Saranghae, Frontliner: K-drama Medical Characters We Love
Medical dramas are a shared fascination among different cultures, countries, and generations. Consider this: Casualty, the longest-running medical drama in the world, is from the UK and has been airing since1986; the longest-running medical soap opera from the United States, General Hospital, has been on since 1963; and the longest-running prime-time medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy, has just been signed on for its 18th season.
There’s been a lot written trying to analyze this collective behavior. The theories point to voyeurism, the fascination with our own fragility as humans, and just downright desire for good stories. But for this article, we’d like to speculate why medical k-dramas are just so easy to love.
#1 We can live vicariously.
It’s a petri dish of human emotions. Nobody goes to a hospital unless they’re feeling intense emotions. Lives hang in the balance. On one end of the spectrum are babies being born healthy and happy, and on the other end are people dying from accidents and diseases. This microcosm of the range of human emotions allows us to explore the depths of the human experience and safely detach ourselves from them within the space of an episode. And it doesn’t hurt that those putting us through the wringer have flawless skin and no eye-bags (despite claims of no sleep!).
#2 We like seeing people transcend.
Crises bring out our truest selves. Many people think that crises (like this current pandemic) bring out the best and worst in people. However, closer reflection shows us that crises don't make instant heroes or villains out of people; they just magnify what was already there. Medical k-dramas are able to highlight the character growth in medical practitioners as we see them overcome one hurdle after another.
We are especially fond of mentorship arcs: those dynamics that involve a younger doctor (usually idealistic or intensely egoistic) who is taught—and usually humbled by—a more senior doctor. He or she eventually learns what it really means to be a doctor and a human, and often learns this the hard and humiliating way. Those of us who have been lucky enough to meet our mentors at work or at school can totally relate because we, too, understand how it is to be challenged, to change, and to grow under their tutelage and care (even if they were difficult sometimes).
#3 Everyone wanted to be a doctor at some point.
Doctors are fascinating people to someone from the “outside.” Typical Asian families hold doctors in high esteem. The reason should be obvious to all. It takes years of rigorous study, incredible amounts of emotional and psychological maturity, and seemingly endless hours of on-the-job training for one to become a doctor. So it’s no wonder that we find satisfaction in even a fictional portrayal of them falling in love, making mistakes, having fun, (did I already mention falling in love?), and generally being human… like the rest of us.
#4 It's free education!
Yes, it's true. Medical dramas have been used as a legitimate teaching and learning tool for real medical students, especially for those looking to improve their bedside manner and other “performative” aspects of being a doctor. They’re also a valuable visioning tool for those of us who fancy being a doctor someday. Or if that chance has passed, medical dramas allow us to step into the fascinating minds of the cardiologists and surgeons we would have been if things were just different (or if we had more money). But while they’re a valuable pedagogical tool, it’s still a caveat emptor scenario and not everything we see on medical dramas is going to be completely accurate. As TV critics often say, when a show has to choose between entertainment value and medical accuracy, entertainment value always wins.
#5 We have a good excuse to cry.
Probably because the pandemic also has deeply aggravated us and put us through a maelstrom of powerful emotions that we did not know how to process, medical dramas—like all good dramas—offer much-needed catharsis, especially if we, too, had a loved one who had to undergo a difficult medical experience.
Below we put a spotlight our favorite k-drama characters who are part of the medical profession and why we love them:
Disclaimer: As we are not medical practitioners ourselves, we have no idea if these characters follow accepted professional standards. Also, if you’re wondering why the main cast of Hospital Playlist isn’t included, it’s because we have a whole article about them here.
Doctor Kim Sa-bu of Dr. Romantic 1 (2016-‘17) & 2 (2020)
Nicknamed the “Hand of God” because of his preternatural surgical skills, Boo Young-joo
(Han Suk-kyu) was a triple board-certified doctor at the top of his game in one of the largest hospitals in Seoul—until tragedy struck. Traumatized and unable to recover fast enough, Young-joo left the high life and the messy hospital politics in favor of a quieter and more hermit-like life. These days, he continues to save lives under a different name (Kim Sa-bu) in an unremarkable hospital in the middle of nowhere. But despite Doldam Hospital’s humble setup, Kim Sa-bu is able to lead his small team and finds himself mentoring and sharing his hard-won wisdom to other promising doctors whose fates are similar to his own.
Doctor Cha Yo-han of Doctor John (2019)
After serving a prison sentence for illegally euthanizing a terminally ill patient, brilliant anesthesiologist Doctor Cha Yo-han (Ji Sung) returns to medical practice as a professor and head of the Pain Management Clinic at Seoul Hanse Medical Center. There, young doctors have been trained to focus on symptoms and to keep their patients at arm’s length. Empathetic and driven to find the root cause of his patients’ pain in order to diagnose and treat them correctly, Dr. John imparts valuable wisdom with his students: “To understand a person’s pain is to understand that person.”
