Comforting a couple in need

image of doctor talking to patient

Gastroenterologist Long Nguyen (here with a different patient) was part of a large team of doctors, nurses, and social workers who stood by the mysterious couple.


The couple appeared at Emory Johns Creek Hospital emergency room alone. They spoke no English. Diagnosis of the woman’s condition proved the easiest part of the riddle. Cirrhosis and hepatitis C. Obstructed blood flow to the liver. Poorly functioning kidneys.

But who were these people, this woman in pain, with yellowed eyes and swollen belly, this distraught man? Using the hospital’s translation line, the Korean interpreter was unable to learn very much. The wife, Seo-Yun, had been treated at another hospital but never went back. That was it.

Over the next 18 months, the couple returned 12 times. The devoted husband always slept by his wife’s bed. His wife always encouraged her husband to eat from her tray.

As clinicians led by gastroenterologist Long Nguyen worked on care, social workers led by Catherine Crumrine tried to help with resources. She found that the couple was ineligible for government benefits since their visas had expired. (Perhaps that was why they were so private.) The husband, Joo-Won, spoke of a son—such a good boy, so devoted—but he never called. Was he still in Korea? Estranged? Deceased? Imaginary?

What was real was the care. Dr. Nguyen saw the woman every admission, as did an entourage of cardiologists, nephrologists, hospitalists, and nurses. Seo-Yun was too sick for surgery, but the fluid in her abdomen was drained several times, relieving pressure and pain. The social work team tapped the hospital’s HUGS Fund and the generosity of pharmaceutical companies to get medicine. Concerned nurses pooled their own money to make sure the husband was eating properly.

The two disappeared regularly, then suddenly reappeared, out of nowhere, Joo-Won literally falling to his knees and grasping the hand of the clinician or social worker in gratitude. After Seo-Yun died in the hospice arranged by Crumrine, Joo-Won disappeared for good. What remained was $480,000 dollars in unreimbursed costs—and a sense of satisfaction that the doctors, nurses, and social workers had done all that they could do for this sad and mysterious couple.