the Small Arms Survey.

Instead, the relatively few gunshot wounds he has treated were sustained by South Korean and American soldiers hurt during military drills, he told the Korea Times in 2015. Still, that appears to have been enough practice to save the North Korean soldier's life.

Now, South Koreans are waiting for Lee's next statement on the soldier's prognosis.

In online forums, South Korean "netizens" have been sending their best wishes to both Lee and his patient.

"A Korean who put his life on the line to cross over to the south. Hopefully he can be saved!" wrote one in an online medical forum. Another added: "Please survive so you can live in South Korea!"

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