Nurse Kim Myeong-hee of Youth of May (2021)
A nurse in 1980s Gwangju, Kim Myeong-hee (Go Min-si) plans to study medicine in Germany on a scholarship. She is such a seasoned nurse that even on her way to a blind date, she saves a child in a road accident as if it were as natural as breathing. Most expect nurses to be naturally selfless, and her care for others goes beyond the medical realm: she provides for her family despite being angry with her father. Seeing a patient sexually harass a junior nurse, the “cheeky” nurse stands up to the rude patient and the hospital VP who turns a blind eye. She helps Hwang Hee-tae (Lee Do-hyun), a top medical student, deal with his trauma when treating patients at death’s doorstep. She is a true pillar of strength to those around her.
Physical Therapist Wo Bo-young from A Poem A Day (2018)
Woo Bo-young (Lee Yu-bi) is training to be a physical therapist. However, she’d much rather have been a poet, so when she’s at work she often has her head in the clouds. Sooner or later, she realizes that she does enjoy helping her patients heal from their physical injuries and sometimes, emotionally traumatic experiences. With an interesting (not to mention good-looking) bunch of co-workers, she soon finds her place and realizes that there is poetry, too, in the day-to-day movement of life.
Special Rescue Officer Kang San-hyeok from Forest (2020)
Kang San-hyeok (Park Hae-jin) is a businessman with a 100% success rate at developing successful ventures because of his tenacity and sly wit. When a business venture to develop a mountain village into a resort goes awry because of unknown reasons, he decides to investigate—by taking firefighting lessons, passing the civil service exam (with minimal effort!), and becoming a member of the 119 Special Rescue Team based in Miryeong Forest. Doing undercover work as a Rescue Officer, he gets to experience treating wounded patients, rescuing patients in the mountains, caring for a community, and even falling in love. Along the way, he soon realizes that his traumatic past is the starting point of a mysterious illness that has slowly gone unnoticed by the villagers. While Kang San-hyeok's shamelessness and competitive nature gets him misunderstood, his warm heart and sense of responsibility show themselves like sunshine breaking through tree branches.
Forensic Doctor Baek Beom from Partners for Justice (2018)
Baek Beom (Jung Jae-young) can be brash, difficult, and arrogant. But that’s alright, because his skills as a forensic doctor are unparalleled at South Korea’s National Forensic Service. A traumatic incident rendered him unable to continue working as a surgeon, and forensic science gave him a way to still use his talents for good. His methods may be unorthodox, and his autopsies might take longer than usual, but he finds answers others wouldn’t have. In Partners for Justice, he and toxicologist Stella Hwang (Stephanie Lee) work with rookie prosecutor Eun Sol (Jung Yoo-Mi) to solve cases, teaching her to never let her assumptions cloud her judgment.
Volunteer Doctors from Hospital Ship (2017)
On board a hospital ship that sails to remote islands around South Korea is a group of talented young doctors: Surgeon Song Eun-jae (Ha Ji-won) could have been the head of a large hospital in Seoul, but the death of her mother leads her to join the ship. Kwak Hyun (Kang Min-hyuk) is the son of a famous surgeon and humanitarian, and he volunteers to serve on the ship for his military service. Kim Jae-geol (Lee Seo-won) also comes from a medical family, but issues with his dad led him to study oriental medicine and join the ship’s crew as a form of rebellion. They argue and bicker, but together, they bring much-needed medical care to local residents.
Joseon Physician Mo-wha from Rookie Historian (2020)
Her face often hidden from view, Mo-wha (Jeon Ik-ryeong) is a mysterious character whose true identity is only known by a handful of people in the Royal Court. Some of them are working hard to protect her while others are desperate to find her and silence her---all because of vital information she holds that could destroy the reigning King’s Ministers. She is initially depicted as a skilled archer, and fighter but is later revealed to be among the few survivors of the tragic events at Seoraewon Academy, where promising young men and women were taught Western medical practices. Yes, Mo-wha is a trained physician, and one who is able to save villagers from a smallpox pandemic by using methods she learned as a student at Seoraewon. The unconventional technique she employs even saves Crown Prince Dowon, and puts a wrench in the plans of the story’s main villains.
END OF SPOILER
Here's to medical frontliners in real life and in k-dramaland who help us heal in body, mind, and spirit.
If you enjoyed this article, you may want to read our other Saranghae Series articles: