Medicine is the language we speak at home

Growing up in a medical family - a plastic surgeon's childhood story

Written by Tammy Wu, MD
Board Certified Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon in Modesto, CA, U.S.A

with contributions by Calvin Lee, MD and editing by Andrew Wu, MD
Dr. Wu's Plastic surgery office is Surgical Artistry, Inc:  Plastic Surgery Modesto

Picture of Dr. Calvin Lee and Dr. Tammy Wu - Surgical Artistry, Inc., Providing Plastic Surgery to Modesto, California
Dr. Tammy Wu operating with her husband, Dr. Calvin Lee, in Modesto, California, USA. in 2009
Dr. Wu grew up speaking "Medicine" with her parents, and continues to this day with Dr. Lee.

My father is an Obstetrics/Gynecology physician and professor in Taiwan

“How did you decide to be a doctor?”

I get asked this question frequently. I know I wanted to be a doctor ever since I was five years old. How does a five-year old know that she would want to be a doctor? Well, I grew up in a family of doctors. My father is an Ob/Gyn physician, who practices like a family doctor, taking care of not only his patients but also their families. My parents would host gatherings with their friends who often are also physicians. I remember at these gatherings that I did not see or meet any female physicians. They were all men.

I thought to myself, “Well, I am going to be the first woman doctor!” As a child with an ideal view of the world, I was determined to make a difference. Little did I know, while the world wasn’t overflowing with woman physicians and scientists, there certainly have been some notable ones including Marie Curie, a brilliant scientist who received two Nobel Prizes and was the first woman professor at University of Paris. Her sister was a physician. Needless to say, at the tender age of five, I had no such knowledge, but all I knew was that I wanted to help people like my father did.

Dr. Tammy Wu's father operating in the 1970's.

We practically lived in my father's medical clinic - our house was connected.  We grew up with the practice of medicine.

My father had his own office. I was in the office daily with my parents because they wanted to make sure that I did my homework. They had set up a small area in one corner of the office where my older brother David (who is also now a physician – an anesthesiologist who practices in southern California) and I would study and do our homework. We each had our own little fold-up desk-chair contraption, which at the end of the day, we were responsible for putting them away.

If I had finished my homework earlier, I was able to sit and watch my father take care of patients. And I thought, “Wow, I’d like to be able to do that, too!”

My relatives are all doctors - from ENT, Heart Surgeons, Dentists, and other Plastic Surgeons

It also so happens that many of my relatives are also physicians. I have an uncle who is also an Ob/Gyn, an uncle who is an otolaryngologist, two great-uncles who were well-respected pediatricians in the rural town of Chia-Yi, where my parents grew up. I also have cousins who are plastic surgeons, dentists, cardiothoracic surgeons, and the list goes on and on. As you can imagine, at family gatherings, there would be a lot of shop-talk. I didn’t mind. It was quite interesting for me to listen to the conversations. I would learn the morals from the stories as they held their conversations. I was also exposed to medical terms early on, and felt very comfortable in a medical environment. I had my life planned out, as I have always been a planner according to my parents, ever since I was a little kid. I planned to go to the best high school (by National Entrance Exams) and planned on going to the best college and medical school in Taiwan. Then I would meet my husband at that medical school and we would practice medicine together in Taiwan. That was my plan.

My future didn't go as planned.  We left Taiwan when I was eleven.

My life took a few unanticipated turns, however. When I was eleven years old, my parents decided to take the entire family to the United States. It was 1982, and there was quite a bit of political turmoil going on in Taiwan. The future of Taiwan was uncertain as President Carter established full diplomatic relationship with China in 1979. Many thought that communist China was going to overtake Taiwan in no time. The fear of communism overtook most inhabitants of the island. Many left the country in search of freedom and a better future for themselves and their children. My parents were not sure what the right thing would be, but decided that they would give the United States a try and see if the States would be the right place for them and their family.

We moved to New Jersey, where my father commuted to Columbia University Medical School in NYC doing a fellowship in obstetrical ultrasound. My two brothers and I had a great time, because the States was so different, and everything seemed so much bigger and so much more abundant. People were so friendly too!

