By Kristin Suhr
Columbia University ’05
UIC College of Medicine ’12
Jaseng’s Herbal Medicine department is a unique facility located in Seongnam-si, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea. Having never been in a manufacturing facility except through magic of television documentaries on Netflix, I was not prepared for the intensive mix of precise manual and automated labor that was revealed on the herbal dispensary tour. My colleague, Jeremy, and I were bused from the Jaseng Hospital in Apkujeong, a popular area in trendy Gangnam located thirty minutes through busy Seoul Traffic to Seongnam-si. Once we arrived we were brought into a classroom and given some hot tea called ssang-hwa. It had a pungent smell of sweet dates and a syrupy feel to match. Of all the herbal concoctions presented to us, it was one of the most easy to stomach and would even be considered quite pleasant by most.
In the classroom, our tour guide gave us a brief introduction to the dispensary with prideful zest, reinforcing the quality of the products and extreme standards of Jaseng’s products that really put it in a league of its own. At this point not having seen any of the process, it was hard to match his enthusiasm. I listened to the English translation while sipping the tea slowly. We then were ushered into very cute striped lab coats and directed to the first room, which was filled with wooden shelves etched with Chinese and Korean characters. The drawers were beautiful and filled with different components, all completely dried and obtained from a direct source.
The lab workers wore white coats like our pharmacists in the States and were gloved and masked as they measured out precise weights of ingredients for prescriptions. The smell of the room was filled with complexity and depth, the speaker made a joke that the scent of the room felt “healthy”.
After the first room, we were able to glance into the storage facility. Not large, I imagined that it was a good sign, because turnover would be more frequent. A glass display case showcasing the different herbs and their names sat in the front. The aisle with velvety deer antlers from Altai drew the most attention. The antlers were utilized to treat a variety of ailments including anemia, impotence, and the immune system. Jeremy grabbed one and quickly posed for a picture. The slices of deer antlers looked like fossilized wood chips.
After the storage room was the decoction room. This was probably the most impressive of all the rooms with automated vats assigned to each patient. Every vat was labeled with the patient’s name, prescription, and physician. Each vat simmered and when the mixture was completed it was then transported through a piping system run by air pressure. The liquid medications were transported without any human assistance into a unit that pumped them directly into the packaging.
The packaging area for the solid medications—powders, pellets, and pills—was also elaborate. It reminded me of a mix between the old Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film and my experience working with a meticulous French trained Japanese pastry chef. We watched the creation of the medicine Gwanjulgo which is utilized for improving joint function by increasing lubrication and cartilage regeneration. Each black dense paste of Gwanjulgo was balled into a truffle-sized supplement, packaged in gold wrapping, and individually placed in a circular heavily decorated plastic container. A sample of the chewy ball was given to each of us and tasted of sweet fruit paste with an aftertaste of ginseng. Each supplement was manually packaged and weighed. It was hard to imagine a more laborious route, but it did emphasize the care placed on each manufactured medicine. In the next room over, laboratory techs counted the medication packages, packed them together into boxes, and weighed them in the end to make sure they were full.
At the end of all the packaging, all the medicines were brought to the distribution center where they were sanitized and then either sent out by trained and educated delivery personnel which gave a humanizing presence to the medicine or if too far, sent by the postal system. Overall, the dispensary ran a tight ship, with much focused labor and multiple steps introduced to maintain a high-quality product. It was in stark contrast to the few Chinese medicine shops I had visited in the past whose items although embued with mystery had safety standards that had much to be desired.
I had an informative experience at the herbal dispensary and would highly encourage anyone with an interest in herbal medicine to visit the facilities to learn more about the products that come from Jaseng Center for Integrative Medicine.
Dr. Suhr was born and raised in Arlington Heights, Illinois. She earned her B.A. in Visual Arts at Columbia University in 2005 and completed medical school at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) College of Medicine in 2012. She completed three years of ophthalmology residency at New York University before deciding to enter the field of Preventive Medicine and Public Health at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. She is currently pursuing an MPH through Emory University and most recently worked with the Veterans Empowerment Organization, a non-profit committed to helping the homeless veteran population. Her interests in medicine include prevention and treatment of substance use disorders, integrative medicine, and examining the social determinants of health. In her spare time, she continues to paint and loves to spend time with her two dogs, Haru and Gorky.