I feel I am one of the most blessed and fortunate people around because I truly enjoy what I do for a living. In fact, what I do for a living is living my childhood dream, which was to become a neurosurgeon.
Several incidents taking place in my early life shaped this childhood ambition that is my life-long passion and current profession. First, at age 6, I was hit by a bus due to my miscalculation in timing. I was certain that I could outrun an approaching bus, crossing a busy street near my home in Seoul, Korea. Well, I lost that race. After being struck, I remained unconscious for 3 days. Purely by God’s grace, I survived without having any lasting problems, neurological or otherwise. Obviously, I certainly did not wake up from a coma at age 6, and said, “Well, I am going to be a neurosurgeon”.
There was another incident related to neurosurgery, this time involving a close relative. When I was 9 years old, I heard a sad news of my aunt’s passing following a “brain surgery.” She was diagnosed with a “large brain tumor” which was considered “inoperable” in Korea in 1968. At the time, her daughter, my cousin, was a resident in anesthesiology at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. My cousin arranged for my aunt’s surgery at the Cleveland Clinic by a famous neurosurgeon who was then Chairman of the Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Neurosurgery. Her family sold their home to come up with enough money to cover her medical expenses. Unfortunately, she did not survive the difficult and risky operation. I had completely forgotten about these 2 incidents until many years later.
When I was 16 years old, I read a story in the LA Times’ Sports Section about a high school football player, same age as I, who became a quadriplegic from a neck injury following an unfortunate tackle. It shocked me that the spinal cord injury thus sustained would leave this young man permanently paralyzed from his neck down, and that he would depend on others’ help for all his physical needs for the rest of his life. This sparked my interest in spinal cord injury. Right away, I had to learn what it was, and why it was not possible for spinal cord injury patients to walk again. Immediately, I had a naïve dream of helping paraplegics and quadriplegics regain their lost functions. I learned at that time that neurosurgeons are the specialists treating spinal cord injury, and that neurosurgeons also specialize in treating head injury (which I had 10 years earlier) as well as operating on brain tumors (from which my aunt died).
Around the same time, while waiting for our high school physics teacher to arrive following a lunch break one day, my friends were talking about “what we want to become when we grow up”. One said, an “engineer”. Another said, a “doctor”. Then Gordon, the smartest student in our entire high school whom I looked up to at the time said, a “neurosurgeon”. This is when everything “clicked”. At that time, I was actually reading feverishly to learn about what neurosurgeons do, and I thought if neurosurgery is good enough of a dream job for the smartest kid in our school, well neurosurgery would be good enough for me also. Ever since that day, I had a singular goal of becoming a neurosurgeon, never (not even once) considering anything else for my career choice.
I thank God for planting this dream in me more than 40 years ago, and for subsequent guidance, strength, determination and blessings for me to be able to live my childhood dream today. Looking back, our gracious Lord has always guided me along the best possible path, including the choice of college, medical school, neurosurgery residency and the job that followed. Was it a mere coincidence or was it by God’s guidance, one may ask, that I became the Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Skull Base Surgery Center 25 years after my aunt’s passing – at the same hospital, specializing in surgery for the same type of tumor (meningioma) that she had?