Are those real? A question some may ask of the work of skilled plastic surgeons—because sometimes you just can’t tell. In Anthony Youn M.D.’s case, the ‘are they real’ inquiry could also be asked of his hilarious and heartbreaking tales of medical school. And yes. Those are real.
Youn, a Detroit-based plastic surgeon and frequent talk show guest, put down his scalpel, picked up a pen and crafted In Stitches: A Memoir. Released in April 2010 by Gallery and co-authored with Alan Eienstock, In Stitches begins with Youn’s teenage years, where he felt especially awkward as one of only two Asian-American students in his small hometown. He stuck out even more with his cartoon jaw—a mandible that could rival Jay Leno’s. We learn, that while he excels at science, he has little chemistry with women—much of the early part of the book reveals his desire to get laid. But, doctors—doctors get laid. So, Youn’s journey to medical school begins and—fingers crossed—the M.D. will lead to love. But, ladies or not, becoming a doctor will certainly lead to acceptance from his obstetrician, “Tiger Father” who dubbed his newborn son a surgeon immediately after he arrived—and made clear almost daily that being a doctor was the only career option. Period.
Youn may shape breasts (and other body parts) by day, but here, he sculpts a beauty of a memoir. I spoke with Tony in mid-July and, in our almost hour-long phone conversation, we talked about his book, his family, his media experience and the challenges he faces as the author of “a doctor book”—and whether or not I should consider liposuction for my problem area.
You can also enjoy an excerpt of In Stitches, “Prologue: The Face in the Ceiling”, here.
[Please note: The following excerpts of my interview with Tony have been transcribed directly from our natural, conversational banter.]
DONNA TALARICO (DT): In a previous interview I read while preparing for this, you had mentioned to a reporter that most medical books you read were lacking two things: humor and relationships. This was largely why you wrote In Stitches the way you did. I really found that you struck a really nice balance between the medical world and Tony’s world. Could you elaborate on your approach and why you felt the story needed to be told this way?
ANTHONY YOUN, MD (AY): When I first started this—gosh, this was about five or six years ago—I had just started my practice and I had a lot of free time because I had no patients, no kids and no money. At the time, I had this kind of epiphany that there has never been a medical book—a biography or memoir—written about becoming a doctor that was funny… it kind of stemmed from the idea that there is more truth in a screwball comedy like Scrubs than there is in Grey’s Anatomy and ER and House and these serious medical dramas. And the practice of medicine–it’s a sacred cow. We like people to take us seriously and we like people to think we’re 24/7 slaving over medicine and reading journals and really just dedicated to our craft, our specialty and, because of that, we take our job extremely seriously, which we need to do. But the real fact is that there is a lot of humor in medicine that has never really been explained or never really exposed; so, the idea behind writing In Stitches was to tell the story of becoming a doctor that really reveals these insecurities that doctors face… In some ways, it’s kind of the book your doctor doesn’t want you to read.
DT: You mention early on in your that all doctors are/were nerds. So, how does the social hierarchy form in med school when all the nerds get together? In one instance, you relate your friend James to a movie star. In reality, was he just a nerd too?
AY: In med school it’s definitely different… I think it’s so intense that you really don’t have the time to socialize and to create a lot of these social groups that you may have in high school and college. For me, college was an extension of high school. We had the swimmers, and they were the guys that partied the hardest and dated all the women. We had the football players who were all a group, and they were kind of bigger guys and drank the most out of everybody. And they had some women, but they were bigger guys and most women weren’t interested in them. And then there was someone like me, you know, who was in this science group, where we couldn’t find a woman to save our lives. So, there always was this part of me and a lot of my friends—a lot of us have gone on to medical school and are doctors now—where we thought, “well maybe in the future we’ll be like those swimmer guys. Once we get our M.D, then maybe we’ll have some luck with the women.” And I think for a lot of doctors, even though they may not admit, that that’s true.
DT: Well, as you know from my email, I found out about your memoir by reading the CNN.com article “Why you should never go to the hospital in July” which, by the way, I have a birthday in July and I made sure I didn’t do anything that would send me to the ER over my celebration weekend. But, where I’m going with this is, as someone who works in marketing and PR during the day, I really appreciated the success you have had with these guest articles and all the appearances you have made. How did you fall into that? This is not just good for your practice, but also for your memoir. They always preach in publishing that, especially in nonfiction, you really need to build a platform and you’ve done an incredible job with that.
