BIO: My father, Dr. John R. Sibley (1926-2012), was a general surgeon assigned with his wife by the United Presbyterian Church USA to serve as medical missionaries in South Korea (1960-1981). After working at DongSan Hospital in Daegu (1961-1969), he founded and directed the Kojedo Community Health Project (1969-1977). In 1977 he received the Order of Civil Merit, Mog-ryeon Medal from the Office of the President.
During his final years in Korea, he taught community health at Yonsei University Medical College and served as a Consultant in Community Health to the Korean Ministry of Health and Social Affairs.
Note on romanization: The 1970s clinic and medical outreach program which is at the center of this story was called the “Kojedo Community Health Project.” Though it’s now spelled Geojedo, I’ve kept the old spelling for consistency, except in proper names.
When my father was a young American soldier stationed in reconstruction era Japan, he and his sweetheart back home exchanged letters describing their shared dream, “to see the happiness of people who have found, for the first time, perhaps, a doctor who will help them even if they’re poor.”
“My ideas were turned toward medical missionary work way back, long before I could ever judge the idea rationally,” my father wrote to my mother. “The urge behind it… was a desire to feel needed… I’d get very little excitement out of a city doctor’s life… It’s the combination of medicine and being needed that made up my main interest for the idea!”
Fifteen years later my parents arrived in Seoul with their four young children to start living that dream. (See “Of Longing and Belonging” for a description of our life there.) After a year of language training in Seoul, Dad joined the surgical team at the Presbyterian Mission’s DongSan Hospital in Taegu. He was absorbed by the challenge of practicing and developing his skills and by the opportunity to transform people’s lives with facial reconstruction of cleft lips and cleft palates, skin grafting to repair burns, and restoration of smiles and eyebrows to patients deformed by leprosy.
Gradually, my parents became aware that despite the excellence of the medical care delivered by the mission hospital, there were many people in the city – in fact, an entire underclass – who, for lack of funds, had no access to health care. Was there a way, my father wondered, to decrease the cost and deliver health care to a larger segment of the population?
Dad gathered his observations and his new vision in a 1968 paper entitled “Medical Mission Work in Korea Today: A Dilemma and a Proposal,” which he presented to the United Presbyterian Church. The dilemma: “the high and rising cost of medical care and the persistence of a sizeable number of people too poor to afford it.” His proposal: “To launch a pilot study to evaluate the possibility of developing and maintaining a much cheaper grade of medicine for those whose illnesses can be adequately treated by such simplified techniques.”
Sponsored by the Christian Medical Commission of the World Council of Churches, Dad and a team of Korean colleagues moved their families to the remote, rural island of Koje to begin an experiment in health care delivery: the Kojedo Community Health Project.
It’s been a year since my father’s death at age eighty-five. Now my mother, my siblings (older brother Don, younger brother Norman – now called Taz, younger sister Meg, and my Unni, Hyun-Hee, who has been part of our family for years) and I are back in Korea. We’re bringing some of his ashes for memorial services in Daegu and on Kojedo, and reunions are planned with friends, colleagues and extended family.
From the moment I picked up my airport rental phone in In-cheon, I’ve been getting calls from Kim Jung-nam (Nami), a former nurse on the Kojedo Project (far right in the boat in the photo above) and the tireless coordinator of the extraordinary lineup of events and hospitality planned by friends, former colleagues and extended family to welcome us home.
We arrive in Daegu to find that Nami has thought of everything, including booking us in a hotel that’s around the corner from our old neighborhood – DongSan hospital, the former mission compound on the hill, and below it, the site of our former house (now a parking lot).
Fifty years after the fact, I am profoundly grateful to our parents for their decision to get us off the mission compound. We moved from the large, Western-style two-story bungalows of the missionary enclave to a traditional tile-roofed house in a Korean neighborhood at the bottom of the hill. It demonstrated in the most concrete and powerful way our parents’ desire to live and work side-by-side with Koreans, not apart from them. When acquaintances came to visit, they entered a familiar and comfortable space, instead of one where they might be uncertain about how to act and that might have implied a preference for Western ways. (Mom recalls how visitors always managed to get a look at what kind of bathroom facilities we had and how things shifted once they saw our outhouse with the squat toilet.) It led to the deep, authentic, collegial connections that made the collaborative Kojedo Project possible.
It also gave my siblings and me a bone-deep immersion in the physical experience of Korean daily life: slipping out of our rubber shoes as we stepped up into the house from the courtyard, sharing meals while sitting on cushions around a low table, sleeping between padded quilts on heated ondol floors – not to mention night time trips to that outhouse. And it gave us daily access to the sights and sounds of a working-class Korean neighborhood and the people who lived in it.
The wide, dusty street was lined with small tin-roofed shops selling industrial parts, rubber tires, or straw products. Men trudged along, bent under heavy loads mounted on their backs on A-frame jiggae, or rode bicycles piled with impossibly high towers of goods, the “jing-jing” of their bicycle bells warning pedestrians to clear the way. “Yut! Yut Chang-sah!” The taffy seller called out as he pushed his cart along, clanging his scissors together. Buses, hap-sung vans and taxis filled the streets with traffic, noise and the oily scent of diesel, but there were almost no private cars. At ten or eleven, I loved to walk down the block to a tiny one-room beauty parlor where one of the women curled my straight hair with huge irons heated over yun-tan burners. I still recall the acrid tang of the coal in my nostrils, the smell of singed hair.
Forty-four years after last living there, we stroll through neighborhoods now crowded with multiple-story apartment and office buildings, gleaming storefronts and bustling restaurants. But, there are still a few features we remember – the layout of alleyways, a cluster of hanyak stores, a few old churches. And, tiny one-room shops can still be found in the back streets.
