On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Kyung-Hee Choi was sitting in her Wall Street office when a jetliner zipped past her window. Seconds later, it hit the World Trade Center. "I felt I could open the window and touch the airplane," says Choi, who was a managing director at J.P. Morgan at the time. "That was a life-changing event for me."
Soon after, she left her job and committed herself to volunteering for the region's Korean-American community. The former Pascack Valley Hospital in Westwood, N.J., snapped her up to serve on its board, and she drew up a business plan for culturally sensitive health outreach to the half-million Koreans in the area.
"We had so many Korean-American people in Bergen County (N.J.)," Choi explains. "Most of them are first-generation immigrants who don't speak the language that well, so the cultural barriers are pretty big."
Her plan, the Korean Medical Program, began in 2003 with a health clinic and a breast cancer walk promoted in the local Korean-American media. In 2008, Pascack closed and Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, N.J., took over the program, making it a formal division of the hospital with a full staff and a network of 80 Korean-American physicians; Choi became its director.
Now, the program serves 40,000 people with six community campaigns: breast cancer screening; hepatitis B and liver cancer screening; diabetes screening and prevention; mental health care; an annual health festival; and a wellness program.
An annual "Walk for Mom" raises funds for free mammograms and follow-up care for 100 uninsured women who might otherwise go untested.
"We noticed that so many Korean women were coming into our breast center with late stage breast cancer," says Choi. "They had never had any mammograms or any clinical exams."
Staffers do testing for hepatitis B and liver cancer at churches because about 85 percent of Korean immigrants attend church, says Choi. Koreans are about 30 percent more likely than Caucasians to carry hepatitis B.
Diabetes is also disproportionately prevalent in the Korean-American community. About half of the 40-and-older population they test at churches and community centers are either diabetic or prediabetic, says Choi. Korean doctors, nurse educators and dietitians lead a diabetes prevention talk every other month.
An even stickier subject is mental illness. "Compared with any other campaign, this is the toughest nut to crack," says Choi. "Koreans tend to look down on people in the community with mental illness. We put some very long, hard hours into 'How are we going to handle this?' "
Their answer: encouraging mental health checkups. They frame it as something everyone needs to keep the brain working well, just as they need a physical checkup to keep the body working well. Patients slowly have become more receptive, says Choi. They've been able to raise money for the program in the Korean community and receive 50 percent discounts from Korean psychologists and psychiatrists.
In addition, Choi's team has raised $180,000 for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance for Korean-American Hurricane Sandy victims and does group enrollments for coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
The program reaches nearly every corner of Holy Name Hospital, which also has a substantial non-Korean population. Patients can choose meals from a Korean menu. New moms are offered a postnatal Korean dish of seaweed soup. Two full-time Korean-speaking customer representatives greet patients and help them find their way around the hospital.
"You go into the lobby and already Korean staff are welcoming you," says Ashley Yook, a leader in the Korean community who manages a Doubletree Hotel in Fort Lee, N.J. "They take you to your exact floor and room and serve you Korean tea and explain things to you in Korean. So by the time the doctor comes in, you feel a sense of trust."
Throughout the hospital, staff are trained in the idiosyncracies of Korean culture. Yook says that when family members die, "even after the funeral, [hospital staffers] continue to call us, to see how we're doing. I was so touched by their service and knowledge."