AY: Thanks. Well, I’ve been real fortunate that I do have a lot of connections on the Internet and in the media as a plastic surgeon… There have been a handful of media outlets and people—writers that I’ve worked with and things—that have read my book and, after reading it, have offered me these types of positions to write for them. I’m in a good position that I do have a lot these contacts that have started with just being a plastic surgeon, let’s say Rachael Ray and things like that. And, like I said, for me, it’s opening up doors. I’ve asked for a lot of favors in trying to sell a book; I think if you have a book that you want to sell, unfortunately you have to… it’s very difficult—unless you are Tina Fey or Rob Lowe or unless you write a book about vampires—to sell a book without asking for help from other people to help publicize it. And, so, that’s what I’ve done. I’ve swallowed my pride in a lot of cases and I’ve called and I’ve emailed and written letters to people—some that I barely, barely even know—asking them if they’d be interested in reading my book and, if they liked it, would they write a review or allow me to write an original article. And that article that you read was interesting because I wrote that—well, you read my book, and the book is kind of tongue-in-cheek and has serious parts, but it’s not a book that’s meant to change the practice of medicine per se. And with the article, I wrote it as a little humorous little article that is a bit of a truth and—Holy cow!—it went viral and there have been some people that have been really upset by it after reading it, and other people who are really, really glad someone has written something like this. In the end, I wrote it as just a fun little piece and thought people would be entertained by it and not necessarily create this huge discussion that it has created.
DT: Yeah. It’s definitely something new today with the ability to like and share and do comments and get the instant feedback, whereas, years ago, maybe one or two people would have written a letter to the editor or wrote the producer, but now we get the feedback.
AY: Yeah. It’s incredible. It had over 15,000 Facebook recommendations and over 500 comments on what I thought was just a fun little piece, but people take it seriously. And it’s funny when people take out of it a line or word here or there that I didn’t think a lot about putting in; but, for some people, it creates a lot of importance to them, and what it’s taught me is to watch my words a little more closely because, you know, I’m finding that in certain cases there’s a lot of power to it.
DT: Oh yeah. So, of course, plastic surgeons are everywhere. But the glitz and glamour so many people associate with the field give the impression that it’s Beverly Hills or bust. You captured this wonderfully in your chapter about your rotation with a Hollywood “shrink with a knife.” As a successful cosmetic surgeon, you could arguably have opened a practice anywhere, but your practice is in Michigan. Could you talk a little bit about your allegiance to your home state?
AY: Yeah. For me, I grew up in Michigan; I’m a Midwestern guy. I had a major media outlet me ask if they could post an excerpt from my book and I thought, “well, let’s post this one.” Unfortunately for me, some of it was taken out of context… Really in the end, the reason for me showing that is because it is memoir and I wanted to reveal certain interesting things about my training and, obviously, this part showing a somewhat chauvinistic, over the top plastic surgeon from Beverly Hills living in glitz and glamour and equating his field of medicine to actual dating is just one of those crazy things. And that is, in a lot of ways, how it’s like out there. And, it’s not me… When I was out there, I loved the doctors I worked with. I was out there a full year working, but it really was based—at least where I was at—primarily on money. We didn’t take emergency room calls; we didn’t see any reconstructions… For me, I either had the choice to stay in Beverly Hills and be at a practice like that with, admittedly, doctors I really respected and enjoyed working with—and it’s fun and exciting and you’ve got celebrities coming in and out. Or, I could have gone back to Michigan. I didn’t want to open a practice just across the street from them because I’d be competing against them… So, for me, now my practice is based off what I feel is the best and what I do the best. I take calls in the emergency room; you know, sometimes people get bit in the face by a dog and they call me in to see them. I treat patients with skin cancer, I do some reconstruction and I do a lot of cosmetic procedures as well. I feel this is a much better balance because, for me, there is more to plastic surgery than making as much money as I can. That’s not the reason why I practice plastic surgery.