After a formal welcome and gifts in DongSan Hospital superintendent’s office and the service in the memorial garden, Nami directs us, like a veteran tour guide keeping her charges on schedule, to view the remaining compound house, which has been converted to a museum about the history of medical missions. It’s the house we lived in for a year before moving into our Korean home, and in 1963, my friend Marilyn Moffett lived there. I got my brother to photograph me in the porch room where I was playing with Marilyn when we heard the news that JFK had been shot. A month later, we sat on the same porch listening for the first time to the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the Armed Forces Korea Network radio.
The surgical department hosts us for a gourmet lunch in a lovely traditional restaurant in which every room features a garden view framed by sliding doors. One of the doctors recalls hearing me sing 1970s Korean pop songs on Kojedo and requests a favorite, “By the Sea.” As I sing the familiar melody and phrases, I feel held in a net of memory.
Nami piles us into the hospital bus for a tour of the beautiful campus of Keimyung University where she directs the College of Nursing. Her curriculum includes an emphasis on community health based on the history and principles of the Kojedo Project.
Next we stop at one of her health outreach programs. The site is Daegu’s version of “the Projects,” a cluster of residential towers built to replace a razed slum. Poor families each get a small subsidized apartment. There we’re moved to find a contemporary urban version of the Kojedo Project: door-to-door public health outreach for the residents, supported by an in-house treatment clinic staffed by nurses.
Two days later we’re in Busan being met by vehicles to escort us to Geojedo, a one-hour trip by a recently constructed highway, tunnel and bridge rather than the more than two hour trip by boat. Due to the gifts we’ve brought, we have twice the luggage we’d normally carry, so the Geoje Baik Hospital has sent their bus. One of the former nurse’s aides, Shin Kum-Ja, is also there in her Hyundai Equus, with a driver.
When I worked on the Kojedo Project in the 1970s (first as secretary-accountant the year after high school, then designing visual aids for health education after college), the nurse aides were my peers and buddies. But there was always the gap in lived reality between the Korean daughters of island villagers and the American daughter of the Project’s doctor-director. I sometimes felt awkward, guilty and set apart because I had the security of my parents’ financial resources and attended an elite American college, an opportunity that the aides couldn’t have imagined for themselves. Now as I ride in Kum-Ja’s luxury sedan, a vehicle that as a self-employed artist I could never imagine owning, there’s a topsy-turvy sense of fortunes reversed and of relief at the closed gap.
Kojedo in the late 1960s – especially the northern township of Ha-chung which issued the invitation to the Project to use it as a demonstration site – was one of the poorest areas of South Korea, a place of fierce beauty and physical challenge. When we arrived in 1969 at the Project site (a 7-acre peninsula), there were no paved roads, no telephones and no electricity. We lived the first summer in tents while constructing clinic buildings, staff homes and dormitories of adobe-like bricks, which were occupied by autumn. Heated floors and heavy quilts kept us toasty while sleeping in winter, but the air was sometimes so cold that water in a glass on my parents’ dresser would freeze overnight.
Forty years later, the island is a poster child for the economic miracle that transformed the nation, boasting Korea’s highest per capita income. The host committee – Baik Hospital, the city of Geoje, and former staff members – puts us up in a gleaming resort hotel on a hillside over a bay, our rooms overlooking one of the shipyards that are the source of much of Kojedo’s current prosperity.
At the memorial service the next afternoon on the Project peninsula, the past and future collide. We’re gathered on top of the hillside where our family’s house once stood, where there’s now a wooden stage and set of bleachers. The groves of bamboo trees are so tall that you can only glimpse the bay through the branches. The group includes local dignitaries, staff members and families, village neighbors, and even a former patient whose life was saved when our lab technician identified his very rare disease and medicine was flown in by helicopter from an U.S. Army base in Japan (that was an exciting day on the Project!).
During the sermon, Nami taps me on the shoulder and points me to a group of MBC cameramen at the back. They need photos of Dad and the Project for their news story. I show them all the old photos I’ve got on my iPad, and we’re strategizing how to find the nearest wireless connection when a young physician pulls out his smart phone and creates a wifi hotspot. There on the hill, where I used to write blue aerogram letters by lantern light, I sort images of our 1970s life by touchscreen and email them to MBC for their evening broadcast.
That night more than fifty of the former staff and their families gather for a Korean banquet at an island restaurant, followed by singing at a noraebang. The entire weekend is a reunion, not just for us, but for all those who no longer live locally. Everyone who could make it is there: the doctors and nurses who’ve traveled from Seoul and Daegu and Busan, the aides, the lab technicians, the Project driver, the carpenter, the custodian, the cook. We still recognize each other’s faces and know each other by name. The connections are deep.
It comes to me that this is Dad’s spirit at work. His vision of affordable health care for all drew people to the Project, and he had a quality of attention that caused each person to recognize that their presence and contribution was essential. It was not an easy undertaking, but everyone who was part of it felt that they were engaged in something significant and meaningful. We all knew that what we did could make a life-or-death difference to an island villager. The challenges, the hardships and the beauty that surrounded us intensified the experience, rendering it vivid and unforgettable. It was the fulfillment of a young soldier’s dream “to see the happiness of people who have found, for the first time, perhaps, a doctor who will help them even if they’re poor.”
Thirty-five years after the Project closed its doors, its legacy is bright in our memories, in our bonds with each other, and in the community health concepts still being taught and practiced in Korea today. What we did there – together – was great and good.