I am always amazed with how K-dramas are able to take almost any mundane relationship and somehow manage to give it depth, emotional gravitas, and heart. You would, of course, expect this to happen with friendships that have lasted entire lifetimes, from childhood on through adulthood. K-dramas certainly have an infatuation with first loves and first friendships, which are endearing, no doubt. But what about us who don’t have friends forever, have moved or have been mobile all our lives, maybe spending just a couple of years in one place?
My own friends from childhood are scattered to the four corners of the world, and serial friends throughout my life have moved on, and I’ll admit I don’t keep up with people from my past as I should. But I do make strong connections where I am, and therefore, where I am determines who my friends are. And this may be sad, but most all my friends are from a couple decades of work and training. There are several K-dramas that speak to those of us who are workaholics in addition to our K-drama addiction. The one that uncannily mirrored my own experiences was Romantic Doctor Teacher Kim.
There’s something about stress that either tears people apart or binds them closer together. In the rundown, understaffed, underfunded, underdog hospital in the middle of nowhere, the Doldam staff of Romantic Doctor Teacher Kim must rely on each other to keep not just their patients alive, but their staff members too. Although our employment may not face life and death situations on a daily basis, sometimes just surviving our day amounts to living another, and if we have those who are enduring the same plight right there with us, how much sweeter would that be?
Here we find Nurse Oh, the nurse manager of the hospital, who lends a sympathetic ear and gives firm advice to her subordinates and newbie physicians. (I surprised you by mentioning her first, didn’t I?) We may have low-key shipped her with the eccentric Teacher Kim (played by the always charismatic Han Seok-kyu), the extremely talented and righteously arrogant lead physician-surgeon there, but it was because she was his best friend, the one who knew his history, supported his decisions, but also put him in his place when needed. And they had great chemistry! But I could also see her as his confidant with a purely platonic connection.
But then you have the new doctors, who are so driven, ambitious, and have no time to foster friendships and take for granted the relationships they do have (Dr. Kang’s mother got to me because I’ve treated my mother the same way). They are immaturely concerned with success, being competent physicians, and competitive to a fault (as there is no way to do this job well if you aren’t at least a little zealous about your work).
Even they are taken into the fold, forced to spend enough time with each other that they must find common ground, and due to the nature of their work, must find ways to trust each other and respect their different skillsets, because it is a matter of morbidity at the least and mortality at the worst. It’s impossible not to feel fondness and consider that these are people you would want to build relationships with when you start to respect them as individuals.
When Do In-bum actually performed that laparoscopic surgery (and it was awesome), I had a completely different view of him as did the rest of the hospital, but he still had a lot of honing of his personality to go, and he was a tough nut to crack—but he does crack, beautifully. (Yang Se-jong, you did well with that delayed but very sincere smile.)
Medicine, and physician training in particular, is grueling, and without a strong support system, nearly impossible to complete. Without emotional pillars, physicians experience burnout, depression, and even suicide, which was sympathetically portrayed by Seo Hyun-jin as Seo-jung. What I liked about this show was that the mentor, Teacher Kim, became one of these pillars for the younger physicians, even as he was scolding and molding these doctors.
I also don’t want to minimize the roles of the nurses, ancillary staff, and administrators in this provincial hospital. From the hospital administrator who lends a helping hand to Dong-joo’s efforts in finding the perfect gift to show his affection to Dr. Yoon, to the medical assistant/big teddy bear/security muscle Mr. Goo whom we saw save the day on several occasions. Then there was young assistant male Nurse Park, the cutie who befriends a mysterious patient who ends up part of our team as well. A mutual respect finally emerges between the young In-bum and Dong-joo, which came together when they had to put aside their pride and were forced to depend on each other solely when there were two concurrent surgeries required.
What made this story so compelling was this ensemble cast. The strong performances of every person made me pull for the underdogs who spent time together outside the hospital as well as inside (and who didn’t feel elated seeing this squad strut into Geodae Hospital to confront corruption at its source?). They eat and drink together, and as any K-drama fan worth their salt will know, that’s where friendships are fostered. Now, you would think that this wouldn’t happen in real life, but it does. For those in the workforce, we spend the most time with our associates, training together, eating lunch together, going to happy hour (if we’re lucky), and even vacation together (if we’re extremely lucky).
This hit home for me personally this weekend, when I was away from my own family and life threw a curveball. Fortuitously, I was with a former work colleague and mentor, who previously trained me (my sunbae!), who understands me better than almost anyone because she’s known me at my worst, most incompetent times and who has seen me at my best, when we were restructuring an entire physician training program. In the present, she dropped what she was doing and met me, cried with me, and held me when I needed someone the most.
Later on, after meeting up with our former fellows (hoobaes!), I saw how important these relationships actually are as one of them remembered the one evening we all spent together several years ago that ended up making such an impact in his life. And another who told me personally that before he even knew what he was going to specialize in, I encouraged him to join my subspecialty, and what I told him made him decide to take me up on that advice. And over beers and Japanese whiskey, we reminisced about those days in our past that shaped where we are now, far away from each other, but still connected.
In the same way, the Doldam squad know each other at their weakest and they see each other at their strongest. They influence each other and break down when they see inequality, then they pick each other up, lending shoulders to cry on, and together face their next tragedy. These experiences connect them, stronger than blood bonds. And over beers and soju, they also reminisce and celebrate these friendships. By the end of the drama, I saw them not just as acquaintances, colleagues, or even friends, but as a family. And while best friends come and go, family is forever.