North Korean Defector Was on the Verge of Death Aboard Helicopter, U.S. Medic Prayed for Him to Live

U.S. medics shared details about the North Korean defector's condition. One said he was so concerned for the defector that he prayed for him. GETTY

A U.S. medic prayed for the recent North Korean defector as he clung to life inside a helicopter airlifting him to a South Korean hospital.

Sergeant First Class Gopal Singh feared that the 24-year-old would not last the 20-minute flight in a Black Hawk helicopter to medical care in Seoul.

"I remember thinking this guy is probably going to die in the next 15 minutes," he told Stars and Stripes.

Singh, who was part of a four-member military medevac crew, said he did not know that the man he was rescuing would later make international headlines after having crossed the Joint Security Area of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea.

All the crew members knew was that the malnourished patient had a gunshot wound to the torso and was hemorrhaging.

North Korean soldiers add a trench where the defector escaped and made a run for South Korea. The soldier is now recovering after U.S. medics transported him to safety. REUTERS

The pilot increased the helicopter's speed to about 160 mph from 130 to get the defector to care. Singh saw that the defector's lung was about to collapse, so he performed a needle chest decompression and tried to stop the bleeding, according to Stars and Stripes.

The defector came in and out of consciousness and asked for water as the crew flew him to safety.

"He was fighting all the way," Singh said.

That fight started on his way to the border splitting the Korean peninsula. Video released on November 13 showed the defector driving a Jeep through the border. After he hit a gutter and a wheel came loose, he made a run for it as the army sprayed bullets at him. He was eventually dragged to safety by the South Korean army.

American medics worked to treat him on the ground before his airlift arrived to take him to the hospital.

The helicopter crew got the call at 4:04 p.m. and headed straight to pick up the defector while calling hospitals along the way to see where the man would be taken. The crew landed the helicopter at a hospital south of Seoul.

"Moreover, they got him to the hospital quickly," Kim Jiyoung, a trauma program manager at the hospital, told Stars and Stripes. "A lengthy patient evacuation can cause death to any patient bleeding so much even if someone performs good first aid."

The North Korean defector gained consciousness last week and asked if he had made it to South Korea, according to the South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo.

He was finally able to breathe on his own after doctors performed two rounds of surgery to treat the gunshot wounds to his chest and abdomen. When operating on his stomach, doctors discovered a parasite that was about 10 inches long.

The defector is still suffering from pneumonia, sepsis and hepatitis B.