At the end of the year in 1983, while my parents contemplated their next step of whether to stay in the States or to return to Taiwan, my older brother David announced that he was staying. There was no way he was going back to the oppressive educational system in Taiwan. My parents did some calculations. They decided that there was no way my father could support a family of five on a resident’s salary and afford college tuition on top of that. My father already had a fully established practice in Taipei, and many of his patients couldn’t wait for him to return to take care of them in Taiwan. After much deliberation, my parents decided to go back home to Taiwan. My younger brother, who was about 4 years old at that time, was to return with my parents. I never gave the States a thought, and was certain that I was going back to Taiwan too, since I never bothered to learn English, and had minimal knowledge of the alphabet. I could not even speak in full sentences.

I love languages, but there was a time when I didn't know a word of English.

My parents surprised me by asking me to stay in the States with my older brother David. They thought at least we would have each other in a foreign country, since they will be half a globe away. I refused. I couldn’t imagine living without my parents in a foreign land where I don’t even speak the language and didn’t know the culture. How could I survive here? My parents reassured me that they would do everything to help me get caught up before they left. My mother, who was an English teacher in Taiwan, taught me the alphabet and the pronunciation key. She also taught me how to use the dictionary. She told me that as long as I had the tools, I would be able to improve from there. I remember her trying to teach me some basic words, like the different colors of yellow, red, green, orange, and I would get them all confused. Nothing made any sense to me. Plus, I didn’t want to stay. Why would I torture myself? There was a part of me that didn’t want to learn. I wanted to fail, so that I would be able to go home with my parents.

I eventually went to boarding school in Georgia, and... eventually lost my Southern accent.

Yet again, my plan to "fail so I wouldn't have to stay in the US" didn’t succeed. My parents tried to convince me, a twelve year old, that the States offered a brighter future and better opportunities. I didn’t care. I had my original plans to continue my education in Taiwan. After some back and forth discussions, my parents struck a deal with me. They told me that if I stayed in the States and give it a try and I did not like it, they would buy the first plane ticket back to Taiwan so that I would not have to suffer anymore. I thought that was reasonable, so I took the offer and stayed.

To this day, when I think back to those days, weeks, and months of panic and fear, I really don’t know how I made it. It was somewhat of a blur, but what I remember of the times was triumph over hardship and confusion.

It took many years of studying, learning, looking up words in both English-English and English-Chinese dictionaries, along with weekends of sitting at a desk memorizing the meaning and spelling of words. I still remember how frustrated I felt when it took me one hour to read a small paragraph in the European history textbook because I had to look up almost every single word in the paragraph. Once I wrote down the meaning of all the words I looked up in the dictionary, I attempted to read the paragraph again, but because of the difference in the grammatical structure of the English language vs. the Chinese language, it did not make much sense to me. I remember that I was on the brink of tears thinking that I could never make it. There was no way I could read as fast as a native. How was I to succeed in this foreign country? How do I pursue my goal of becoming a doctor?

There were many bumps on the road, and I veered off a few times thinking that I would become an ambassador, radio announcer, TV anchor, but eventually returned to my original plan.

College and Medical School, the pre-Plastic Surgery days.

My goal started to take form when I got an acceptance letter from Brown University telling me that I was accepted not only into their undergraduate portion, but I was one of the 120 students accepted into their Program in Liberal Medical Education, or the PLME program. The PLME was an 8-year continuum where a senior in high school gets accepted directly into medical school.  This was a very flexible program, because if in the middle of this program, one decides that medicine is not for them, they may opt out of the program at any time. I could not believe that I would be so fortunate, and my MD degree would only be eight years away!

However, while I was very excited that I got into the PLME program, I was quite scared because I had not ever been in the Northeast; I knew no one there; we had no relatives or friends there. I didn’t know much about Brown either, and I was set to go to UC Berkeley on a scholarship. It took several weeks of discussing with my parents, brothers, and friends for me to make a decision. I decided to go to Brown.

