Troy, Mich. — Medicine: It’s funny. Admit it.
Plastic surgeon Anthony Youn, M.D., remembers sitting in medical school anatomy class. It was the class taught by Dr. Gaw, who he thought might have been reincarnated from her previous life as Attila the Hun, “In the form of an 85-year-old nightmare” who lived to terrorize Dr. Youn and the other medical school students.
Anthony Youn, M.D.
He writes about the day he turned in class to find Dr. Gaw standing over him.
“She reeks of formaldehyde. She holds a moist body part in one bony gloved hand.”
How the hell does she know my name?
‘Yes, Dr. Gaw?’
‘Which valve of the heart am I holding?’
Am I glad she said heart. I thought she was holding a liver. I take a shot. ‘Mitral valve?’
Do I detect a trace of Nazi accent?
‘This is the aortic valve.’
She spits the words at me.
‘You have the deductive ability of a monkey. I pity your future patients, Dr. Youn.’
It’s about time
In practice in Troy, Mich., for nearly eight years, Dr. Youn thought it was time somebody in medicine wrote a book that showed the humor in what people go through to become doctors.
Gallery Books, a division of Simon and Schuster, agreed. His book, In Stitches, made its debut in April 2011.
In Stitches, by Anthony Youn, M.D. (Photo: Anthony Youn, M.D.)
“The idea came about six years ago, when I just had started my practice and I had a lot of spare time,” he says. “Like life, there is a process with becoming a doctor that’s filled with humor. There are funny times. There are sad times; then, there are difficult, frustrating times. And I think most of the books that I’ve read about becoming a doctor are very serious; they’re grim, and there really is a distinct lack of humor in the medical memoir genre.”
Dr. Youn says there is a lot of humor in medicine. And it isn’t bad to make light of it — all while being self-deprecating. It makes plastic and cosmetic surgeons, as well as other doctors, more human, he says.
It started with his jaw
Dr. Youn starts at the beginning … well, almost. He was two days old. Born to Korean parents (his father an ob/gyn), Dr. Youn says being a victim of his own childhood deformity helped make him realize the value of cosmetic surgery. His condition? Mandibular prognathism. The solution: a mandibular setback with osteotomies, performed some 25 years ago.
“What it did was it definitely, as the years have gone by, (taught) me the power of changing or bettering your appearance,” he says.
From nerd to doctor
Dr. Gaw is but one of the funny, (potentially) well-meaning characters in the book. Dr. Youn writes the book through the eyes of a typical 22-year-old starting medical school.
“You can’t expect a 22-year-old to have the maturity of a real physician,” he says. “Yet … all of the sudden, (we) go from being a college undergrad, where our primary goals are going to parties, dating … and, oh yeah, getting good grades. Then, all of the sudden, you get to medical school, and that doesn’t change the day you walk through those doors. It doesn’t change the first time you wear a short white coat.
“It’s that gradual change — that gradual maturation — going from a college student, who is really a kid, to becoming that person who walks in the room when, basically, somebody is having major medical problems and everybody says, ‘Thank God you’re here!’”
In writing the book, Dr. Youn’s aim was to reveal that often-painful process in an honest, humorous light.
“The fact is, there are a lot of pratfalls. There are a lot of times where we fail, where we’re nervous,” he says.
He talks about the irony of being more nervous during his first interview as a medical student with a fake patient than he is now, performing surgery on real patients.
“We’re expected to be serious all the time, but that’s not the case. We’re regular people, too,” Dr. Youn says. “I think a lot of doctors grew up, as I did, as a nerd. I had self-esteem issues … We’re not the studs in high school. We can’t be because we have to study so hard to make it where we want to go.”
The plastic surgeon talks candidly about his fears and imperfections. He admits not liking hospitals.
“I don’t think anybody really likes hospitals. Who likes being somewhere where people are sick?” he says. “Now, granted, there are fun times you can have, and I think it’s a place where you can have a lot of great experiences helping people, but for most people who are in the hospital, the best thing about being in the hospital is the day you get discharged.”
It’s likely that patients reading In Stitches will fall in love with their doctors. That’s Dr. Youn’s hope.
“This is a self-deprecating book about becoming a doctor. And there is not a lot of self-deprecation in medicine, but there should be,” he says.
Cosmetic and plastic surgeons are particularly stereotyped as inhuman, greedy, money-grubbing, pseudo-physicians, according to Dr. Youn. Simon and Schuster were drawn to the fact that the author is a plastic surgeon who comes across as a real and genuine person.
“My hope with this book is that it helps to break the stereotype of plastic surgeons. There are those plastic and cosmetic surgeons who are money-grubbing crooks. I know some of them in my town,” he says. “But the vast majority of us are earnest doctors who are trying to make a living and trying to make our patients happy, and change lives.”
At 38, Dr. Youn has been in the practice of predominately cosmetic, with some reconstructive, surgery, for almost eight years. Television, Internet and now book exposure has made him a celebrity in the specialty.
Dr. Youn is a regular on “The Rachel Ray Show,” appearing six times a season for the past two years. His blog, celebcosmeticsurgery.com, gets between 12,000 and 20,000 page views a day, he says.
“(With the blog) I kind of combine the latest celebrity plastic surgery gossip with the latest in plastic surgery news and some self-promotional stuff,” he says.
The book: His baby
Dr. Youn had a 400-page manuscript of stories, quotes and anecdotes when his agent suggested they get a professional writer, Alan Eisenstock, to tidy up the content. Now that it’s published, Dr. Youn has been working, feverishly, doing whatever he can to promote the book.
“I’m so incredibly proud of it, and of what I think it brings to the medical memoir genre,” he says.