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Surgeon Shows Hidden Motivations In Medical World

Filed by KOSU News in Health.
June 13, 2011

When it comes to plastic surgery, you might have heard of Dr. Anthony Youn. He operates a thriving medical practice and gives medical commentary on The Rachel Ray Show, Dr. 90210 and CNN.

In his new memoir In Stitches, he tells a humorous but at times disturbing story of becoming a board-certified plastic surgeon. It’s a journey filled with stress, insecurities, and encounters with physicians whose intentions are not completely altruistic.

A Father’s Influence

Dr. Youn was partly steered down the medical path by his father, who grew up on a small farm in South Korea. Youn writes that the farm housed many kids and featured creaking floors, no plumbing and no privacy. He says his father came from nothing and worked extremely hard to become a successful OB-GYN. Youn’s father equated “doctor” with “success,” and drove to instill that conviction in his children.

Growing Up, Standing Out

Dr. Youn grew up in Greenville, Michigan, which had a population of 7945, and almost almost everyone was white. He says he felt and looked like an outsider. He describes himself as having a skinny frame, big glasses and a massive jaw — one that grew to double the size of Jay Leno’s jaw.

After graduating high school, Youn had reconstructive surgery on his jaw, hoping it’d spark a personal transformation. During college — even with a new jaw and muscular body — he was never able to get a girlfriend.

The Doctor-God Complex

Youn admits, “We’re doctors because we want to help people, but also because we want to help ourselves. I became a doctor because I wanted to help people, I wanted to make my parents proud of me, I wanted to get my dad off my back, and I thought this may be a chance for me to elevate my stance to actually find somebody who’s interested in me.”

As readers follow Youn into medical school, they come upon many dark chapters, where physicians and soon-to-be-physicians are self-absorbed and hungry for status and money. During Youn’s clinical rotation in internal medicine, he was paired with an intern who was cruel to him and patients. She used demeaning acronyms to describe patients, such as G-O-M-E-R: Get Out of My Emergency Room. She described them as “the chronically ill who end up here and waste our time. They never leave and they never die.”

Youn says the first reason for this behavior is the “doctor-god complex.” He expresses that doctors can take to their heads the power to save or end lives. Secondly, Youn explains that doctors have grown bitter because they’ve suffered long work hours and hazing rituals.

Nonetheless, Youn notes that some current changes in the medical system may reduce chances of developing the doctor-god complex. For example, work hours are cut, and medical schools are now looking for well-roundedness in their medical school applicants rather than just high MCAT scores.

Choosing Plastic Surgery

Youn calls plastic surgery perfect for him because it lets him partake in art and medicine simultaneously. He notes that he has always been interested in art, particularly in comic books as a child.

Youn says one reason for writing his book is to show that not all plastic surgeons are “arrogant, money-grubbing jerks.” He notes that some procedures truly improve people’s lives, like when he worked on a teenage boy with breasts the size of DD or DDD.

In the end, Youn emphasizes the need to approach plastic surgery with responsibility.


At this point in my life, halfway through second grade, I’m having some doubts about becoming a doctor. My father giggles. “Yesterday. I do laparoscopy. Fifteen minutes. One thousand dollah. Fifteen minutes, one thousand dollah!”

He shakes his head. Then I feel his eyes on me. I slink into my chair, try to disappear inside the soup.

“Tony, you become transplant surgeon. One transplant, five thousand dollah. That’s what they pay. One proceejah, five thousand dollah.”

“Wow. Great. The only thing is sometimes I wonder if, you know, I should be a doctor when I grow up.”

Time stops. Silence like a tomb. Crickets chirping. A bomb ticking . . .

Did I just question my father? Not the brightest thing to do.

My mother looks off, pats her belly to soothe her suddenly kicking unborn child, then pokes through her soup with her chopsticks. My brother stares at me, his lips locked in a stunned, frozen circle. He lifts his eyebrows. He says something, but I can’t make it out because of the loud thumping of my heart, which has traveled into my head and drowned out every other thought and sound. “You what?” My father stares at me, his eyes filmy with incomprehension.

He looks as if he’s been slapped.

I have to fix this. At least make an attempt. “It’s nothing definite. I’m just saying that I’d like to keep my options open. I’m only seven. I’m still relatively young.”

“But what . . . what you do?”

I’m regretting every second of this meal. Wishing I had never opened my mouth. Wishing I could evaporate into the steam.

“Daddy doesn’t understand. You want to become salesman?”

He spits the word out. The equivalent of garbage collector or drug dealer.

“Or maybe you work at factory? Assembly line? Make fan belts? Make boxes? Become unhappy drunk?”

I look down into my soup bowl. I feel as small and defenseless as the half-dead squid staring back at me.

“Look across street. Poor Chris father. He not doctor, he get fired. Doctor never get fired. Daddy has best job. Daddy has best boss. Daddy.” My father shakes his head slowly. He begins absently rearranging the silverware. “You have to think, Tony. How you gonna pay your bills? How you live? You gonna live on street? Or worse — live at home when you’re thirty-five?”

“No, I—”

“Doctor is the only thing. Every other job is no good for you. You have to make Daddy proud.”

I glance at my mother and my brother. They shake their heads in a sad chorus, twin windshield wipers. My father picks up his bowl with both red hands, pinkies extended, and slurps his soup. Conversation over. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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