There aren’t many doctors who can count treating North Korea’s former supreme leader as a footnote to their wildly formidable career. But Dr Francois-Xavier Roux, an unrepentantly modest neurosurgeon with a penchant for mini-cigars and medical missions in post-conflict countries, has helped cure Kim Jong-il, the late leader of the most secretive nation in the world, twice.
Roux, who is currently establishing Cambodia’s first fully equipped neuroscience centre at Calmette Hospital, was initially contacted by North Korea in 1993.
The then-leader-in-waiting had fallen from a horse and injured his head, an unidentified emissary from the communist country told Roux over the phone.
Fifteen years later, in 2008, Roux was preparing to take his five kids on holiday to Egypt – after returning from a mission to the Congo – when he got another, more urgent call. Two days later, Roux was flown to Pyongyang under such covert terms that he was not even given the name of his patient, who was in a coma in an intensive care unit.
“Of course, if you want to give good medical advice, you have to see and evaluate the patient. They did not immediately accept,” Roux said. “So I told them, ‘Thank you very much, but if you will not let me do my job than I would like to go back to France’.”
Roux admits he likely saved Kim Jong-il’s life, unfazed by the pressures of curing a dictator.
“I gave him the same sort of reflection and consideration as any other patient.… I have never been influenced [by a patient’s politics]; maybe that’s naive of me,” he said.
Roux began his neurosurgical career in post-coup Upper Volta, now called Burkina Faso. He’s been on medical missions in over half a dozen developing countries, and counts Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni’s sister as a friend.
He came to Cambodia in 1989, two years before the peace settlement was inked, to perform some of the country’s first neurosurgeries at the National Pediatric Hospital.
“They asked me to come and help and so I did,” he said. “At that point, we were operating essentially on kitchen tables.”
Roux lists his personal history with near disinterest, preferring to don scrubs and present his latest medical achievement – the Center de Neurosciences.
The six-floor, air-conditioned and immaculate new wing contrasts with its surroundings, where overcrowded departments have patients waiting on mats outside.
“It’s better than many French hospitals I’ve worked in,” the former chief surgeon at Hospital Sainte-Anne in Paris said.
Touring through the old – but still operational – neurology department that he plans to turn into a free treatment centre, Roux picked up the scans of a British tourist injured in a motorbike accident.
“Are these yours?” he asks, before diagnosing, mid-stride: “You have a broken rib, it’ll hurt for a while, but you’ll be fine.”