Why did you decide to pursue a career in medicine and why, in particular, did you decide to specialize in the spine (or spine surgery)?
Medicine is always fascinated me, because doctors always help people. I grew up in a very small town, and the doctors really had an impact on the day to day workings of our small town. So I always respected them greatly and felt that they made a greatest impact on our society in my small town. So at a very young age, I was very interested in medicine.
Once I went through medical school and went through my orthopedic training, that's when I had to decide how to specialize. Spine surgery for me was the most complicated, the most intricate and delicate surgery within the area of orthopedic surgery. I was very attracted to the spine surgery because of the magnitude of the procedures, the sort of the anatomy of the spine, and how important the spine was. I don't mean to say that the other areas of orthopedics are not important, but I've always felt a very strong affinity. I've always felt that the spine obviously is very important for the working of the human body. So I developed a fascination with spine surgery at a very early on my training. That's why I decided to specialize in spine surgery.
How did your early youth experience shape your success?
I grew up in a very small town in the country. I'm not from a very big city, and growing up in a small town, you get what we call small town values. I think growing up in a small town, I don’t expect much; I have to work hard; there aren’t as many opportunities. Those values shape me. When I went through my training, and now I live in Los Angeles, which is a huge city. I deal with people internationally from other countries. I still retain those small town values. So for me, I think that helps me tremendously. Because coming from a small town, I have to be very clear. I have to be concise. I have to communicate well, and I have to work really really hard to get ahead. And for me, those are the qualities that have helped me dealing with people throughout my career. Growing up in a small town for me has helped me, because it may be a little bit different than other people.
From your interview with Spine Surgery Today in 2014, we learn that your father is a great man and means a lot to you, would you mind sharing with us his story? What has he taught you and how has he inspired you?
My father was the greatest man I have even met. My father came from China and he had a very rough childhood. He grew up in a very small town, but he went to the big city, he came to the United States and became very very successful. He has always inspired me to work hard, to continue to trying to be the best you can be, but also be very nice to people. He was the nicest man and always treated everyone with respect, and he was always nice to them and this is something that inspired me, because what I saw is that everyone loved my father. And that's what inspired me and I try to emulate him, I try to use his example as I go through my career. I always want to be humble, I want to treat people with respect and be nice to them. And the result is exactly what happened to my father that I created so many friendships and it enriches my life. I owe that to my father, because again he was the greatest man that I have ever met.
Can you tell us more about your father's story?
To me, it's a very inspiring story, because my father grew up in the country, and his family, they were all farmers. There was never an opportunity to really become educated, because we basically became a farmer. So he wanted more. He wasn't satisfied with that and he knew that in order to get that education to make him to accomplish more, he had to leave his small town and go to the city. My father said goodbye to his family when he was 13 and he never saw them again. He and his father carried the corps to the city and they sold the corps and took all the money. My father's father gave the money to my father and said, "Please remember us, good luck." And then his father went home when my father got educated.
Unfortunately, my father was never able to go back and see his father, or his parents, because they had passed away while he was away. But it was a big opportunity for him, and he took a big risk because he gave up his family in order to try to become more successful. If he had not done that, I probably would not have the opportunity that I have today, because I would probably be farming in that same small town.
Could you share with us a story that you think is inspiring to you during your residency?
There are so many stories during my residency. I mean obviously that's when I was doing my training. So for me, it's how I learned. But I think the things that inspired me most, you know it's easy when things go well and patients do great from surgery, it's easy to feel good about it. But I think the most inspiring stories for me were when patients had very difficult problems and patients did not do so well.
I remember there were patients that had spinal tumors or they had cancer, and we were treating these people and knowing that they were not curable, knowing that they only had a certain amount of time to live, where they had really bad problems, where they had spinal cord injuries and they became paralyzed. I think it's when things don't go well, and patients have the sort of a huge problem, that's when I got inspired. When I saw how some of the patients stay very strong. I remember there were patients that were facing cancer, and their families were there, and they knew they were gonna die, but they kept fighting. So for me, watching them fight, watching them stay strong, watching them keep their families calm, even though they were facing such adversity. For me, that was the most inspiring, because I learned a lot about that.
