South Korean traditional medicine doctor receives a top honor

Yang Meiping
Wonsook Hong has been helping Korean expats and promoting closer ties between Chinese and Korean medical practitioners. 
Yang Meiping
South Korean traditional medicine doctor receives a top honor
Dong Jun / SHINE

Shanghai Mayor Gong Zheng (right) presents the medal and certificate of Magnolia Gold Award to Wonsook Hong.

Wonsook Hong, the first South Korean to get a traditional Chinese medicine license in Shanghai, has received another honor – the city’s Magnolia Gold Award for contributions to the city in the past 27 years.

Hong had planned to be a teacher and studied family education at Dongguk University in South Korea. But she decided to study traditional Chinese medicine after graduation because several relatives were suffering from rare diseases that Western medicine wasn’t able to cure.

Hong came to Shanghai in September 1993 to study at the Shanghai University for Traditional Chinese Medicine. Her ill relatives accompanied her, and their health conditions stabilized in a year after being treated by traditional Chinese doctors.

“I thought I would go back home after earning a bachelor’s degree, but then I decided to stay and do master’s and doctoral studies,” she said.

In 2002, China began to accept foreigners in the exam to qualify as traditional medicine practitioners. Hong was among the first group of foreigners to take the exam and the first South Korean to get a license.

Since then, she has been working as a physician specialized in internal medicine in local traditional medicine hospitals, including Shuguang, Yueyang and now the Minhang TCM Hospital.

Linguistically, she can treat both Chinese and Korean patients.

Hong said she was once invited by the Korean Chamber of Commerce to deliver a speech to expatriate South Koreans on coping with health problems and then asked to join a group to help South Koreans in Shanghai.

“I said I was a doctor and had nothing to do with business, but they told me that some South Koreans don’t speak Chinese well and they didn’t know how to handle emergencies, such as traffic accidents or medical emergencies in a foreign environment,” she said. “They even don’t know which hospital they should go when diseases strike. So I agreed to join.”

Knowing Hong is working at the Minhang TCM Hospital, some Korean patients visit the hospital even though it may not specialize in their health problems.

Hong recalled that one patient needed to have a pacemaker installed, which could not be done in her hospital.

“But she didn’t know which hospital she should go, so she came to me and I helped her transfer to the right hospital,” she said.

Hong is also active in promoting exchanges between Shanghai and South Korea in the field of medicine.

She said, modern Chinese traditional medicine has developed better than its Korean counterpart, partly because the Chinese have been more willing to embrace some of the advanced technologies of Western medicine.

“My teacher Ma Guitong told me we should not treat Chinese medicine and Western medicine as two separate entities,” she said. “Instead, we should use all the tools we have at our disposal to help our patients.”

South Korean traditional medicine doctor receives a top honor
Ti Gong

Wonsook Hong talks with a patient at the Minhang TCM Hospital.

She said she would like to promote traditional Chinese medicine in South Korea so that Korean patients don’t need to come to Shanghai for treatment as her relatives did.

With her efforts, 16 delegations of representatives from Korean health care authorities, universities, medical and media organizations have visited the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine and its affiliated hospitals since 2008. Some 150 Korean medical personnel have come to Shanghai to receive training in traditional medicine.

In 2011, the Busan University Affiliated Hospital set up an integrated medicine center, bringing Chinese medicine to South Korea. Two years ago, Busan University signed a memorandum of understanding for cooperation with Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Hong said she now spends most of her time in Shanghai and returns to South Korean only on holidays to visit her mother and other family members.

This year, she was stuck in South Korean due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

She bought 6,000 masks and donated them to the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

“I have been living in Shanghai for 27 years, longer than the time l have lived in South Korea, so Shanghai is my second home,” she said. “China has overcome a lot of challenges in its long history. Hats off to all the Chinese medical staff and Chinese people for their efforts in fighting coronavirus.”

She also helped the expat community of South Koreans in Shanghai by sharing coronavirus prevention information and providing consultation services. No South Korean who stayed in Shanghai during the height of the pandemic contracted the disease.

Hong was also in Shanghai during the outbreaks of SARS in 2003 and the H7N9 bird flu in 2009.

“During the SARS epidemic, many foreigners returned to their home countries, and I asked my mother whether I return, too,” she said. “My mother told me that I should stay because I am a doctor. So I stayed. Learning from the experiences of SARS and H7N9, Shanghai established an efficient team and mechanisms to handle coronavirus.”

Hong said she loves Shanghai because it is an inclusive city where foreigners are welcomed.

“When I first came, I was actually a little bit afraid of living in an unfamiliar city,” she said. “But I adapted very soon. The people in the city are friendly and open. Now I feel a bit out-of-touch with life in South Korea every time I return, and when my flight touches ground in Shanghai again, I feel I am home.”

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