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A Medical Miracle: How a Colorado spinal surgeon ended up in the OR

dr. woosik chung
Posted at 6:53 PM, Nov 05, 2021

DENVER, Colo. — People rely on hospitals to help them when they need medical attention. Some of those hospitals are the very reason some of the best doctors get into the medical profession.

That is the case for Dr. Woosik Chung, who is the director of Spine Surgery at Presbyterian St. Luke's Medical Center in Denver, Colorado.

One of the newest spaces within their facility is the smartOR. It's where Dr. Chung does all of his spinal surgeries.

He's the brains behind incorporating some of the newest technologies within this space. However, he didn’t get to where he is by accident.

“Growing up with a dad that was a surgeon and a mom that was an OR nurse, you know, you kind of take it for granted, unfortunately," Dr. Chung said.

His story starts when he was about three years old and it was a celebratory holiday in South Korea.

“I remember I was playing with my friends. I believe we were playing hide-and-seek. I remember hiding behind a tractor and I remember the engine cover was open or it wasn’t there, and there was the propeller spinning and the fan belt around that propeller. I remember I was sitting on my tricycle and I was hiding and nobody could come and find me and I got bored and I saw the propeller moving around and I thought I could stop it," Dr. Chung said.

He severed both of his hands. Both were a clean cut.

“The next thing I remember— my dad is holding me and compressing my arms and I heard my mom say, 'I found them,' and she was referring to my limbs," Dr. Chung said.

They lived right near the hospital. His father had to step in as many doctors weren't working because it was a holiday.

“Luckily, thanks to my parents, my dad and the powers that be, I healed up and I was able to start using my hands again and I think it took me a long time to understand the significance of that," Dr. Chung said.

What could have turned into a tragic story, instead, was the beginning of a remarkable career.

“I was curious about the OR, I was curious about what my dad did because I knew that he had done my hand surgery and so I think it made me want to go to his hospital more when we were living in Malawi and check out what he was doing," Dr. Chung said. “He was as busy as ever so the only times I really saw him were if I visited him at the hospital and then I’d run around with him as he was making his rounds and then I’d kind of look in as he was operating outside of the OR.”

Those times of exploration, combined with his curiosity, gave him purpose to join the medical field.

“Wow, this is pretty unique and it’s an opportunity that doesn’t come by that often and so maybe the best thing to do is to try and use my hands to help somebody else," Dr. Chung said.

That’s exactly what he does now. Day-in and day-out, using his own hands, to change others' lives at this hospital. His outcome, is not the norm. Limb reattachment is far from a guarantee.

“I would still say it’s a rarity. And I would say this only happens in unique circumstances. And I think In my case, thank goodness I was a young kid, thank goodness the injury itself is what we call a clean cut, and thank goodness my father was able to take care of me so quickly right after the injury," Dr. Chung said.

People would never know Dr. Chung's story by looking at him but knowing it, makes people appreciate him as the doctor and surgeon he is.

“Get to know your doctor. Get to know your nurse. Get to know the people that want to take care of you because we want to be able to take care of you, we want to help," Dr. Chung said. “Helping others, and do whatever you can, even if all the odds are against you, and as long as you look at that goal and you work towards it as hard as you can, well sometimes amazing things can happen.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story had "ER" in the headline, when it should have been "OR."