Military under fire after soldier's late treatment leaves him in coma

SOUTH KOREA - The military has come under mounting criticism once again for failing to appropriately care for an enlisted soldier.

Corporal Kim Yoo-seung, who was stationed at an armored brigade in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, was transferred to a civilian hospital last Monday after belatedly finding out that he was suffering from scrub typhus, a mite-borne infectious disease that can potentially lead to death.

Kim first visited his army surgeon, who treated him only with medicine for stomachache and diarrhoea, early this month. The 21-year-old corporal then had high fever, but was unable to get proper treatment at his base as its doctor was on holiday.

The doctor returned and raised the possibility that Kim may have scrub typhus, ordering an immediate transfer of Kim to a military hospital where he was confirmed to have the disease, but again was unable to treat him.

He was then moved to Asan Medical Center after the army asked Kim's family which hospital the family would want Kim to be treated. The army did not fully inform them of Kim's situation, only saying that his health condition was critical, according to Kim's family.

Kim's family said that the army called and left the responsibility up to the family to decide where he should be treated.

Kim is currently still in a coma, according to his family, relying on a respirator for breathing with liver and intestinal dysfunction.

"He has overcome a life-threatening situation, but is still in an unconscious state," Kim's mother told The Korea Herald.

Kim's health has slightly improved; he woke up briefly on Thursday morning, but his reliance on a respirator may continue at least until this weekend, said the brigade's quartermaster who has been at the hospital with the family.

However, an officer with ROK Fifth Corps, which commands the armored brigade, claimed that Kim was recovering, and breathing and communicating normally.

"The disease will not affect his life," the officer told The Korea Herald.

A military spokesman said that it will watch over the corporal to make sure he fully recovers.

Kim's doctor at Asan Medical Center could not be reached for comment. Asan said that it cannot disclose any of its patients' personal health information to third parties including the media as part of its privacy protection policy.

The military has continuously been criticised for maintaining an out-of-date health-care system for its soldiers.

A number of soldiers have died due to the lack of proper medical infrastructure and doctors at military bases, said the Center for Military Human Rights.

"Military surgeons, as most commonly known, are people who had no proper experience as they are people who just graduated or took a temporary leave of absence from medical schools," a Center official said.

"The military also has a lack of understanding of what a medical emergency is."

Military surgeons are often referred to as "Dolpalri," or ignorant practitioners in English, as they are known for not having the proper skills to treat soldiers, instead making them worse by giving them inappropriate medicine.

A soldier who had leukemia died while being constantly transferred to hospitals without treatment. Another soldier died last July after falling ill during a march, a few days after the Ministry of Defence announced plans for medical system improvement.

There are no official statistics to show the number of deaths due to the poor military medical system, said the Center.

The Center plans to draw one up after it requests documents from the National Assembly's Defence Committee, which can demand the Ministry of Defence or the Joint Chiefs of Staff to hand over documents and files regarding the matter.

The Defence Committee also said that it does not hold any statistical data on soldiers' fatality rate on weak military health system.

The defence agency rarely discloses any documents directly to private organisations due to national security, the official noted.

The defence ministry announced in July that it will improve its military health-care system for 2012-2016 by boosting preventive measures, accessibility to treatment centers, networks with civilian hospitals and increasing the number of doctors.

The agency plans to increase spending in 2013 -- 3.1 billion won (S$3.5 million) from 1 billion won in 2012 to increase the number of doctors to 158 from 48. It will allocate 2.2 billion won from 800 million in 2012 to expand regular health checkups at all military bases nationwide.

However, observers said the problem will continue to exist as long as the army views soldiers not as human beings but as some sort of equipment for operations, which is attributable to accidents and deaths in the army.

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