DT: Yeah. I think that statement is evident so much in your book and in all of the experiences that you share. I mean, the scene with [redacted because it contains a spoiler]. I mean, I knew I would get to the moment where you decided to choose plastic surgery, but I never expected that.
AY: Yeah. There are a lot of key patients along the path of becoming the doctor you’re going to be. And every doctor has at least a handful of patients that they saw early in their career, when they were in medical school or in their residency, that are going to stay with them their entire career. And what I wanted to do with this book, in addition to some of the other things we discussed, is reveal some of these patients that are those patients of mine that I will never forget.
DT: Great. So, how did your family react to the book?
AY: I was definitely afraid of showing it to my dad because I do portray him in a kind of a comical light and my dad has never really had a sense of humor about himself. This definitely was a challenge for me, and I definitely wasn’t sure how he was going to take it to the point where I actually kept it from him until a week before the publication date. Then I mailed it to him and waited and waited and waited and waited. He finally called me and I was waiting for him to disown me or kick me out of the family…
DT: Oh no.
AY: This was a very stressful time because, in the end, I was thinking if my dad likes the book, if my mom and dad like the book, then whether the book is a success or failure, doesn’t matter to me. You know, as long as they like it then I’m OK. And he called me up and told me something that was very poignant. And he loved it. He said, “It doesn’t matter how I’m portrayed in this book.” He said that what matters is that his son has done something that’s elevated our family and has done something that no one in our family has ever done. He said to me, “I look at myself as a stepping stone. I’m the one who kneels in the dirty water of the river to allow my children and my family to step across me to reach the other side.”
DT: Oh wow. One of the most touching scenes in the book, for me, was from the aptly named chapter, “A Show of Hands.” That was such a strong image that stuck with me for days—what other sights from medical school caused you to have reactions like that?
AY: They don’t call it immaculate anatomy, it’s called gross anatomy—and initially when you go into gross anatomy, there are so many emotions there. There’s fear because this is our first big class as a medical student and there’s fear that, geez, I’m not going to be able to keep up. There’s a sense, too of—how would you describe it?—that when you’re amongst all these bodies, not really of fear, but a concern that these bodies are going to maybe make you sick, maybe make someone throw up, pass out or anything like that. Then, there’s always the whole sensation of going through, where you’re smelling this phemaldehyde, and sometimes people get light-headed just from that. And the fear that I had, really, was how I would react when we’d see these people’s faces. It’s one thing to look at a liver because you don’t really think, “oh this belongs to an actual person.” Obviously, you know that on the surface, but it’s not something you normally see. They save the head and necks for last, and keep them covered until the end of gross anatomy… and I think that’s good because it kind of eases us in. We’re basically glorified undergraduate students at this point; just a few months before we’re partying in college with no cares in the world and, the next thing you know, you’re here with all these dead bodies and it’s your responsibility to learn from it… there is an obligation to those who have given their bodies, to learn from them so other people can benefit from it, but also to also just realize the contribution they’ve given us. And, for me, it didn’t really hit home until I saw the hands. These aren’t just body parts we’re looking at, these aren’t models made of plastic, these are real people.
DT: [Shared another favorite touching moment with Tony that could be a spoiler.]
AY: Yeah. There are those moments in medicine. What I wanted to do was portray the truth in medicine. There are those moments that are touching, those that are sad, those that are powerful. And then there are those that are hilarious, like the scene where I was doing the surgery where the nurse threatened to cut my pants off. Those are all true moments in medicine and what I hoped to show was a very accurate depiction of what it’s really like.
DT: It has been said that cosmetic surgery is a mix of art and science. Can you elaborate on your chosen field of practice?
