Before moving to South Korea, more than anything, I remained a steadfast believer in the power of stories. Whether in between the spine of a Sherlock Holmes novella, in a heavily sterilized Philadelphia ICU or in the fragrant kitchen of my Trinidadian grandmother, I sought tales of tragedy and triumph that ground my underlying beliefs into powder. My passion for healthcare, naturally, became an extension of this quest as I believed narratives about one’s health to be among the most intimate and the most personal – the most relatable and yet somehow the most alien.
So, when Professor Ryu, whose rolodex of tales about healthcare, travel, and everything in between, invited me for a traditional Korean lunch, I happily hopped on the subway to Gwanghwamun. As we strolled along alleyways of golden ginkgo trees and the grandiose central gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace, Professor Ryu regaled me with stories of voyaging around the globe – from the cobblestone plazas of Cuba to the sunbaked streets of Iran – and patiently attended to my pestering questions about Korean healthcare. Soon, we made our way to a sikdang (restaurant) for sundae (Korean blood sausage) and endless amounts of soju, and I assiduously listened as he unwittingly transitioned from grand tales of foreign countries to detached statistics about his own.
“Three-hour wait and three-minute visit”
These seven words sliced through my mind during our conversation. As a Visiting Researcher at the Graduate School of Public Health at Yonsei University, I repeatedly found myself confronted with such facts and figures – not stories – as I once (naively?) hoped. Metrics about life expectancy, universal health insurance coverage, and falling birth rates camouflaged realities that I desperately sought to expose. While I slowly came to understand how the colossal gears of the Korean national health insurance program functioned, how could I ever hope to understand how the South Korean healthcare system truly impacted individuals without an avenue to hear their stories.
After a leap of faith, I found an unexpected path in my journey for stories: by volunteering part-time at PSCORE, an NGO in Seoul that resettles North Korean refugees. Far beyond my elementary knowledge of international relations and basic Korean language skills, I suddenly found myself ensconced in stories of resilience in the face of absolute danger; of parental sacrifices for an uncertain future; of the sheer capacity for human brutality. But in these stories (where concerns about personal health never seemed to arise), there always seemed to be an opaque veneer to the macroscopic barriers faced by these individuals – where I simply couldn’t point a finger at specific policy failures or empty promises. Seemingly, the opposite problem I encountered at Yonsei, but in a drastically different context.
My time in South Korea clarified an important distinction between medicine and healthcare that I often took for granted; between the deeply personal stories about health that define our lives and the abstract systems that make those stories possible (as well as the detached statistics that reflect those systems). One simply cannot exist without the other, because to do so will always leave behind an incomplete understanding. My year in Korea reaffirmed my desire to incorporate both medicine and healthcare as the cornerstone(s) of my career and my life moving forward, an understanding for which I am eternally grateful.