Cancer slows down surgeon's dream to build eco-village on Jeju

Asia's Tech News Daily

Cancer slows down surgeon's dream to build eco-village on Jeju

Surgeon Hong Seung-jig poses in front of a tree native to Jeju Island, called the “dampatsu” in Korean (Elaeocarpos sylvestirs var. ellipticus), which he had planted three decades ago to commemorate his arrival on the island. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Hong Seung-jig’s clinic on his scenic farmland welcomes patients

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Jeju Island — Lee Ok-soon and her husband on Monday visited a small clinic run by surgeon Hong Seung-jig seemingly in the middle of nowhere in Jeju’s lush green western town of Aewol-eup.

After fracturing her forefoot while gardening in the front yard of her home on the other side of the town, Lee said that she was worried about the possible impact of the injury on her health.

The 68-year-old patient heaved a sigh of relief after hearing from Dr. Hong that the minor injury wouldn’t develop into a serious health threat.

“People of my age get nervous when they fracture something, even if it is a small, minor one, because we know very well about its potential to have a serious impact on our health,” she said. “So, before coming here, I was a little bit concerned.”

After being treated, she and her husband sat down with the surgeon in a living room of the clinic and chatted over green tea and sweat potatoes that the couple had brought from their home. “Try some. They’re still warm because she wrapped them before bringing them here,” her husband told this reporter.

Patients having a chat with the surgeon while sipping tea and eating a snack is a common scene at the clinic.

The atmosphere there is warm and cozy, reminding one of a family gathering or a social outing with close friends, rather than a doctor-patient meeting.

“There’s no hospital on Earth like this,” Lee said. “The location makes this clinic unique in that it stands alone in the middle of a lush green tea farm. Dr. Hong and his patients share food and stories after they’re done getting treated. Unlike other doctors, he’s approachable and like a neighbor. I’ve never seen a doctor like him before in my life.”

Hong’s clinic is located on his scenic farmland.

The surgeon, 64, created the farmland from scratch through his hard work since he arrived on Jeju three decades ago after being accepted as a surgeon in a local hospital.

He was relocated to the village three years ago from an urban part of the island.

After relocating, his first patient was a farmer who arrived at the clinic on a cultivator. His patients are mostly tourists and some local residents who have minor cuts, lipomas, sores and lumps also visit his clinic. Hong performs surgery, if necessary.

Asked if its remote location hinders patients from visiting his clinic, Hong flatly denies it. “These days patients search for doctors on the internet, and location is not as significant as it was in the past. People will drive all the way to see me at this clinic for treatment. They seek reputable doctors that have expertise in their areas of health issues,” he said during a guided tour of his clinic and surrounding farm. “This trend benefits local doctors like me.”

Cancer slows down surgeon's dream to build eco-village on Jeju

Holding fresh eggs in his hands, Hong Seung-jig exits a chicken coop on his farm in Aewol, a town in the rustic, western part of Jeju. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Hong is a well-known doctor on Jeju Island, partly because of his previous service as the president of the Jeju Medical Center. From time to time, he has had media exposure, owing to his energetic engagement with the islanders and Jeju’s residents of foreign nationality as a community leader who founded a local NGO to assist migrant workers, foreign national women married to Korean nationals and undocumented immigrants via translation and other necessary services to help them settle in.

Those who accidentally come across Hong’s farmland would be surprised to know there’s a clinic on the premises.

It’s a clinic with a view. Decorated with various flowers and herbs surrounding the brick, single-story, house-like building, the clinic looks like just another home.

Hong himself built the clinic after renovating an old warehouse.

Unlike clinics in urban areas, Hong’s clinic has no sign.

Observant visitors will discover a small wooden sign set up at the entrance of the one-way road that leads visitors to the front door of the clinic. The worn-out sign has three indications on it: “Hong’s Clinic,” “eco-village” and “culture center.” Sitting low on the ground, the sign is too small to be easily spotted by passersby.

In front of his clinic, a green tea farm unfolds. He has put a lot of energy into preparing the farmland and its surroundings in order to use it as a base for an eco-village he has been dreaming of living in for a long time.

Born and raised in Geochang, South Gyeongsang Province, until he graduated from elementary school, Hong had longed to live on farmland. His dream came true in 1990 when he was 35. After completing his military duty as a paramedic, he was hired by a Jeju-based hospital that was looking for a surgeon.

Back then, medical infrastructure on the southern resort island was poor and there was a shortage of doctors. As a surgeon, he had to be versatile, covering several different departments.

Despite several unspecified inconveniences as a local doctor, he said that he had no regrets about his decision to come down to the island, because there are many advantages to living there. “Near this farm, there’s a beach. In the summer, I go down to the beach during lunchtime, swim there and return to the clinic to see my patients in the afternoon. Advantages like this are unthinkable for doctors in urban areas,” he said.

