A Conversation with Author Dr. Tony Youn
Mike Ragogna: Tony, what drove you to write In Stitches?
Dr. Tony Youn: First time out, I decided to shoot for the stars. I set out to write the definitive book about growing up Asian-American, going through four years of medical school–all true, unadulterated, unfiltered, behind the scenes, warts and all–and becoming a doctor. I think, ultimately, In Stitches represents real life. Real life can be laugh-out-loud funny, shocking, heart-breaking, and heart-warming, that’s what I wanted In Stitches to be. I’m gratified by what readers and reviewers have said so far, they’ve called it “disarming,” “fast-paced,” “hilarious,” and “touching.” I’m very pleased and humbled by these descriptions because that’s what I was going for.
MR: Congratulations. How much did your childhood challenges with your jaw influence you to choose plastic surgery as your profession?
TY: I grew up one of two Asian-American kids in a small town of near wall-to-wall whiteness. But while I looked different from the kids around me, inside, I felt I was just like them, an American. Other Asians would call me “Twinkie” or “Banana”–yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Once I reached high school, I became too tall, too thin, I wore thick Coke-bottle glasses, braces and a stereotypical Asian bowl-cut hairdo. Then, to my horror, I watched helplessly as my jaw began to grow, expanding Pinocchio-like, protruding to an unthinkable, monstrous size. Surprisingly, I couldn’t get a girl to show any interest in me until the end of my senior year in high school.
Now that I’m a plastic surgeon, I have tremendous empathy for my patients, especially those with any sort of deformity, because of what I went through with my jaw. I know how self-conscious they feel. I’ve been surprised how many of my patients have read my book and told me how they related to my horrible “Summer of the Jaw.”
MR: How do you think having such a stern father played into your approaching life’s challenges with humor?
TY: Like many Asian-Americans, I had a Tiger Father. My dad grew up on a small rice farm in rural Korea, my grandparents put away every nickel they could to send my father to medical school. The hopes of his entire family–all six of his siblings–rested on him becoming a successful doctor and sending most of his earnings back to Korea. Incredibly, like many first generation immigrants, he was able to live the American dream. 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–probably before I was born. 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.
Because my father was so strict, so tyrannical, and so controlling, if I didn’t try to see his humorous side, I would have ended up bitter and depressed. 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.
MR: Your father is definitely a huge part of the story and, obviously your life. Can you share, perhaps, another story about him, one that wasn’t in the book?
TY: For twenty years, my dad was the only Ob Gyn in my hometown of Greenville, a tiny Michigan town. During his career, he delivered virtually an entire generation of children. He always took pride in the fact that he was never sued. He would often tell me, with a gleam in his eye, “Daddy’s patients all trust and appreciate Daddy. If you work hard and are always available for your patients and do the best you can, your patients will not sue you. Daddy has worked 20 years in the most litigious field of medicine and has never been sued. Not once. Daddy is so proud of that.”
Less than a year before his retirement, the hospital began to post congratulatory messages and notices that my dad was going to retire after a long and distinguished career. Suddenly, boom, boom, boom. Three lawsuits came out of nowhere. I don’t know the specifics of those cases, but I do know that none of them ever went to court. I suspect they had to do with opportunists figuring out that my dad had saved up a nest egg for his retirement and that he was fair game.
These lawsuits devastated my father. The once proud first generation Korean immigrant who toiled in the field and in the operating room, who saved countless patients’ lives and the lives of their babies, for the first time, questioned his legacy and career. Even worse, he questioned himself. During the time of those lawsuits, I remember seeing the pain in his eyes as he walked down the hallway in our house in the evening before he went off to bed. The gleam in his eye was gone.
MR: What has your father’s reaction been to the book?
TY: Ever since writing In Stitches, I’ve dreaded showing it to my parents–especially my father–because I knew I had been honest and pulled no punches. I showed the way he really was. I was afraid that he would be angry with me over stories that were funny. For example, his real name is Suck Youn Youn. While this is awkward, at least he wasn’t stuck with my uncle’s unfortunate handle–Suck Bum Youn. I was also concerned about stories that showed his sensitive side such as the one in which I describe him weeping in front of me while my mother underwent a dangerous medical procedure.
So, I waited. And waited. One week before the book’s release date, I mailed two copies to my parents. My mom read it immediately. After she finished it, she cried for two days. She told me that she was sad that their strict style of Asian parenting created so many difficulties for her children. She also told me that she was afraid of my dad reading it.
My dad did finally read it. I didn’t hear from him for days. I was a wreck. I bit my nails and cuticles down to bleeding stumps. Finally, he called me. He told me he loved it and was proud of me.
MR: What’s your relationship with your brother like now?
