Surgeon Shows Hidden Motivations In Medical World Dr. Anthony Youn grew up as one of a few Asians in a predominately white town. He had thick glasses, bowl-cut hair and a protruding jaw. After high school, he got reconstructive surgery on his jaw but still couldn't fit in or find a girlfriend. His immigrant father pushed him toward medical school, and he became a plastic surgeon. Host Michel Martin speaks with Youn about his new memoir In Stitches. In it, he shows that earning an M.D. comes with humor and insecurities. He also explores a medical world that he felt was not just focused on healing patients but also on gaining power and wealth.
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Surgeon Shows Hidden Motivations In Medical World

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Surgeon Shows Hidden Motivations In Medical World

Surgeon Shows Hidden Motivations In Medical World

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, you ever see somebody doing something messed up and you say to yourself, boy, I wish I had a camera now? Me too. But what about the problems you can't photograph? That's my Can I Just Tell You? commentary. And it's coming up.

But, first, you might have seen him on Rachel Ray or one of a number of other shows where he is a soothing and cheerful evangelist of the transformative power of surgery and other cosmetic treatments. His name is Anthony Youn and he is a board-certified plastic surgeon who has both a thriving medical practice and a career as a medical commentator.


Dr. ANTHONY YOUN: You look at this and you say, well, what the heck is this thing? I mean, it looks like the tentacles of Dr. Octopus combined with something...

RACHEL RAY: It does look like Dr. Ock!

YOUN: Yeah. Something from the movie "Aliens" or something. But this is actually a very impressive machine.

MARTIN: Again, that's Dr. Anthony Youn on "Rachel Ray." The road to getting to that point, however, was not nearly as smooth as Dr. Youn's television delivery. It was a road filled with late and lonely nights, sleep deprivation and much hard work, fueled in part by the need to make his hard-driving immigrant father proud. And you might not think this would make for a very funny story, but somehow he has turned it into a laugh riot.

It's Dr. Anthony Youn's new memoir. It's called "In Stitches." And he's with us now. Thanks for much for joining us.

YOUN: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: So you start by talking about your early life. You were raised in Greenville, Michigan, which you describe as population 7,945 of which 7,941 were white. This was not exactly a recipe for social success. And to add to all of this, when you started getting big or growing up, you developed this massive jaw that just stuck out and you even gave it its own name. You called it Jaw-zilla.

And I thought you were going to say that this was what drew you to plastic surgery, but it turns out that that isn't true.

YOUN: Well, I think it was the start of my transformation. And I think I, like a lot of people growing up, felt like an outsider. And initially it was that kind of story of the Asian-American kid in the middle of small-town middle America where everybody around me was Caucasian. I felt inside like I was like everybody else, but on the outside I wasn't.

And then unfortunately, as I went through high school, my jaw started growing bigger and bigger to the point where it was literally twice the size of Jay Leno's jaw.

MARTIN: Did you ever figure out why that happened?

YOUN: I had a lot of dentists and orthodontists - they all had their own ideas. Was it the braces weren't put on correctly? Was it 'cause I sucked my thumb till I was seven years old? I think in the end it was just one of those crazy things that happens, you know. Sometimes people are born with six fingers and six toes. And for me I developed this massive jaw.

MARTIN: But you were able to - or your parents were able to get this fixed for you. Was that in part what got you on the road to being interested in being a doctor?

YOUN: Yeah. And for me that was the first time that I really understood how changing your appearance can really change your life. The funny thing was, was before I had the surgery - I mean, I was a skinny little nerd with big glasses, this big jaw, I couldn't find a date, really, to save my life. And I was going to go to college. And what do you think about college? You think it's time for you to have fun, to date.

And so this for me was hopefully going to be that transforming event that would make me into a ladies man, an Adonis.

MARTIN: Well, I do want to talk a little bit about the culture-shock piece. Because you really, really lay that out there. There's one passage I just have to read. Even after four years of celibacy, why don't we just admit it?

YOUN: That's fine.

MARTIN: You did go to medical school. And you write that when you got to your dorm, the smell of Thai food hit you like tear gas. And then you notice the students - I'm going to read a passage from the book. You say, Asians, every one of them, they see me and smile happily, welcoming me like I'm their long lost cousin. What kind of place is this? I prowl the halls in search of Caucasians. I see none - not one.

