By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
It was Christmas Day.
“The Taliban likes to attack on holidays,” said Dr. Joon K. Shim, who arrived at Bassett Hospital Jan. 26 as a surgeon, as well as program director of the Columbia-Bassett Residency, training young doctors.
She heard “a huge ‘kaboom’” – a mortar attack. “I was on the floor with my face to the ground. I thought I would die that day,” said the physician, who was serving one of three deployments in Afghanistan.
But duty called in the form of an injured soldier, and she was soon back at the operating table.
“He held my hand and said, ‘Dr. Shim, I want to live’,” she remembered. Later, he had the opportunity to tell her, “Thank you for saving my life.”
She’s not the only Bassett physician to experience war. Dr. Shelby Cooper, a Navy lieutenant commander, was deployed to Afghanistan. So was the hospital’s president, Dr. Bill LeCates, who also serves as state surgeon for the New York State National Guard.
Still, on active duty for three deployments, in 2011, 2012 and 2013, Dr. Shim’s story, as she told it in a recent interview, is like an action thriller, beginning when – a recent Bryn Mawr, magna cum laude philosophy major – 9/11 happened.
“It put an imprint on my heart,” she says today. That day, 20 years ago this September, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center determined her vocation.
She joined the Army, and enrolled in the George Washington School of Medicine, completing a master’s in public health as well as her medical degree. She completed residencies in surgery at UMass in minimally invasive and – what will be a specialty here at Bassett – bariatric surgery at Brown.
In 2011, she was briefly attached to the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Ky., when her orders arrived, and a few days later she was “a woman from New Jersey flying in a helicopter” over Afghanistan’s rough terrain.
With the thin air at 10,000 feet, “I was physically exhausted.”
She was greeted by an E4: “Dr. Shim, we’re being attacked. You also have patients waiting for you.”
Dr. Shim found herself treating not just U.S. soldiers, but Taliban and “Afghan kids who picked up an I.E.D.,” and assembling “female engagement teams” – Afghan women were forbidden from talking to men, much less getting treated by male doctors.
“It’s like the 1800s there,” she said.
What followed were full days, like “M*A*S*H” – “‘M*A*S*H’, Hollywood-ized. I got through the deployment with humor,” she said, often working in the heat with “shorts under my surgical gown,” her boots on, her gun at hand.
What she remembers most fondly are the relationships she developed. For instance, parties with other women soldiers where the main activity was applying nail polish.
Still, “it was not all wins,” she said, pausing as she reflected on the soldiers who passed away.
Dr. Shim can say, “These were the best times of my life.” Stateside, “for whatever reason, we lost our community. In the military, we built community.”
She was awarded the Army’s Meritorious Service Medal.
The new Bassett surgeon and administrator was born in South Korea. Her family emigrated to Edgewater, N.J., when she was 6.
When she was 10 and her dad 43, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 stomach cancer. Normally, children weren’t allowed to visit patients in their final stages; but, with the end near, the hospital made an exception.
“Seeing my dad suffer,” she said, “both my brother and I decided to do medicine.”
Her brother, Hoon Shim, today is an anesthesiologist at the Stony Brook’s Renaissance School of Medicine.
Her mother, Yung Shim, opened a restaurant in New York City, Lite Delights, featuring vegetarian food, salads – “like Stagecoach,” the daughter said.
Watching her mother work seven days a week, “I was always a hard worker,” Dr. Shim said. Neither Joon or Hoon were closely overseen as they grew up. “My mom trusted us.”
Back in The States, she joined Wright State University School of Medicine in Ohio, active in the surgical residency training program, as well as bariatric surgery (for the obese), preparing her for what she does here.
In 2016, she met her future husband, Jonathan Pincus, on a hiking trip in the Pacific Northwest. An artist, he is teaching drawing at SUNY Oneonta.
At 43, Dr. Shim wanted to be a program director, which brought her to Bassett, where she directs not just the Columbia-Bassett residencies – “the first female director” – but the Trauma Program
Her experiences so far, particularly her three Afghan deployments, left her patriotic, in love with her adopted country, and appreciative.
“I lost myself,” she said of the transformation during her military service. “I was giving, and giving, and giving. It was a beautiful, reflective time for me.”