It’s a bit off-putting when someone as young as my son feels compelled to write a memoir. Tony Youn’s memoir, In Stitches, had a strike against it before I turned to the first page. “Double D’s”, he writes, “Pam Anderson, eat your heart out. Too bad they’re attached to a fourteen-year-old boy.” From that point on, I was smitten by Dr. Youn’s story-telling and couldn’t put the book down until I (too quickly) reached the last page.
Youn starts out by describing how it feels to grow up as only one of two Asian-Americans in a small Midwestern town. Not only did he have to deal with being “different” from everyone else, he also had “Coke-bottle glasses, Hannibal Lecter headgear, a bowl cut, and a protruding jaw that grew even faster than his comic-book collection.”
The first part of the book is a coming of age story with Youn agonizing about fitting in, being cool, and most importantly, finally getting a girlfriend. While he is worrying over these typical teen goals, his father, a hard-working Korean immigrant ObGyn, has other plans for Tony. “Doctor is the only thing. Every other job is not good for you. You have to make Daddy proud.” In fact, from the time he is born, Daddy, wants Anthony to not only be a doctor but…”A Surgeon. Vascular. Big money”…no wait, not vascular, “Transplant surgery. That’s the big money…One surgery. Ten thousand dollah. For one hour. Early retirement. Mercedes-Benz. Condo in Florida…” And, of course, he should marry a nice Korean girl.
In the sixth grade, Tony’s jaw starts growing (for reasons that are not clear). He envisions himself a “cartoon kid with a massive jutting Jay Leno jaw” – not so good for your self-esteem. He deals with it by becoming, in his words, Tony Youn, nerd! But all that changes when he is sent away to boarding school to “get a jump on my classes and begin studying for the SATS” (still two years away). Here for the first time, he meets some very cool Korean-American kids. They take him under their wings and by the time he heads back to Greenville, Michigan, his hometown, he is cool. He is also taller (six feet) and now has “a new haircut, a new wardrobe, new designer glasses, and new music.” He makes it into the in-crowd. Right after graduation from high school he gets surgery to reduce the size of his jutting jaw. By college, he says, “my ugly stage [is] behind me.”
His college years are all about studying and getting the grades to get into medical school…except for the time he spends trying to finally to make it with the girls. He shares some pretty funny stories about his failures in this arena – it is “chick lit” only for guys.
Then he starts med school and has an experience I think many of us had—he meets a handful of fellow students who form his inner circle and go on to become life-long friends. He studies hard, aces his rotations, and toys briefly with becoming a family doc. “Family practice,” Daddy says when Tony tells him his plans, “You make no money…Work all day, all night, weekend, no money. Go broke!….Surgery! One proceejah, two thousand dollars.” Later, Daddy changes his mind. “If you want to go into family practice, it’s okay,” he tells him. “Daddy understands. You do what makes you happy.” But, Tony still hasn’t told him his other transgression, one he assumes is even more serious, he not only has a girlfriend prior to finishing med school (a no-no per Daddy), the but Amy, also a medical student, is not Korean!
Dr. Youn shares the trauma and pleasures his clinical rotations and introduces us to some great characters: Nancy, his tough as nails resident who introduces him to Internal Medicine…”Let’s go, Tony-Tony. We got sick people backed up like a pileup in the I-96;” Frank Fremont, a depressed patient refusing life-saving surgery; Keisha, the surgical nurse who says, while Tony is holding a retractor during a ten hour Whipple, “I told him if his pager goes off, I’m to cut off his pants” – of course, the pager does go off…
For everyone who has survived med school, these stories bring back great memories (actually they are great because they are memories.) Remember your first code blue – Tony’s first, Mrs. Zingerman collapsed in front of him and couldn’t be resuscitated, – how about your first delivery or your first spinal tap (“My first medical procedure ever is going to be a spinal tap on a four-month-old?”). And then there is psych…Tony ends up with Dr. Levine, a shrink, who covers the maximum-security prison in Ionia. He interviews his first patient, Raymond, a skinny guy in leather restraints who twitches as he stares down Tony. Suddenly, Raymond lunges at Tony, and screams, “I’M COMING HOME WITH YOU, PRETTY BOY! I’M COMING HOME WITH YOU!”
It is during his Pediatrics rotation that Tony decides his future. He gets a page to the PICU (pediatric ICU) to help stabilize an eight-month-old whose face was chewed off by a pet raccoon while his mother was out drinking in a bar. It is then that Tony meets Dr. Kanner, the plastic surgeon called in to repair the devastation. Kanner’s paints the picture of how he is going to rebuild the baby’s face – “For a brief single moment I imagine that I am Dr. Kanner. I am sketching the replacement face for the eight-month-old child, and I am the one accepting the responsibility for rebuilding his face. I wonder how that would feel.” Kanner becomes a mentor to Tony and helps point him to plastic surgery rotations in some of the best programs in the country. He has some easy and some tough interviews for internship slots (“Show me how you would do a muscle or a skin flap to re-create a nose. Do it with your tie.”). But he ends up getting accepted at his first choice program, Grand Rapids Plastic Surgery.
Of course, Tony does go on to become a plastic surgeon – and a famous one at that. He eventually takes Amy home to meet his parents and is surprised that his parents instantly bond with her. Daddy explains, “Daddy and Mommy are relieved,” he says. We thought for sure you gay.” (Amy is now his wife.)
This is a fun book, a charming book, and a book of memorable tales. I am so glad I read it and hope that Dr. Youn’s (and his collaborator Alan Eisenstock) will consider writing another one – this time with Daddy as the main character
Tony Youn, M.D. is a board-certified plastic surgeon in private practice in Metro Detroit. He made his national TV debut on Dr. 90210 and has been a frequent guest on The Rachael Ray Show and The CBS Early Show and has appeared on The Doctors, The O’Reilly Factor, Fox and Friends, HLN Issues, Manswers, and in specials on VH1 and E! He’s written articles for RADAR magazine, MSNBC and CBS News.com. His comments have appeared in dozens of magazines, including US Weekly, In Touch and The National Enquirer. His blog is the most popular blog by a plastic surgeon in the country and averages over 20,000 page views per day with over 11 million page views in the past four years. His memoir of becoming a doctor, In Stitches, was published by Gallery Books in on Valentine’s Day 2012.