TY: My brother Mike and I are very, very close. Unlike me, he had the inner strength and determination to stand up to my parents and choose his own path in life. Although he, too, was anointed “Doctor” at birth, he figured out early on that medicine was not right for him. After many arguments and turmoil, he broke free of my parents’ expectations and discovered his true calling. He is now an extremely successful executive in Hollywood. I admire my brother very much. As a kid, I looked up to him. I still do.
MR: How wild did dorm life/campus life get, and how adversely did your alcohol intake affect your life and studies during med school?
TY: Med students have a reputation–we party like rap stars and drink like Irish poets. Uh, no. False. We like to think we party hard. We attempt to portray ourselves as debauched, out-of-control frat boys with stethoscopes. We’re not. No matter how we appear or act, even if we’re great-looking and smooth, we are, at our core, nerds and lightweights. Sure, I can think of a few exceptions. They all become orthopedic surgeons.
In medical school, I drank only the night after a big exam. That’s it, and usually three Bud Lights would do the trick. I’d combine these with a tasty McRib sandwich, and then hope I didn’t yack into the Red Cedar River on the way home. The next day, it was back to classes and regretting the night before.
MR: (laughs) How close are you to your fellow students, especially those that you lived with during school?
TY: I’m still really close to my gang of friends, especially my roommates from the house on Flower Street. We’re all practicing physicians now. We recently got together with our wives to see Rock of Ages, except for Ricky. He lives on the East Coast with his partner and enjoys a much more exciting life than the rest of us. He’s probably the only one of the four of us who still hangs out at the bar until closing time. The rest of us pass out by eleven and get awakened by our children five hours later.
MR: Would you have them perform any procedures on you knowing them as well as you do?
TY: Heck, no! We practiced giving each other shots in medical school, but that’s where it ended. Tim is now a psychiatrist. He wouldn’t know which end of the needle to use. In med school, his manual dexterity was so poor he couldn’t tie his shoes properly. If he had to perform an actual procedure on me today, I’d be afraid my stitches would come undone and my guts would fall out all over the sidewalk. James is a successful primary care physician who also happens to be my doctor. While I think he’s a fantastic doctor, I still won’t let him do a hernia check (turn and cough) on me. It would be too weird. I guess I’d let Ricky–he’s a pediatrician–look in my ears, as long as he didn’t have something sharp in his hands.
MR: (laughs) Same kind of question, did you have any teachers/doctors who you are grateful never performed any procedures on you?
TY: In the summer between my high school and college years, I had major plastic surgery to break my jaw and reset it. It hurt beyond all imagination. We’re talking Guantanamo-type pain. I would’ve given away state secrets, ratted out friends, and handed over my dad’s checking account numbers. After having this surgery performed, I’ve sworn off having anything else. Seeing as the majority of my teachers were plastic surgeons, plus the fact that I’m only 38 years old, I don’t think there are a lot of procedures that would apply to me anyway. I don’t think I’d look good with Lindsay Lohan-style fish lips or a pair of breast implants.
MR: What about the health industry? Do you feel it needs a little surgery or something even more invasive?
TY: The entire health industry is a mess. Not enough people have access to care, the care they receive is too expensive, insurance companies find loopholes to avoid paying, and malpractice liability is astronomical. Doctors and nurses are becoming more and more disenchanted with the whole system. There really isn’t an easy solution. Should we ration care to those who need it most? Should we refuse expensive tests and treatments on those with little chance of survival? The real solution probably includes a combination of electronic medical records, health insurance policy changes, malpractice liability reform, and some form of rationing. I wish I had the answer.
MR: Of your three phases–shy, nerdy kid, overly-expressive med student, and successful plastic surgeon–which is the one you secretly identify with the most to this day?
TY: Believe it or not, I still see myself as a skinny, nerdy kid with big glasses, bad hair, and a cartoon jaw. Although I’m more confident today, there will always be a part of me that identifies with the kid who had low self-esteem, couldn’t find a date, and spent a lot of time alone, especially during college. Yep, I couldn’t find a date in college. Not one. I went zero for four years, a record that will last longer than Joe DiMaggio’s consecutive game hitting streak.
I think a large percentage of the population has felt like an outsider at one point in their lives. For me, this was mainly caused by the color of my skin and my off-the-wall interests. For others, their outsider status may be due to gender, sexual preference, body shape, or religion. My hope is that anyone who has ever felt like an outsider can identify with In Stitches.
MR: What’s your advice for students about to enter the medical field?
TY: When you are done with work, do things you enjoy. Find moments of happiness each day. I think the turtle in Kung Fu Panda said it best. “Today is the present, and that’s why it’s a gift.”
MR: Tony, this has been fun, thanks for your time and all the best with the book.
TY: Thanks so much.
Thank you to Mike Ragogna for the great interview!
For the interview on Huffington Post, click here.