Words of Wellness: 'In Stitches'

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Growing up, Dr. Anthony Youn was dealt an interesting hand: a tiger parent, an abnormally large jaw, and many, many dateless Friday nights.  He details these situations and many more in his book In Stitches, a memoir which follows his humorous—and often touching—path from awkward student to successful plastic surgeon.

"I set out to write the definitive book about growing up Asian American, going through medical school—all true, unadulterated, unfiltered, behind the scenes, warts and all—and becoming a doctor," Youn explained. "I wanted my book to reveal the real life of a doctor-to-be.  Real life can be laugh-out-loud funny, shocking, heart-breaking, and heart-warming."

Youn took the time to speak with us about the life lessons he faced during medical school, and what you can learn from them too.

Q: “Tiger parenting” garnered a lot of media attention last year and a lot of controversy. Would you describe your father as a tiger parent – and how would you say your upbringing influenced your life and career path?

A: My dad is a Tiger Father.  He grew up on a small rice farm in rural Korea.  Incredibly, like many first generation Asian immigrants, he was able to live the American dream and become a successful physician.  Unfortunately, all he knew were two extremes: being dirt poor in Korea and being a wealthy doctor in America.  Nothing in between.  That’s why the day I was born he decided I would be a doctor, too.  He feared that if I became anything else I would end up living in the kind of poverty he’d worked so hard to escape.

As the dutiful son, I followed my Tiger Father’s instructions and became a doctor.  As time passed, I began to see my dad in a completely different way.  He went from being the tyrannical, controlling Tiger Father to a person whom I appreciated and respected, faults and all.  I even began to find humor in how he raised me.  Besides, how could anyone not see humor in a father who says, “You want to be a pediatrician?  Little people, little dollah!  Spend all day giving suckers to little babies!”  If I didn’t laugh, I would have cried.

Q: Being an outsider is an ongoing theme in your book, but ultimately, it didn’t seem to hold you back. What is your advice to others who are going through these feelings? How did you move past these feelings yourself?

A: Most of us have moments in our lives where we feel like an outsider, an outcast.  For some, these feelings last a week or a month.  For me, these feelings lasted twenty-two years!  During high school I was toothpick-thin, with a terrible haircut, Coke-bottle glasses, braces, and Hannibal Lecter-like headgear.  In college I was a big loser.  I couldn’t find a single girl who wanted to date me for the entire four years!

My advice to anyone who is currently feeling left out, lonely, or different from everyone else is to PERSEVERE.  Life changes, and almost always for the better.  At one point, Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, Mark Zuckerberg and even Lady Gaga have felt like outsiders.  It’s amazing how life can change as long as you follow your passion, work hard, and persevere.  My hope is that anyone who has ever felt like an outsider will identify with and be inspired by In Stitches.

Q: There was a lot of description of your time in medical school in the book, but an equal amount of time was spent on detailing your social struggles – particularly with girls. Why did you feel it was important to include this aspect of your life?

A: Physicians like to be put on pedestals.  An honest physician will admit that we don’t go into medicine for the sole purpose of helping people.  If that was the case, then we’d be social workers, special ed teachers, and nurses.  Like most doctors, I entered the field of medicine for many reasons: to earn a good living, to make my parents proud, to help people, and to elevate my standing in life so a decent woman just might be interested in me.

A big part of my personal growth has involved my lack of a love life.  This all changed once I went to medical school and my med school colleagues mentored me in how to date successfully.  They taught me three rules, as described in more detail in In Stitches: (1) All single guys should read Cosmo religiously.  (2) Never talk about your mother on a date or at the bar.  (3) Buy a lighter – you’ll have to figure this one out from the book!

Q: You mentioned a few patients/cases that stuck with you in the book – which case do you feel has impacted you the most? Why?

A: The first life I “saved” as a medical student really had nothing to do with medical knowledge at all.  Frank was a junk dealer who was diagnosed with critical coronary artery disease.  If he didn’t consent to open-heart surgery he was going to die, and die soon.  He smelled like old cheese, had the personality of a pissed-off gorilla, and distrusted the medical system so much he refused to sign the consent.  He was estranged from his family, so they weren’t available to help.

My intern assigned me to talk with him about the surgery, in hopes of saving his life.  After being cursed at and told to leave him alone, I tried one last thing.  I sat with him and told him about how my mother’s life was saved with the same surgery that could save his.  He consented to the surgery and even reconciled with his family because of it.   This taught me the lesson, stated by Hippocrates many years ago: “It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.”

I always try to keep that lesson in mind when treating my patients today.

Q: Any more books planned for the future?

A: I would love to write a follow-up to In Stitches.  I’m humbled and flattered by the overwhelmingly positive response it’s received from critics and readers alike.  My hope is that people consider In Stitches ‘required reading’ for anyone who wants to be a doctor or know what their doctor thinks.  The next one will have big shoes to fill!