The Language of Medicine
By Alex Cantatore
Tammy Wu stood up in her sixth grade classroom. In broken English, she recited a sentence she’d memorized: ” I want to go to an Ivy League school and become a physician.”
At the time, it seemed like a pipe dream for the Taiwan-born immigrant. But today Dr. Tammy Wu, M.D., is a leading plastic surgeon with an Ivy League education — and a fixture in the Modesto community.
It was fear that drove Wu’s family to flee Taiwan. The United States had recognized Communist China as a nation, legitimizing Taiwan’s greatest threat.
“My parents were afraid that Communist China was going to invade Taiwan, and everything they had would be gone in a minute,” Wu recalls.
After a year, Wu’s parents decided to return to Taiwan. It seemed safe again. But they wanted Wu to stay.
“It’s my recollection, it wasn’t my desire to stay here,” Wu said. “I wanted to go home with my parents.”
But Wu’s parents begged her to stay. The educational opportunities were better, they said, so they moved Wu and her brother to boarding schools in Tennessee and Georgia.
There was only one problem: Wu didn’t speak English. And she’d never bothered to learn during her first year, figuring a move back to Taiwan was imminent.
“Since my parents left me here… I decided I had to do something about it,” Wu said. “I had to learn to swim, or I would sink. Because I was sinking.”
Wu’s mother had taught her how to use a English to Chinese dictionary. So Wu decided to teach herself English. Wu would slowly work through her textbooks, looking up every single word in that dictionary, slowly learning the language.
Wu remembers studying for one World History exam, working her way through a small paragraph full of unfamiliar words. She spent an hour on that one paragraph.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, how am I ever going to make it here?’”
But Wu kept working. She was here to learn, so she was determined to make the most of it. Not just to survive, but to thrive.
Wu gave up ballet and piano so she could study more. She woke up early every morning to memorize more vocabulary words, every day for years and years. Weekends were just more study time.
The extra work paid off. Wu graduated as salutatorian of her high school.
“I wasn’t sure exactly how that happened,” she says with a laugh.
Like all students, Wu had to learn a second language in high school; Wu chose French. For Wu, this was actually her fourth language, after Taiwanese, Mandarin Chinese, and English. Through an exchange program, Wu’s knowledge of that language flourished, too; she went on to score second place in a French language contest, competing against all of the southeastern U.S.
But it was through that exchange program that Wu learned how much work her English still needed. A fellow exchange student was baffled by Wu’s accent, a combination of Taiwanese and deep south.
So Wu started listening more carefully to how she spoke, and how others spoke. She started only watching national news broadcasts, picking up on the intricacies of a “proper” American English accent and gradually losing her drawl.
Wu thought for a while that she might become a news anchor, after that experience. Or perhaps her language skills might make her an excellent ambassador, she thought.
But medicine was in Wu’s blood. Wu’s father was a physician, and she grew up in his office. At age 5, Wu made a proclamation.
“I said, ‘I’m going to be the first woman physician when I grow up,’” Wu said. “I didn’t know that there were many, many successful women physicians already.”
After high school, Wu was accepted the Ivy League Brown University. It was there she met Dr. Calvin Lee, then a classmate and now her husband and business partner at Surgical Artistry in Modesto.
Brown brought new challenges. Wu had carried that English to Chinese dictionary for six years, but it was taking too long to translate every word in medical school textbooks. So Wu took the plunge, and gave up her trusty dictionary.
“I felt like I lost my security blanket,” Wu said.
Wu kept working hard, studying from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, making it through college without pulling a single all-nighter. Wu felt like it was her one chance to learn all this medical knowledge with no interruptions, to reach a point where she could be confident in her diagnoses.
Wu excelled, finishing as the No. 1 woman in her medical class. She thought she’d become an OB/ GYN, publishing some papers in the field. But during rotations, she discovered she had a talent for surgery. And in plastic surgery, Wu found an opportunity to heal people both physically and emotionally.
She tells about working with a breast cancer survivor. Through reconstructing the patient’s breasts, that woman felt whole again.
“That patient came into the office crying, depressed, sad,” Wu said. “At the end, she was smiling and happy… Plastic surgeons don’t save people’s lives, but we make peoples’ lives worth living.”
Wu opened her own practice, Surgical Artistry, in Modesto in 2006. She says she likes the freedom to care for a patient from start to finish, to treat a patent holistically. It’s about helping people slow down, look inside themselves, and find happiness — even if that doesn’t mean surgery.
Despite challenges, Wu has achieved her goals. But she’s not done working hard, not yet.
“I think that, to me, I have accomplished everything I have ever set out to do,” Wu said. “But that doesn’t mean I have stopped learning.”
For More Information, visit surgerytoday.com