The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Death by a salesman and amateurs

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Oct. 2, 2018 - 17:12

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In Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” the protagonist Willy Loman gets abruptly fired from his lifetime job. Frustrated, Willy expects his son Biff to succeed socially and financially. Unfortunately, Biff fails his father, as he neither enters college nor secures a decent job. Ultimately, Willy takes his own life in order to give his son Biff his life insurance policy money. It is a touching story about a frustrated salesman who sacrifices himself for his family in difficult times.

Recently in Korea, the press featured a story that was the opposite of Miller’s play: death “by a salesman.” At a local Korean orthopedics clinic, a medical instruments salesman caused brain damage to a patient while performing a surgery. The patient’s actual doctor, who allowed the salesperson to perform the surgery in his place, made an excuse that he was too busy treating incoming patients and believed the salesman knew quite well that the medical instrument was supposed to be inserted into the patient’s malfunctioning shoulder. The doctor’s greed to make more money and the salesman’s clumsiness cost a man’s precious life.

According to the press, such incidents are not rare because there is a limit to the number of surgeries that a doctor can perform per day and there are so many patients on the waiting list. Rumor has it that medical malpractice can also happen at cosmetic surgery clinics. Interns or inexperienced younger doctors often perform surgeries instead of the celebrated senior doctors who are originally assigned to the patients. The patient comes to the clinic, expecting the famous doctor she has chosen to perform the surgery on her. However, an amateur operates on her instead while she is etherized and therefore does not know what is happening during the surgery.

If you are unlucky, you might fall into the hands of a quack doctor or a medical instrument salesman who wields a sharp scalpel.

As appalling and unnerving as this incident is, it could also be a good lesson for any society or institution where amateurs try to perform surgeries that require the delicate and refined skills of highly trained professionals. If such practices are allowed, the society or institution in question will inevitably end up facing incidents of brain damage or even cerebral death. On an operating table, the scalpel should be in the hands of a professional doctor, not a medical instruments salesman. By the same token, only truly competent professionals can succeed in social reforms because they are not an easy thing to do and require expertise and experience.

I have a friend who is a well-known, eminent medical doctor who retired from Seoul National University Hospital some time ago. He used to tell me, “Seniority still counts in the medical business, you know. The gap between experienced, skillful senior doctors and inexperienced junior doctors is huge. A young intern can never excel or outsmart a dexterous older doctor.” Obviously, he meant no offense to young doctors. He just wanted to point out the importance of experience and professional skills in the medical profession.

The same thing goes for other spheres of our lives such as education, diplomacy, finance and politics. Just as a surgeon who performs a surgery clumsily or without anesthetics is liable to inflict greater pain on the patient, so too can we say that amateurs who attempt to perform surgery on the vital organs of our nation are destined to fail. In order to get the job done, we need highly skilled professionals.

The same thing may go for the leaders of nations. A leader should be an expert and professional in his field, and should know where he is going. As John C. Maxwell said, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” When asked about the difference between a leader and a boss, Theodore Roosevelt answered, “The leader leads and the boss drives.” Also, a leader should have the ability to recognize able men and appoint them to appropriate positions in which they can maximize their potential. That is why Ralph Nader said, “The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”

We often confuse leadership with authoritarianism. But US President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “You don’t lead by hitting people over the head -- that’s assault, not leadership.” We should also keep it in mind what Simon Sinek said, “Leadership is not about the next election, it’s about the next generation.” Unfortunately, not all leaders are competent and qualified. Look around the world: We can find some amateurish leaders who are unpredictable and inept, and others who do not seem to know where they are going and therfore are leading their nation in the wrong direction. Needless to say, the outcome is disastrous.

If we have to undergo surgery, we want to be operated on by a skilled medical doctor, not by a medical instruments salesman who may cause brain death. 

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of Malaga in Spain. He can be reached at -- Ed.