South Korean surgeon Lee Cook-Jong, who is San Diego-trained, went to meet his critically injured patient on the helipad at Ajou University Hospital in Seoul.
“I was informed that he was badly shot by North Koreans,” Lee said, reliving the complex chain of events that brought North Korean defector Oh Chong Song to his trauma unit on November 13. “His vital signs were so unstable, he was dying of low blood pressure, he was dying of shock,” Lee said. “He was like a broken jar. We couldn’t put enough blood into him.”
The 24-year-old had been shot around five times by his fellow North Korean soldiers as he made his daring escape across the line that divides North and South Korea. Riddled with bullets, he was dragged to safety by South Korean soldiers and hovered close to death during the 25-minute airlift to hospital.
During a five-hour operation to remove a bullet that had pierced Oh’s intestines, Lee encountered a complication he’s never seen in his 20-year career as a surgeon: parasites.
Lee describes working to repair at least seven wounds in the defector’s perforated bowel while the white worms were squirming their way out of Oh’s body. “Everything was stained with blood, but the parasite was basically a really white color and this thick, big, long and very, very hard, this kind of thing was getting out from his bowel system,” Lee said.
All parasites were removed from Oh’s system, some of them as long as 27 centimeters (more than 10 inches). Intestinal worms are typically transmitted through contact with feces or unwashed hands. The use of human fertilizer on crops and poor sanitary conditions can also aid the transmission of parasitic cysts.
The soldier’s condition, though stable, is still grave. Complications from tuberculosis and hepatitis B continue to compromise his recovery, especially his liver function.
Oh is also under psychiatric care and likely to be struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, Lee said. He’s been plagued by nightmares, sometimes fearing he was still in North Korea, prompting Lee to hang the South Korean flag in his recovery room to remind him he was safe.