After wife suffers accident, former journalist propels campaign for disabled
Paik Kyung-hak was in his car, and had just opened the trunk so that his wife could find something for their daughter.
A moment later, an intoxicated driver in a Mercedes struck the back of their car, where his wife was standing. Paik was thrown from the car in the impact, inexplicably landing underneath the vehicle.
In shock, Paik pulled himself to his feet and rushed to check on his wife. He found her with her legs bleeding badly. Fearing the worst, he shook her desperately to see if she was still breathing.
“Thank God she was alive,” he recalled later. But soon afterward she lapsed into a coma for two months and, ultimately, had to have one leg amputated.
Paik had been on a family trip to Scotland, on his last month of a two-year stay in Germany as a journalist in 1998. It was a trip he had pestered his wife to join him on. “Never did I know such thing would happen to me,” Paik told The Korea Herald.
In an instant their whole family’s life had changed. An hour earlier, they had been happy imagining their life upon their return to Korea. But not long after they were sitting in a hospital in Scotland, waiting for Paik’s wife to emerge from her coma.
Eventually she did wake up, only to face the reality that the rest of her life would be spent with a serious disability. After his wife spending years in a rehab hospital in Germany, the family came back to Korea in 1999. But they were soon to face further adversity: Securing suitable rehab services at Severance Hospital in Seoul.
They had envisioned a hospital where medical staff took care of patients in a quiet and relaxing atmosphere, as in Germany. Korea, they found, was nothing like it.
Worse, it proved almost impossible to get a space in the hospital in the first place.
“Korean hospitals were like African hospitals,” Paik said. Currently, about 4.7 million people are registered as physically disabled in Korea, which accounts for 10 percent of the total population. Of them, 65 percent need to be hospitalized for sustained rehab treatment. But in reality, only 2 percent receive this level of care from existing hospitals. This, according to Paik, is due to the hospital-patient ratio.
Through his experience, Paik, now 54, said he learned that a very small number of people in the high-income bracket receive quality treatment quickly, while a large number of people have to wait for long periods to receive treatment.
Purme Foundation executive director Paik Kyung-hak sits in the handicapped children’s rehab play room at the foundation building in hyo-ja dong last Friday. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
“The rich can get the treatment as they want, but those who are not cannot get immediate treatment here in Korea, due to lack of rooms in the hospital, and that will increase the number of serious disability cases,” he said.
“This is becoming chronic.”
Paik finds this unacceptable. “When the patient does not receive immediate treatment, their muscles can stiffen, and the bone can be put in the wrong place. They can become more seriously disabled, but it seems everyone is negligent about the matter, and the current systemic flaw is what’s giving birth to more disabled people,” he said.
Paik eventually established a foundation in 2004 aimed at building more rehab hospitals in the country. “I couldn’t just sit and watch,” he said.
Now, Paik is struggling to realize his goal. He is an executive director of the Purme Foundation, a private sector-led rehabilitation service run by contributions, and hopes to build rehab hospitals all around the country with the government’s support. But due to the lack of support, his goal still looks distant.
With the 100 million won that his wife was paid by the insurer of the motorist who caused the car accident, he couldn’t start a foundation. Instead, he started a German beer business to make more money. He put up the foundation’s sign in an underground office of a small building in 2005.
A possible reason behind the apparent current shortage of rehab hospitals is that rehab services and medications do not draw much profit. Emergency cases and surgery patients bring in revenue through various screenings and procedures. But as rehab patients drain human resources costs heavily, hospitals often avoid establishing rehab clinics.
With the lack of hospitals and overflowing patients, Paik emphasizes the importance of the government’s role in bridging the divide between rich and poor.
“The government should step up and take responsibility for its citizens. It should not shift its duty to individuals,” Paik said.
“The government seems to heavily depend on individual citizens with respect to social security systems.
“I once asked civil servants for their help in improving the rehab conditions for the poor with disabilities. But I received a shocking response. They told me that since people seem to come up with their own ways of getting treatment such as going abroad, there was no need to step into the private matter.”
Paik also criticized the heavy-handed approach of bureaucrats.
“We don’t receive a single cent from the state coffer. Nevertheless, they used to demand many documents in the name of audits, though they are not doing so any longer as the foundation has grown bigger.
“When we submitted papers to register as a corporate foundation, public officials showed an attitude of trying to reign over us. They seemed to look down on us, probably because we wanted to set up a foundation for the disabled,” he added.
The former reporter stressed the need for an increased welfare budget for the underprivileged. He said it would be great if the government spent more of its welfare budget on social minorities, but that the most important thing is focusing on the needy. “How the poor and needy are treated is the yardstick for a country.”
Of the hospital project, he highlighted its slow progress and appealed for help.
Over the last five years, few people have shown interest in building a rehab hospital for the disabled, not least because of cost. Paik estimates that the rehab hospital he envisions would cost about 50 billion won, excluding the land.
Hwa-sung City initially showed willingness to buy the foundation 1,653 square meters of land from the Land and Housing Corp., but later put it off for three years due to lack of budget.
“Right now, we are persuading the welfare ministry. One of the pledges made by the late President Roh Moo-hyun was to build rehab hospitals for the needy nationwide and let them be managed by private organizations, but now I doubt that that promise is being kept.”
Currently, the foundation plans to establish a complex including medical facilities. The foundation has raised 3 billion won to spend on the project, but is still 5 billion won short.
The complex will be created as a four-story building on a 3,967 square-meter area of land. Construction company Ega and construction management company Hanmi Parsons have pledged to donate their talent. The facility will house rooms for speech therapy, physical therapy, music therapy and job therapy. Half of the complex will be used to accommodate a community welfare center, an Oriental medicine center and a dentistry clinic. It will be mainly for disabled children, but adults will be catered for as well.
Indifference was another big obstacle for Paik. “When I asked friends to help out, they were indifferent. They didn’t think about the possibilities of him or herself becoming victim of an accident. No one was there to put themselves in our shoes.
“I hope that more donors will give to foundations like us with no government support, rather than to schools for research, because they already receive lots of state support. I look forward to the day when many people have a warm heart to poor disabled children ― as I know, it can really happen to anyone around you.”
By Hwang Jurie (firstname.lastname@example.org