I'm only asking for one lousy non-Asian. One. I know I look like I belong, I look like I fit in, but I don't. I'm an American in a Korean person's body. Now you know, if a white person wrote that, people would be, like, all up in arms. Like, what's up with that? What's up with that?

YOUN: Well, I think it's the whole clash of cultures. You know, my parents - my dad grew up in a tiny town in the middle of Korea where he was the one who was - he was supposed to go to America, become a doctor and pull his family out of poverty. So all he knew growing up was that doctor equals success. And that's what he instilled in me and he wanted to instill into his kids. But you compare that to the surroundings around you where everything is do what makes you happy.

So now I'm going into medical school and here I am now, completely the exact opposite of what I'm used to. Now all of a sudden I fit in with everybody else on the outside, but not necessarily quite on the inside. And so it definitely is a learning experience as I went through medical school, as I think a lot of people find finding yourself.

MARTIN: So your father was an OB/GYN and was practicing in Michigan and as you mentioned, grew up very very poor in a small farm in Korea, lots of kids, a lot of deprivation. He really literally pulled himself up by kind of his...


MARTIN: ...his fingernails.

YOUN: It was basically seven kids, a dozen chickens, a pig and my dad was the one that they saved all their money for to push him through college and medical school. So he literally pulled his entire family, all his brothers and sisters out of poverty. And so for him, happiness wasn't anything at all a consideration; it was all pure survival. And I think what happens with a lot of the Asian-Americans is that they are so focused on our work ethic because a work ethic can achieve those types of degrees that will guarantee you a good living, whether it's an engineer or a lawyer or a doctor, that was all he knew.

When I was young he said you're not going to date somebody until after you're a doctor.


MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Dr. Anthony Youn. You might recognize that name and his voice from some of his appearances on shows like "Rachel Ray," and "The Doctors." We're talking about his new memoir. It's called "In Stitches," and it is actually very funny and does leave you in stitches. I assume that was a play on words.

But I do have to talk about the motivation for going to medical school. You make it very clear that it really wasn't even really considered an option. Your father was going to do whatever it took to steer you toward being a doctor. And you tell this very funny scene at the beginning of the book, which you couldn't possibly know about, since you were just born.

YOUN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: About how he was standing over you saying well, you know, he could be a vascular surgeon. And your mom saying, give him a week, he's a week old. Give him a minute. But that you really were steered in this direction from the beginning. But you say that you really went to medical school because you were hoping to get - forgive me parents - you were hoping to get laid.

YOUN: Yeah. Well, you know, there are a lot of reasons...


YOUN: Yeah, exactly. There are a lot of reasons why we become doctors. My dad when I grew up he'd say, vascular surgeon, cardiothoracic surgeon, all these intense surgical specialties and it's just not me. But I was that guy, the kid that didn't want to rock the boat. So next thing I know I find myself going into medical school and honestly for some doctors, you know, we like people to think that we are doctors only to help people. But if that was the case we'd be social workers, we would be nurses, nurses' aides, you know, we'd be teachers. We are doctors because we want to help people, but also because we want to help ourselves.

I became a doctor because number one, I wanted to help people. But number two, I wanted to make my parents proud of me. Number three, I wanted to get my dad off my back. And number four, I thought this may be a chance for me - four years college, not a single girlfriend, this may be a chance for me to elevate my stay and to actually find somebody who is interested in me.

MARTIN: But I must say, the picture you present of the profession is not pretty at all. You describe for example, during one of your clinical rotations, your first rotation in internal medicine, you're paired with somebody. Was she the chief resident?

YOUN: Actually an intern.

MARTIN: Intern.

YOUN: So, yeah.

MARTIN: This is the intern Nancy who is abusive to you, is nasty to the patients. She uses demeaning acronyms to describe patients, like one being GOMER, as in get out of my emergency room. You're saying that a lot of the people who are making these judgments are making them based on very superficial evaluations of who they are and whether they are inconvenient to them. How should we feel about this?

YOUN: The first thing is a lot of doctors get, they take the quote "doctor's orders" unfortunately too literally. You know, it's not a suggestion or a favor, it's an order. And so we take this whole power that we have to our heads. And one of the reasons why I wrote my book was to try to expose why this happens and to really expose these secret insecurities that we have as doctors. And then the second thing that you read in the book is just the whole process of becoming a doctor is painful. You know, and we get hazed and a lot of doctors get bitter after these 36 hours working straight.

