While human brains make decisions, the hands carry out and express actions and thoughts. People may be very limited without properly functioning hands. However, unintended accidents occur and more often people suffer from hand fractures, amputations, and many diseases. There is a group of people that help relieve the pain that comes from hand injuries and revitalize these important organs once more—that is, hand surgeons. The Granite Tower(GT) met with Professor Park Jong Woong (College of Medicine), the only hand surgeon and expert at Anam Hospital, to hear the story of his life.
▲ Professor Park Jong Woong in his office. Photographed by Lee So Young.
Hand surgeons deal mostly with injuries, diseases, and illnesses that occur to human hands, and they sometimes also deal with replantation of severed legs or arms. Although classified under orthopedics, they have to undergo two more years of fellowship training and pass a hand specialist exam in order to become a professional hand surgeon. The department of hand surgery is the only field among the many medical divisions that require additional specialist fellowships and exams. This indicates that not only does treating hands require professional care, but also requires much effort and discipline to major in this field. Along with treating hands, hand surgeons learn reconstructive microsurgery, which involves connecting the bones, tendons, arteries, veins, nerves, and finally skin into a whole piece again.
“Hand surgeons are just like clock artisans from Switzerland; they need to have a talent to deal with very small, even miniscule things,” Professor Park explained why hand surgery is difficult. This was also a rationale for why young doctors tend to avoid hand surgery. He then took out a small box and showed GT the thread and needle hand surgeons use in vessel anastomosis, connecting veins and arteries, during reconstructive microsurgeries and finger replantation. “This is even thinner than your hair!” he said, holding the thread beside a GT reporter’s hair. Professor Park also demonstrated sewing with the tiny needle and barely visible thread; his hands moved so smoothly and skillfully as he made invisible knots.
Another reason why the division of hand surgery is unpopular among doctors is because treatments require intense concentration and physical strength. The time range it takes for hand surgeons to fix the hands of a patient is broad; the surgery could end in just ten minutes, while in the case of difficult and challenging surgeries, such as transplanting all ten fingers, the surgery may last for one to two days. Undeniably, it is hard to stay focused for such a long time, peeking into a big microscope in order to sew arteries that are less than one millimeter, with cobweb-like threads.
▲ Professor is showing how to sew using cobweb-like threads and a tiny needle. Photographed by Lee So Young.
Professor Park was aware that hand surgery was challenging—for any medical student—but he chose to major in it without hesitation, thanks to his teacher Professor Lee Kwang Suk, the utmost professional hand surgeon in Korea. Professor Park first learned from Professor Lee when he was an intern; this continued resulting in a total of 16 years of learning from his great teacher. Without a doubt, Professor Lee has greatly influenced Professor Park, and contributed to Professor Park being the great hand surgeon he is today. “I wanted to be like my great teacher. That is why I chose hand surgery,” Professor Park added.
What saddens him the most as a hand surgeon is seeing patients who have to live with permanent disabilities or malformations with their hands. There are cases in which even though surgeries turn out to be successful, the injuries themselves are too severe and cannot be utterly restored. However, there are much more delightful cases which energize Professor Park’s tight routine and schedule. He smiled gently as he said how happy he is when he sees patients who were diagnosed with amputation treatments in other hospitals come to him, undergo reconstructive microsurgery, and finally be capable of using their hands and legs freely once more.
“The most difficult surgery of all is when the patient has bone or soft tissue defects,” Professor Park said as he shared his most challenging surgery. In these cases, free flap reconstruction—which refers to cases in which patients have lost the severed part of their hands, and surgeons use bones, tissues, and veins from other organs—are conducted. Once, one of Professor Park’s patient’s thumbs underwent severe electric shock and had been in necrosis, and thus had to be removed. With bones from the pelvis and tissues and veins from the toe, Professor Park successfully conducted wrap-around thumb reconstruction from toe through micro surgery. Considering the fact that the thumb does 50 percent of all the work hands do, the patient was given back not only his finger, but also his life.
There are other methods of surgery too as follows: allo transplantation, though illegal in Korea, refers to the process of implanting someone else’s hand, and robot-arms, which Professor Park is researching. He believes that demand for hand surgery within Korea will be on the rise; an aging society means more elders susceptible to hand injuries, and youngsters who constantly use fingers to press their smartphones are prone to suffer hand diseases as they get older. Professor Park believes that in order to keep up with the high demand, the discipline needs to further develop. However, he thinks that it cannot solely develop by itself—it must go hand in hand with various fields including mechanics, physics, chemistry, and so on.
Professor Park, at the very end, cited his concern for hand surgery as follows: many young doctors tend to avoid the hand surgery department. He is aware that the physical and academic difficulties hand surgery requires, compared to other divisions, scare future doctors away. However, he encourages medical school students not to be afraid and try, and seeks to share the feeling of delight when a patient successfully resumes his or her life after a major surgery. “I would like to tell them to be more ambitious. I would also like them to come and help, so that many more desperate patients can be treated,” he added with a friendly smile.