Arizona surgeon shares his expertise with Korea

By James S. Kim
KoreAm Journal

In this Jan. 11, 2011 file photo, Dr. Peter Rhee, Chief Trauma and Critical Care Emergency Surgery doctor at University Medical Center, described to reporters the gunshot wound Rep. Gabrielle Giffords received three days earlier in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Dr. Peter Rhee first caught the media spotlight more than two years ago, after the January 2011 shooting in Tucson that killed six and critically injured Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The chief of Trauma Critical Care and Emergency at the University of Arizona Medical Center, Rhee — in his scrubs and white coat — was often the person updating the American public on the condition of Giffords, who had been shot in the head in an assassination attempt.

Giffords had a “101-percent chance” of surviving her wounds, he confidently told relieved American viewers at televised news conferences. “She will live.”

Apparently, it wasn’t just Americans who were watching Rhee at that time. Across the ocean, South Korean government officials were also tuning in, paying particular attention to this Korean American surgeon, who served as the face of trauma care at his Arizona hospital. The Korean government took an interest because, despite the nation being an economic, technological and cultural powerhouse that boasts socialized health care, it still lacks a trauma system.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare reached out to Rhee, and for the past two years, the trauma surgeon has participated in several exchanges with South Korea to help improve the latter’s health system. Earlier this year, Rhee hosted a group of 40 physicians and nurses from Seoul who had come to visit Tucson in a cross-country medical tour. He spent a few days teaching them about the trauma program he headed, and then himself traveled to South Korea this past May to consult with officials there.

It might come as a surprise that South Korea still does not have any semblance of a trauma system. Rhee said that is mostly due to the lack of guns in the country, which diminishes the occurrence of gun-related violence. Still, Korea has plenty of vehicles, cases of domestic abuse and attempted suicides, and that’s why such a system is of vital importance.

Effective trauma systems in the U.S. — which go into effect as soon as emergency services are contacted following an accident or disaster, for example — are regionalized, and each one is specifically catered to the unique requirements of the local population, whether it be rural, suburban or urban. This helps create a seamless transition between each phase of care, from when the ambulance first arrives to the moment the patient is in surgery. Without one, Rhee said, dealing with a trauma patient would be chaotic, especially in an urban megacity like Seoul, which has a population of nearly 10 million and a population density that makes New York City look spacious.

“If you’re in a car accident [in Korea], or if you have an industrial accident, or if you fall from a building, ambulances have no system in place of where to take the patient, and they would drive around from hospital to hospital,” Rhee, 52, told KoreAm during a phone interview last month. “Once they get to one, because the system isn’t coordinated, the hospital will say, ‘No, we’re full.’ Then they go from there to another hospital, and during that time period, because trauma is time-sensitive, those people die.”

Even once a patient arrives at a hospital in Korea, Rhee says, “they’re not ready for them. They weren’t warned of it, and they don’t have a specialty called trauma surgery. They have ER doctors, and they’re very good, but they don’t have a surgical specialty called ‘trauma surgery,’ like I [have].”

But, since his initial consultations with Korean physicians and government officials, Rhee says the country is off to a good start in focusing resources toward building this trauma care infrastructure. “[The government] is making available a lot of money,” he said.

Rhee believes there will be two major trauma centers, one in the capital of Seoul and the other in Busan in the southern part of the country. He estimated an additional 17 trauma centers might be set up around the nation.

“My hope is that their major trauma centers won’t become too big because it’ll make it so that the hospital does nothing but trauma, and that’s not good for the community,” he said. “But my influence over there is mostly just to help.”

Americans probably take this country’s trauma system for granted, but the numbers indicate it saves scores of lives every year. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States listed injury, including all causes of unintentional and violence-related crimes combined, as the leading cause of death among persons up to the age of 44. An estimated 2.5 million people are hospitalized with an injury each year, and 31.6 million are treated in the emergency department for an injury each year. The number of deaths would be far worse if not for trauma systems.

“It used to be, 10 years ago, the highest population of people who died from trauma were [people in their] 20s, people who are young and engage in risky behaviors,” Rhee said. “But now, in 10 years, it’s already changed, so that now it’s the baby boomers. It’s becoming a major problem here, but we’re getting on top of it here in the United States. We’re much farther ahead than most all other countries in the world.”

But, even in the U.S., Rhee said there’s always room for improvement. The government, he said, must make sure the trauma centers are able to provide a full range of services, but he also noted that the public should engage in serious discussions about related issues, like gun control and health care.

Rhee has no problems offering his own opinions on these issues. He is an outspoken supporter of the Affordable Care Act, calling it an “excellent idea.” As for guns, Rhee said, “In countries where they don’t have guns, they don’t have people getting shot. You make your own decisions. But I think if you want to have a gun, you have to pay for it.”

Since the 2011 Tucson shooting, Rhee has emerged as quite the celebrity — a reality that has been difficult for the surgeon and married father of two to accept. He admitted there was an initial hesitation to embracing such status, but once he started to realize how it’s also helped him engage others in dialogue about trauma care, he embraced it a bit more.

“I’ve been contemplating this a long time,” he said. “It definitely has no benefit to me personally, and I don’t like it at all. But I have found that it is the most important thing that I’ve done. People are starting to become more aware of what trauma surgery is. [It’s not only] helping my profession, but also my colleagues … It’s an obligation.” (end)

Reprinted with permission from the October 2013 issue of KoreAm Journal (iamkoream.com).

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