I mean you learn about the surgery, you learn about how to treat the patients. But what I think we always have to learn, and there's nothing you can read in a textbook. We have to learn how to face adversity. It was very inspiring to me to see some of those patients face really devastating medical problems, and watch how strong they were, and how they kept staying optimistic. For me, that was very inspiring.
As a university professor, spine surgeon, President of many professional societies, how do you balance the administration, clinical practice, research activities, teaching and personal life?
That's a great question because I think everyone needs to have the right balance in their life. Often times, when we put so much time into one activity, say one society, maybe other areas you don't have as much time. For me, it's about making sure that you are able to devote enough time and effort to make sure that everything you're doing has the same high quality, same high level of focus, and make sure no area suffers. We all know that if the balance is off, if you're working too hard and your family is suffering; or if you're putting too much time in your family, you don't have enough time for your work or for the societies. You have to make sure that you can accomplish everything. So once you know there's an area that you're deficient in or that you're not spending enough time, you have to be able to recognize that and make sure you devote enough time and effort to it. You have to understand what you're doing. You have to understand what you're doing and how it affects the other areas in your life. You have to try to maintain that balance. You have to be aware if the balance is off so that you could readjust it.
For me, the secret to maintaining that balance is to basically do things as efficiently as possible. What that means is that you know when you have your emails, finish those emails. It may take a few more minutes to go through all your emails. How many times do we get something, we say, “I'll deal with it later”. You read it and you deal with it later. Take care of everything and do it once and do it right. If you're a president, I was president of NASS, and when I was president of NASS, if some issues came up, I had to spend so much time on it. It would take too much time, and it would throw the balance off, right? You have to figure out quickly, what is the most efficient way to do it and get it done. If you can do that efficiently and quickly, but not sacrifice quality, then you'll be able to do it all.
You have been an active member of a number of medical organizations, and have been engaging in many regional and international academic activities, how has this helped to shape your career?
You know it's interesting. I have been a member of, as you said, many medical organizations. I've been in the leadership roles, and I've worked with different societies throughout the world. It has taken a lot of time. A lot of people when they thank me for my efforts, the society thanks me, but what they don't understand is that I really should be thanking them, because what has helped me is that I've learned from them. When you organize a committee, when you lead a committee, or when you're on the board of a society, or you run a meeting, or you become president of the society, you work with so many great people, you actually learn more than the work that you give.
There's an expression we use is that we get more out of it than we give, meaning, even though I've given a lot of time to them, I have learned so much more. It helped me develop myself personally. When you lead something very successfully, you learn how to lead. That's something that you can't learn. You can't like read a lecture on how to lead people, you learn by doing it. By doing and working with all these societies, it actually helped shape me. It helped refine me. It helped teach me how to lead, how to run things, how to lead people, how to engage people, how to get their consensus, get their support. It taught me more than I've learned. I've learned so much from doing these these different tasks.
The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the biggest challenges facing modern healthcare. What impact does this bring to your department and hospital?
The pandemic obviously is huge. It affected everyone worldwide. It affected our hospital, like any other hospital. It caused initially chaos, initially a lot of panic. Initially, we shut down for about a month in March of 2020. But since then, we've recovered, we were busier than ever. We take all the precautions, so it affects us just in our day to day. But I will say that the one impact that I've seen in our institution, and I suspect most institutions have seen this is that when you're in a crisis like this, at least initially no one knew what to do, because this is all brand new. I think when the crisis comes up like this, what I've seen in our institution is that that's when leaders step up, meaning that’s when leadership has helped us.