MARTIN: You come across as a very appealing person, a very kind person, if you don't mind my saying so.

YOUN: Thank you.


MARTIN: But the fact is you are describing a situation where these people, doctors who are given a great deal of deference in our society. We are debating now about how health care should be delivered, and you're describing a lot of people who are selfish, status obsessed, money obsessed and really very indifferent to the well-being of the people who they are supposed to be charged with taking care of. And I'm asking you again, what should we do about this?

YOUN: Well, the thing we need to do is make sure we talk to our physicians. And I think as far as, you know, hospital administrators, they have power. As a patient, unfortunately, the only thing you can do is if you meet a doctor who, you know, has this doctor-god complex, they're not spending time with you, they're not treating you the way you should, then you have to find a different doctor. I mean we have the right to do that here in the United States.

The good thing is there are changes being made, actually in the medical system now that hopefully will decrease this whole doctor-god complex. And it's changes in resident work hours. You know, when I went through residency, we worked 36 hours straight without an ounce of sleep. Now actually, the ACGME is decreasing work hours to about 16 hours, which is still a long shift but it's no 36 hours. And they're also looking at doctors differently, you know, when they're entering medical school. They're looking at more well-roundedness of the students versus just the MCAT scores. Even hopefully doctors can read the book and get some insight into their own pathology.


MARTIN: You did eventually end up in plastic surgery. And you say it really wasn't because of the jaw surgery that you had, although you could see where it was such a transforming experience, that it might be. Actually it was something else. Would you talk about that, why you decided to go into plastic surgery?

YOUN: Yeah. I kind of went through medical school unsure of what I wanted to do because I just found myself there because that was what I thought I should have done. And one day I saw this little baby that came in - a nine-month-old baby that was mauled by a raccoon. I mean it was, even now, I've been in practice eight years and I've never seen anything this horrifying. And to see the plastic surgeon come in and actually explain how he was going to try to reconstruct this baby's face to me was transforming.

MARTIN: You thought I really can do this. This is something that I can do.

YOUN: Yes. And for me I've always been a bit of an artist. And in the book I talk about how I was addicted to comic books growing up and a cartoonist. And this has been the one field for me that made complete sense. I can do, I can have one foot in art and one foot in medicine and hopefully really change the lives of my patients.

MARTIN: But what do you say to those who look at your field - no disrespect - but the way you practice it as part of what's wrong with the way medical care is delivered in this country? In the sense, you know, your website,, kind of promoting these procedures and techniques for people who may or may not really even need them. You know, now people who say gee, is that really what our resources should go? What do you say to that?

YOUN: Number one, we have to look at it responsibly. There are a lot of cosmetic surgeons out there that are basically arrogant money-grubbing jerks. And one of the reasons why I wrote the book was to try to expose that we're not all like that, so that's one of the things. Number two, I think there are procedures that are cosmetic that we perform that really transform and change people's lives. Whether it's, the first story in my book, this young kid, a 14-year-old kid, literally a guy who had breasts that were double, triple D in size and how having that surgery really changed his life. So there is that part of surgery where you literally will change how somebody looks and improve their quality of life. But at the same time I am the first person to step out and say look, I am not for teenagers having breast augmentation for graduation or for a reality star to have 10 plastic surgeries in one day. So really I think it comes down to responsibility. Plastic surgery is not for everybody.

MARTIN: What is your dad think now, if you don't mind my asking? What does he think about what you've done?

YOUN: I was deathly afraid of showing my dad this book and so I waited and waited and waited and, you know, he called me and he said something I thought was very poignant. He said Tony, it doesn't matter how I'm portrayed in this book. What matters is that you've achieved something that is beyond what anything we've ever done. He said I look at myself as a stepping stone. I'm the one who kneels in the dirty water of the river to allow my children to step over me to reach the other side. You know, and that's the life of I think a lot of first-generation immigrants who come to this country. It's all about their kids.

MARTIN: Dr. Anthony Youn is a board-certified plastic surgeon. His new memoir is called "In Stitches." You may have seen him on the "Rachael Ray Show" where he's a regular guest. He's also appeared on "Dr. 90210" and CNN and other outlets. And he joined us from Ferndale, Michigan. Dr. Youn, thanks so much for joining us.

YOUN: Thank you, Michel.


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