Cancer slows down surgeon's dream to build eco-village on Jeju

Hong Seung-jig poses next to tree stumps on which he grows mushrooms. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Pointing to the hens and roosters inside the chicken coop on his farmland, he said, raising them and collecting fresh eggs in the morning is another source of joy for him.

After arriving on Jeju Island, Hong purchased a 33,000-square-meter tract of land in the rustic town from a local farmer and grew various crops, vegetables and trees during his spare time.

Juggling two jobs ― surgeon and farmer ― required him to be diligent. He works from dawn to dusk.

Waking up at 5 a.m. every morning, he would work on his farm before he went to the hospital, which was back then in Jeju City. After work, he drove back all the way to his farm to take care of farm chores. His scenic farm is the result of these decades of hard work during his spare time.

He began to grow green tea plants 15 years ago. “The average lifespan of a green tea plant is 50 years. I thought having a green tea farm here would help a lot in creating a scenic view here,” he said.

In other parts of his farm, green peppers, purple potatoes, and various other vegetables are growing. Mushrooms grow on tree stumps near the chicken coop.

His scenic farm is an embryonic version of his life-long goal of creating an eco-village.

Asked what an eco-village is for, he replied that it’s a sort of small community where like-minded people live together and lead a self-sufficient life along with locally-sourced vegetables and crops.

Hong said that about a tenth of his plan to build a self-sufficient village has been completed, while the remaining 90 percent of the work is as yet unfulfilled.

Cancer slows down surgeon's dream to build eco-village on Jeju

Hong Seung-jig stands in the middle of his green tea farm. Seen behind him is a former warehouse the surgeon renovated years ago to serve as his clinic. It opened to patients three years ago, after his hospital moved to Aewol from Jeju City. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

His endeavor to create a self-sufficient community has met an unprecedented challenge. In 2015, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He happened to find out that he had cancer in his stomach during a CT scan he received after a severe traffic accident that year. He underwent surgery to remove the cancer cells and then chemotherapy.

Cancer struck again years later, and this time, the cancer cells spread to his other organs, including to his bones.

“I take medicine but it doesn’t work well,” he said. “My health condition is serious. As you can see, parts of my face and hands are paralyzed.”

Asked if he could share his thoughts about his switch from being a surgeon treating patients to being a patient who is being treated by other doctors, the soft-spoken man became emotional.

“Of course. As a cancer patient, I realized how unkind doctors are and very few of them were trying to understand how their patients actually feel,” he said.

Cancer slows down surgeon's dream to build eco-village on Jeju

Hong Seung-jig poses in an operating room in his clinic. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Touching a tree native to the island, called the “dampatsu” in Korean (Elaeocarpos sylvestirs var. ellipticus), which he had planted three decades ago to commemorate his arrival there, he joked about his health with a gloomy smile. “This is a nice photo zone,” he said. “People used to say that I was pretty handsome. But now I feel that my beauty has all but disappeared after my illness. There are so many things that I wanted to achieve during my life. But I have achieved only a tenth of them.”

He took off his knitted hat to show another sign of his declining health: hair loss.

“The other day, I was saying to my patients that I am the one in the most serious health condition among my patients here,” he said.

Hong wears many hats. Besides seeing his doctors at the clinic and farm work during his spare time, he has been active in raising awareness of environmental issues as an educator.

He previously served as the Jeju chapter leader of the non-profit environmental group, the Korea Federation for Environmental Movements, for 10 years. In public lectures, he tried to raise people’s awareness about the deleterious impacts of golf courses on the drinking water of Jeju, as well as educating the islanders. Together with other environmentalists, he put pressure on local politicians to adopt a set of measures to protect water quality. According to him, pesticides that are used on the grass of golf courses contaminate the ground water, which consequently poses a grave threat to the safety of the drinking water on the island.

Hong said that his campaign calling for the abolition of golf courses on the island was not successful, mainly due to local politicians’ lukewarm support for the initiative.

After leaving the environmental group, Hong turned his attention to the rights of migrant workers, foreign national women married to Korean nationals and undocumented immigrants, as the number of residents of foreign nationality on the island has increased. Currently, there are approximately 30,000 foreign national residents there.

In 2018, when the island faced a fresh challenge regarding people seeking asylum after the arrival of some 500 Yemenis within the first six months of the year, Hong established a center to help people seeking asylum. He himself hired a Yemeni refugee to work on his farm.

“The islanders were initially worried about them, but now Yemenis are the most preferred workers of foreign nationality. The language barrier was and still is a problem, but some of them speak English, so basic communication can be managed,” he said.

Noting that many Yemenis left the island after being granted with asylum by the immigration authorities, the remaining Yemenis are employed in sectors that are grappling with labor shortages.

Asked if he has a dream that he hopes will come true, he said that, at the moment, surviving cancer until next year is his only wish.

Cancer slows down surgeon's dream to build eco-village on Jeju

Hong Seung-jig poses in an operating room in his clinic. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

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