AY: So, I floundered in medical school in deciding what I wanted to be. Initially I thought I would be a general surgeon because that was what my dad said… all these different powerful surgical subspecialties. But I knew I just wasn’t made for it. The day that I saw a 60-year-old man stumble out of the call room in the middle of the night to attend to a trauma, I thought, I don’t want to be that 60-year-old guy spending the night in a hospital… I also figured out that I’m not a high-stress type of doctor. You know, some types of doctors—ER doctors, trauma surgeons—they feed off that stress, they like that stress, they like making those split-second decisions that are either going to save someone’s life or lose it. I hated that. There’s always that fear in the back of my mind of, what if I fail? Can I live with that decision for the rest of my life that, maybe because I made this decision, somebody actually died? So, it was kind of a combination of not wanting to be that doctor spending the night in the hospital, knowing that I’m not the type of doctor that feeds of stress and also the fear of what’s going to happen 10 years from now if I keep seeing these terrible disasters over and over again. In some ways I think I’m too sensitive of a person that I would just burn out. So, to me, plastic surgery was the best of all worlds. It allowed me to use my hands as a physician, which I really enjoy doing, and it allowed me to use a creative side—I used to be an artist, used to paint, but don’t do it much anymore, and as a kid I wanted to be a cartoonist for the longest time. But, it allowed me to kind of use that artistic sensibility that I have, combine it with medicine where I am treating patients and helping them get better. And the other thing that hasn’t really come into effect until the last several years, is having a, well, not a foothold but maybe a toehold in entertainment, and being able to write a book like this. If I wasn’t a plastic surgeon it would have been very difficult for me to have sold this book because I never would have never been on Rachael Ray; I never would have a lot of the media exposure that I’ve had.
DT: Yeah… one of the first things they teach you in writing is to ‘write what you know’ so I mean, you really got to tell a great life story and at the same time, help your professional career so it really was a nice package.
AY: Yeah. I appreciate that. I think that my hope is to expose people to something they’ve never read before. The difficulty we’ve had with this book is, number one, it’s a doctor book and some people think doctors aren’t funny or entertaining and that it’s going to be boring doctor stories about physiology and all this stuff… and the final thing is that people may see ‘plastic surgeon’ and think he’s probably some money-hungry arrogant A-hole and think, “why would I want to read a book from somebody like that?” And the fact is, it’s exactly the opposite of all that!
DT: Oh yeah. Totally!
AY: It’s very unexpected; so, the one challenge we have in selling this book is convincing people this is not what you think it is—this is the opposite of what you think it is. It’s funny, it’s self-deprecating, it’s humble and it’s something that really is entertaining. It’s not a dry doctor book.
DT: I was definitely drawn to it… I mean, there were so many comments on that CNN article, but I took the article like you meant it—here’s a doctor seeing the humor in situations. And then I clicked on the link to your website and read the excerpts… and your book really struck me as a book that is for everyone. You know, you’re a doctor by trade, but this is your story. And, we’ve all been to high school and we’ve all been the outcast and, you know, I really believe this is a story for everyone.
AY: Yeah. That’s what we’re trying to get out there, to let people know that this isn’t about plastic surgery per se; this is a tale about growing up and feeling comfortable in your own skin.
DT: So, do you think your children will grow up to practice medicine?
AY: My kids are very young and they both say they want to be doctors, but both of their parents are doctors, so what would you expect them to say? We’ll see. I’ll let them do what they want. As long as they work hard and enjoy what they’re doing and can pay their bills then I’m happy.
DT: You sound a little like your dad there.
AY: No. He would say, “anything but doctor no good.”
DT: Yeah. That’s just funny. You really did portray him well.
AY: Thanks, Donna.
DT: No problem. Just one more question. At what point do I give up on tricep extensions and just go for liposuction?
AY: …There are some people that just carry extra fat in certain areas that they just can’t get rid of, so if you say, “I’m at my ideal body weight, I work out regularly and everything else looks fine but I just can’t get rid of these arms,” then liposuction may be able to help you.
DT: Yeah. I’m getting these, as they say, lunch lady arms!
AY: Yeah. If that’s the only part of the body that feels like it’s disproportionate, then lipo is a def. option for you.
In Stitches will be released in paperback in February 2012. For now, Youn is spending a lot of time promoting this book; he wants to make sure it does what he wants it do first, before he considers writing a second memoir. He’s keeping his writing muscles flexed, though: he runs a wildly popular plastic surgery blog.
Youn gave us permission to run an excerpt of his memoir in this issue of Hippocampus. You can read Prologue here. His author website features several additional excerpts, as well as a video trailer and “deleted scenes.”