Tony Youn: From small-town nerd to big-city success 2012.04.25

Written by David Green.

anthony younBy DAVID GREEN

Most every small town has someone who leaves home after graduation and becomes a big success, maybe even someone famous.

Sometimes there’s more than one, as in the case of Greenville, Mich.

“The most well-known person is some scientist that I’ve never heard of,” said Dr. Anthony Youn.

But that man has competition from MSU football star Ty Hallock who went on to play for the Detroit Lions.

And Ty Hallock has competition, too. Just one grade behind him in school was a self-described nerd named Tony Youn. He’s now considered one of the foremost plastic surgeons in America, and he’s coming to Morenci to speak at 4 p.m. Sunday.

Morenci’s Stair Public Library is the first stop on Youn’s tour as an author of a 2012 Michigan Notable Book. Visits to Grand Rapids, East Lansing and Houghton Lake follow.

Youn’s book, “In Stitches,” gives an informative and humorous look at his experiences growing up as a Korean-American youth in a small Midwestern town, plus his days in medical school.

Youn will be accompanied by the silent partner in his book, Dr. Brian Smith, who works as an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Michigan State University medical school.

“His name isn’t in the book to try to protect him,” Youn said.

Several years have passed since the two doctors first thought about writing a book.

“We got together and talked about how there’s never been a book written about becoming a doctor that’s really truthful,” Youn said.

There are many books available about the topic, but they’re mostly self-congratulatory, he said, and much too serious.

“What’s missing is the truth,” he said, and the truth might come through as somewhat controversial.

That’s why Smith only appears as a friend named Tim. Youn didn’t want to endanger his best friend’s career.

His fear was unfounded. After the book was published, MSU officials praised the book and invited Youn to speak at the school.

Smith was a creative force in writing the book, Youn said, and he’s delighted to bring him along to Morenci. This will be the first time Smith has publicly spoken about the book.

The men started the writing process by putting together a manuscript of all their recollections from medical school, while Youn had his own stories of growing up in Greenville and his transformation into becoming a surgeon.

Youn tells in his book how his father decided that medicine was the only career choice for his son, and surgery was his preference.

Youn followed the edict to study medicine, but there was no direct path to his final destination as a plastic surgeon.

As he made his way through the clinical rounds, he mentally crossed off one practice after another. Internal medicine? No thanks. Obstetrics? No way. General surgery? Sorry, Dad. Psychiatry? That’s for Tim, not for him.

Finally, he stumbled across his future by accident. He was half-way through his pediatrics rotation and he knew already this wasn’t where he belonged.

It’s a common phenomena among medical students, Youn said. They know they want to work as a physician, but many don’t really know where to apply themselves. There’s often an about face where someone chooses one field and ends up in a much different place.

At this point, Youn decided he would go into family practice—an announcement that his father took with stony silence. That night, the father came into his son’s bedroom to tell him it’s all right if he chose family practice. Do what makes you happy.

“That was shocking,” Youn said. “It was a huge turning point.”

His father was proud, but probably not happy. His happiness came later.

During his pediatric work, Youn was called one night to assist in the repair of an infant whose face was mauled by a pet raccoon. He writes in his book that the experience resulted in a kind of thrill—the thrill of possibility and hope.

An evening of reconstructive surgery soon led to a decision—plastic surgery would become his specialty.

After an internship with a famous surgeon in Beverly Hills, Calif., Youn returned to Michigan and eventually set up a practice in Troy, Mich.

His career blossomed to where he now appears on television shows to talk about plastic surgery and writes columns for CNN Health.

“I like writing as well as I like treating people,” Youn said. “I really enjoy being in the media.”

He expects to do more of his educational and entertaining discussions about medicine, while at the same time taking advantage of the amazing progress in plastic surgery procedures for use in his practice.

And don’t think his success has overshadowed the recollection of his home town of Greenville. Although his father is now retired and his parents live in California, Dr. Youn returns each year to present scholarships to deserving graduates planning to study medicine.

“I’m proud that I came from a small town,” he said. “It’s a source of pride that I can come from a small town and do well. Greenville is my home town, definitely.”

• Dr. Youn and Dr. Smith will speak at 4 p.m. Sunday at the library to tell how the book came about, to talk about the state of publishing in the age of eBooks, and to discuss the writing of a biography, in particular.

They will also talk about the roller coaster ride of attending medical school—what they call the truth of what it’s like to become a physician.

There will be plenty of time for questions from the audience and they will fill readers in on what happened to several characters in the book. Youn says to expect a light and fun program.

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