About Nam Koong Ihn: Nam Koong Ihn (’02, Medicine) graduated from the Korea University (KU) College of Medicine and worked as a resident doctor of Emergency Medicine at the KU Medical Centers (KUMC) in Anam, Guro, and Ansan. Since 2013, he has been posting stories about his patients and the agonies of being a physician on his Facebook page. He served as a public health doctor at Chungnam Fire Service Headquarters until April 2017. After publishing the book There is No If (2016) in July, he is pursuing a career as a medical essayist.
In May 2015, one of his Facebook posts states, “There has been no cardiothoracic surgery specialist in our university hospital for several years,” which caused a stir among some Koreans. The post frankly confesses one of the realities of the Korean medical system and reveals the hidden dilemmas of doctors who have to face death day-to-day. Nam speaks from the painful memories of his patients, and the stories he tells in his book and on Facebook seem more like the thoughts of a patient than those of a doctor. The Granite Tower (GT) met Nam to learn about his beliefs as a doctor and to hear about some of his experiences, despite it all.
Please tell us what you are doing these days.
I just completed serving as the public health doctor for Chungnam Fire Service Headquarters for 36 months. I took a position as a clinical assistant professor in emergency care at the Ewha Womans University Medical Center, and yesterday (May 4) was my first day at work. It was a hazardous night. I had to treat a man who had tried to commit suicide by taking hypotensive drugs, which made his heart beat less than ten times a minute. I was able to save him by prescribing complex antidotes, and his family knelt down to thank me.
What kind of topics do you cover in your writings?
I write about a lot of different things, but most of them are my personal stories. Even if the story is true and real, I navigate between fact and fiction, reorganizing it with the eyes of a writer. Since I spend a lot of time in the emergency room, the stories from the hospital become the source of writings on my everyday life. I became quite famous for this and completed much work as an emergency care specialist. I also write essays on culture, such as reviews of books, music, or movies. I sometimes write travelogues or columns on current events.
We heard you were a member of the KU Literature Club back in your college days. What activities did you participate in, and how did they affect you?
One thing to note is that I never received formal education in writing. I loved books and writing when I was a medical student, so I joined the KU Literature club, looking for someone to communicate with. I began by writing poems, and I was probably the least talented poet among the club members. I remember that I was harshly criticized by them, and that is probably all I remember. Yet, writing poems helped to improve the formal beauty of my essays, which distinguishes my works from those of other doctors. On top of that, I still keep close relations with my friends from the club.
You have posted many meaningful writings on your Facebook wall. Can you suggest one post for KU students?
I always try to impart some meaning into everything I write. My Facebook page is my personal space, but not so personal anymore, as many people are following my posts. I would suggest the posts with more than 5,000 likes, mostly about emergency care and doctors’ warm hearts. Among the recent posts, I recommend the story of the firefighters who had to climb down Mount Bukhan carrying a woman struck by lightning. It had some social effects, and several news articles were written regarding it.
▲ A photograph of Nam Koong Ihn. Photographed by Kim Ji Won.
You seem to be suffering from trauma and depression yourself. How does it feel when you are treating someone?
I would like to phrase the question the other way around. I was a boy of literature before I became a doctor, so I still have the heart of a writer, which unavoidably entails deficiency, loss, and depression. Most of the existing medical writings were written from the point of view of a doctor and not many are from a depressed doctor with the ego of a writer. As a result I think my book appealed to people as a new genre. On the other hand, I do believe my ego as a doctor is different from my other ego. That part of me instinctively finds the perfect point as a scientist who observes the situation dispassionately without facing his own disease.
Despite all the hardships, what is it that keeps you motivated as a doctor and as a medical essayist?
I am fundamentally a doctor, and I do like my job. I desire to be the one who saves my patients, like the one I treated last night. Moreover, a physician is a professional who must tenderly inform people about medical information or patients’ conditions, and I feel alive when I am doing it. There is no chance that I would quit my job as a doctor. As an essayist, I published my first book at a young age and have already released a lot of articles. Writing became a habit for me, to the extent that it has become almost unbearable for me not to write and inform.
Do you have any words for the contemporaries who suffer from depression and panic disorders like you?
Simply put, if you feel like dying, go to the doctor and get some psychotherapy—the pain may actually kill you. Getting treatment does help. Otherwise, your condition will never get better, like cancer.
What are your future goals?
In the short term, I am going to publish new books—a sequel in June and a book review in October. I hope they are as loved as my first book, There is No If. I will have to participate in many events related to my books while not neglecting my patients. In the long term, I would like to know my limit in writing, whether I can actually write a book like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or I should be satisfied with There is No If. The only way to find out is be to continue writing with volition throughout my lifetime.