When in our spine center, when the crisis came and the pandemic came, we took a very proactive stance. We warned our patients, we initially shut down. We instituted all these safety features that everyone else has done. So what we've done is very similar to other universities. But going sort of I call it behind the scenes. What I see and it's probably in other institutions is that those people that were calm, that were real leaders, that had leadership, they calmed everyone down, and they led people, and that's what got us through this. So I think all the stuff that we learn working with societies, working with meetings, working with other people, and doing collaborations, everything you learn about leadership. That was an opportunity for us to put that into action. I thought it was a great opportunity for us because we didn't panic. We did things logically and I think at least in our spine center, we showed great leadership.
What is your proudest career achievement to date and why?
The thing that I'm most proud of. I mean I've worked with many societies. I've been president of many societies and things like that, but I think the thing that I'm most proud of is that I feel like I've achieved balance in my life. What I mean by that is that often times people can only do one or two things. Like if they're busy doing surgery, they don't have enough time for research, or if they try to do too much surgery and try to do research, they don't have as much time for their family. Or if they're too busy doing surgery, then they can't become president of a society and travel. The thing that I'm most proud of is that I feel like I've been able to achieve that balance, meaning I would be able to do many things. And I think that every one of those things I do, I've been able to do them very well. At least I was very satisfied.
I am able to do many things, and I still have a very busy clinical practice while I do a lot of surgery. Even though I'm one of the busiest surgeons, I’m still able to travel and become president and work with societies. Even though I do all that and surgery, I still have a very busy research lab and still publish a lot of research. Even though I do all of that, I feel like I've had a great time balancing my family and my recreational activities. So I'm proud not of any one thing. I'm proud of everything, the fact that I've been able to do so many things. I also think I've been able to do them pretty well, because I think I've been successful in all those areas. So for me, that makes me very satisfied.
What advice would you give to students hoping to start a career as a spine surgeon?
My advice to students would be is to set some goals that you can achieve, so that you know what you're going for. I think, too many times, people don't know what they're trying to achieve, what the end goal is, like what their ultimate goal is. You don't have to set like 25-year goals. You can set goals that are just one year. In the next 1 year, I'm gonna do this; next 3 years, I'm gonna do this; next 5 years, I want to accomplish this. That way, you know you can adjust things, and so you have to number one set some goals.
Secondly, you have to understand that your goals can change. You have to be honest with yourself. You want to do the things that you're passionate about. Sometimes as you get older, or as you advance in your career, sometimes your goals will change, your priorities will change. Don't be afraid to change those goals. You have to be honest with yourself.
The last advice I would give is working very hard and be very humble. No one's gonna just give things to you. You can't just all automatically say I want to be president of the society without doing the work, where I wanna become the busiest spine surgeon in town unless you put the work in. You have to be humble, you have to put the work in and you have to treat people with respect and treat your patients with respect.
What would you have been if you had not been a medical doctor?
That's interesting. I love talking to people. One of the things that I've learned in talking with my patients and in doing medical meetings and going internationally is that I feel like I enjoy and I'm pretty good at communicating with people. I know that when I go to sometimes other countries that don't speak English, even though I can't speak their language, they tell me they can still understand me. so part of it is I love communication. so if I were in business, perhaps international business, I think I would do really well. At least with the communication part, or maybe being a lawyer where you have to communicate through the legal system, you have to really be very precise. Obviously, those are the things I think my skill set would adopt me to. But if I wasn't a medical doctor, I'd love to be playing professional basketball or playing music in a rock and roll band.
What are your interests and hobbies outside medicine?
I have so many hobbies. There are many people who say, once they retire, they won't know what to do. I can tell you I know exactly what I want to do. I have so many things that I'd like doing. I still exercise every day. I play basketball twice a week. I lift weights every other day. I run every day. I love doing sports. I start playing golf. I play music, I play guitar. I love my music, I love traveling. I love communicating with people, and I love electronics, I love sort of staying on top of sort of the new electronics. I can tell you that I have a lot of hobbies. Most of them are sports related. Once I retire, I will have no problems finding other things to do.