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[Herald Interview] ‘I need to know’: Father seeks answers in teen son’s death

Yu-yeop with his father on a family trip to Prague in 2018 (courtesy of the family)
Yu-yeop with his father on a family trip to Prague in 2018 (courtesy of the family)

In March, 17-year-old Jung Yu-yeop died in Gyeongsan, a city bordering Daegu -- then the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in South Korea -- less than a week after he developed a fever.

At the end of a series of second guesses and speculations surrounding the death of the teenager, the health authorities said he was not a coronavirus fatality. Four months later, his parents are still at a loss to find answers as to why their son, a “perfectly healthy” high school senior, lost his life.

“All that appeared to matter was whether my son was a COVID-19 case or not,” the father, Jung Sung-jae, said in a phone interview with The Korea Herald. Once he was declared negative, no efforts were undertaken to elucidate the remaining questions, he said. “I need to know why my son had to die.”

Jung is now seeking the passage of a law that would prevent another death like his son’s from happening. When he took the matter to the city council, he said he was snubbed. “The council members said everyone involved did what they could to save him. That’s not an acceptable answer, to say the death couldn’t be helped.” Joined by activists, he submitted a letter requesting such legislation to the president’s and prime minister’s offices last month.

He says Yu-yeop’s fever started after he had stood in line to buy face masks. He practiced strict social distancing and rarely went out in order to protect his father, who as a cancer survivor was considered at risk.

It was March 10, the second day of the government’s face mask rationing program. The father and son had scoured the neighborhood’s pharmacies to get the family’s weekly rations. But none of the seven pharmacies they visited had any. One pharmacy said masks would be restocked in about an hour, to be handed out on a first-come, first-served basis. They decided to wait. That day the weather was cold with drizzle.

Yu-yeop woke up feverish the next day. They didn’t go to the doctor immediately, per the government’s coronavirus guidance. “We called up the KCDC (Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) hotline and they told us to stay home for two to three days and watch for symptoms,” he said.

But Yu-yeop’s condition only got worse. When they brought him to the nearest Gyeongsan Joongang Hospital, which happened to be a government-designated coronavirus institution, the afternoon of March 12, the staffers said he needed to be tested for the virus before he could be admitted. That was the protocol, they said. Despite a fever of nearly 40 degrees Celsius, he couldn’t be tested right away as the hospital’s testing center had already closed for the day. Instead they gave him fever-reducing medications and antibiotics, and turned him away.

The fever persisted. His mother stayed up all night by his side, trying to cool him off with a damp washcloth on his forehead and face.

The next morning, they brought the boy back to the hospital at the earliest possible hour. The staffers tested him for the virus as well as the flu and took chest X-rays. Yet again, the hospital said they were not able to take him in until the results were out and the couple had no choice but to bring him home. Soon he had trouble breathing.

When they returned to the hospital for the third time that afternoon, the doctors told Yu-yeop’s parents something they never expected to hear -- that their son might not make it through the night, and he had to be taken to the bigger Yeungnam University Hospital. “We had so many questions, but didn’t have time to ask them. We had to take our son to another hospital right away,” he said. He said they begged and pleaded, but the hospital refused to provide an ambulance for fear of contagion. He drove his son to the hospital himself.

Tests done at the Gyeongsan hospital showed Yu-yeop was negative for the coronavirus, but the Yeungnam staffers tested him again anyway and said he would be housed in the negative pressure ward in case he was infected.

“Yu-yeop wanted to see the tallest building in the world,” Jung said, explaining the photo of him and his son from their Dubai trip in 2017. (courtesy of the family)
“Yu-yeop wanted to see the tallest building in the world,” Jung said, explaining the photo of him and his son from their Dubai trip in 2017. (courtesy of the family)

Jung told his son he would be all right as they zipped him up in a bag used to transport infected patients. Little did he know that would be the last he would see of his boy. In the short while that their eyes met, his face was tear-stained as he looked back at him, Jung said, and that image would come back to haunt him. His final words to his parents were “Mom, it hurts” -- spoken just before he was moved to the isolation unit. It was the late evening of March 13.

The couple spent the next six days in their car, parked outside the hospital waiting and wondering, and their dread grew with every passing hour. Every night the doctors seemed to be bringing the grimmest possible news. On the second night they asked for the family’s consent to use a respirator and other machines to help Yu-yeop breathe.

On March 18, one of the doctors told them their son had tested positive for the coronavirus. They didn’t know then the hospital had run some 13 tests, which all came back negative save for the last one.

“He said it might be a rare case of a mutated virus,” Jung said. “But we didn’t care much about that. We just wanted to know if he was going to be OK.” The doctor said the boy’s parents couldn’t stay at the hospital anymore as they had been in close contact. They needed to go home and stay isolated for two weeks. They listened and went home.

Two hours later they received a call from the hospital saying Yu-yeop had died. His death certificate said he had died of “respiratory failure from COVID-19.”

But his parents were not allowed to mourn just yet, as the health authorities decided his body needed to be examined. In the end, they said he wasn’t a coronavirus patient and an autopsy was not necessary, the National Medical Center committee concluded. In spite of all that, Yu-yeop and his family were deprived of a normal funeral.

“The body was in a bag. They said it was Yu-yeop. For all we know it could have been someone else and there would be no way of knowing. We couldn’t see him because of infection concerns. We had no real goodbyes,” his father said. Everyone had to wear face masks, gloves and other protective gear throughout the service.

Included in the medical bill they later received were fees for keeping their son’s body at the hospital for the extra days it took the government officials to conduct exams. They wondered why those costs were their responsibility.

While his son’s death was at the center of the government’s coronavirus briefings at that time, Jung said, the family did not hear a word from any of the officials. “I saw them talk about my son on television, and that was it.

“He wasn’t a coronavirus patient, so the government was not responsible for his death. But from how I see it, my kid was denied a chance for proper treatment because of the coronavirus situation. I can’t stop thinking things didn’t have to be this way,” he said.

“Every day since Yu-yeop died has been like hell for us. No parent should lose his child this way.”

By Kim Arin (