I majored in biochemistry and wrote an honors thesis on the subject of immunology. I participated in several research projects ranging from the brain’s immunological response to foreign bodies to lithium toxicity in children and the dangers of placenta previa. Everything in medicine was exciting and I loved learning about the human body and how it works.  I received my MD degree from Brown University.  Now it was time to start my journey on becoming a Plastic Surgeon.

(see below for a addendum to this essay by Dr. Tammy Wu's husband)

A picture of Dr. Tammy Wu, right (age 3) and her brother (Dr. David Wu)

- Tammy Wu, MD
Board Certified Plastic Surgeon
Certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery
Modesto, California, USA
 Placed on the internet on August 10, 2009
© Tammy Wu, MD 2009, all rights reserved.

Essay written while on vacation in Taipei, Taiwan, Summer of 2009. 
Video below (8/1/09) is a greetings video we made for our office/patients while we were on vacation.

A video of Dr. Wu and Dr. Lee Vacationing in Taiwan


Fast forward - story continued from Dr. Calvin Lee's view point

This part by Dr. Calvin Lee, board certified General Surgeon.

She graduated top of her class at Brown University Medical School

I (Calvin Lee, MD) also grew up in a medical family.  My parents were pharmacists.  But for my story, I'll save it for another day.  I met Dr. Tammy Wu at Brown University in 1989.  At that time, she was just "Tammy," but it was Tammy who spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese, English, and French.  By that time she spoke perfect English, and had won a national prize for speaking French.  French was a language she learned after English.  Regardless, these languages were a clue into her amazing intellect.  We were in the same educational program called the Program in Liberal Medical Education (PLME) at Brown.  It was held in such high regard that there were three people in that program who had rejected admission to Harvard University in order to attend this Brown University program (I was one of them). 

Eight years later after finishing the medical program, we learned that Dr. Wu had won the prize of highest academically ranked female medical student at Brown University.  With that award, her name was placed on a plaque at Brown.  In fact it came as a surprise because it wasn't an award she was "gunning" for.  Her secret for success?  She had the discipline of studying daily and had a very strong interest in medicine that studying came naturally to her.  Studying medicine was enjoyable for her and not a chore.  When test time arose, just about everyone including myself crammed for the tests till the sun came up, but Dr. Wu went to bed early.  I also think that growing up with doctors all around her helped her absorb all this information somehow.  Maybe there is something to be said about having come from generations of doctors, and being surrounded by doctors while growing up.

We're got married 3 years after we graduated from Brown University Medical School.  We loved Brown so much that we got married near Brown - at Newport, RI.  We now have a wonderful surgical practice together in Modesto, California which focuses on Veins, Acupuncture, and Plastic Surgery.

I made a list of medical professionals directly related to Dr. Tammy Wu (there are even more who are further related, but you get the idea):

It's quite the medical family.  I'm honored to be part of it.  Medicine was the language Dr. Wu spoke when growing up, and to this day, Medicine is the language we speak at home.  We love being home.

The Modesto Surgeon Family
Dr. Tammy Wu & Dr. Calvin Lee in
their Modesto office, 2008

- Calvin Lee, MD
Board Certified General Surgeon
Modesto, California, USA
 Placed on the internet on August 10, 2009
© Calvin Lee, MD 2009, all rights reserved.

Plastic Surgery Modesto
(209) 551-1888

This is part of a series of essays written by Dr. Tammy Wu, Board Certified Plastic Surgeon practicing in Modesto, CA, USA

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Disclaimer:  This website is not intended to create a physician patient relationship.  There is no specific targeted medical advice here.  Please see your physician in person.  This disclaimer also applies to our other websites with generalized information:  Plastic Surgery Modesto CA, Plastic Surgery Modesto, Cosmetic Surgery, Surgical Artistry Modesto vein center, Acupuncture Modesto, Veins Modesto, How to Choose a Plastic Surgeon, Breast Augmentation Modesto, Breast Augmentation FAQ, Tummy Tuck FAQ, Botox in Modesto.  Web design by Calvin Lee, MD.

Tammy Wu, MD Plastic Surgery Modesto Essays