Doctor 'gives back' by teaching open heart surgeons in China

Dr. William Wang performs surgery at Scripps Memorial Hospital. Photo: Courtesy
Dr. William Wang performs surgery at Scripps Memorial Hospital. Photo: Courtesy
photo
Dr. William Wang speaks to a reporter on his recent trip to China. Photo: Courtesy

By Arthur Lightbourn

Contributor

When Dr. William Wang was a young boy growing up in Shanghai, China, two people especially impacted his life.

First was his cousin, a young girl his age, who couldn't run 10 steps without gasping for air and her lips turning blue.

He was told she was suffering from a fatal congenital heart disease.

"Whoa, I thought, how do we solve this problem? I have to do something."

The second person who influenced the direction of his life was somebody he never met: a contrarian Canadian doctor named Norman Bethune, who performed battlefield surgical operations and trained doctors, nurses and medics while serving as a medical advisor with the Communist Eighth Route Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1939. He treated both wounded Chinese and Japanese casualties alike.

Years later, Bethune gained international recognition when Chairman Mao Zedong documented the final months of the doctor's life in China and praised Bethune's "spirit of absolute selflessness" in an essay that became required reading in China's elementary schools during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

The Canadian surgeon contracted blood poisoning after he cut his finger while operating on a soldier and died on Nov. 12, 1939.

Wang was one of those elementary school students inspired by Dr. Bethune, and announced to his parents that he wanted to become a physician.

"My dad and mother didn't want me to do medicine. They wanted me to go into politics. Even right now, politics is the best occupation in China. They have the privilege; they have the power and the have the money."

Wang was born in Shanghai. His father, now 84, is a retired government official and former governor of Qing Hai province.

In 1978, when Wang was 16 and had graduated from high school, he began his medical studies at Shanghai Second Medical University, emerging 10 years later with his medical degree, a master's degree in general and thoracic surgery and a Ph.D. in cardiac surgery.

In China, only 3 percent of the population attains a college education, compared to 22 percent in the U.S.

Coming to the U.S. in 1988, Wang completed fellowships in cardiothoracic surgery at the Arizona Heart Institute, St. Vincent Hospital and Medical Center in Portland, Oregon, and UCSF's California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, in addition to a general surgical residency at the University of Washington's Swedish Medical Center.

Today, the 48-year-old Wang is a U.S. citizen and cardiothoracic surgeon on the medical staff of Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. He joined Scripps in 2000. He specializes in open heart and lung surgery; and has been making humanitarian trips back to China four times a year for the past 11 years to lecture, exchange medical information and perform surgeries at his own expense.

"I'm Chinese," Wang explained, "and I want to do something for the Chinese people."

We interviewed Dr. Wang in the Schaetzel Center medical library on the campus of Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla.

Wang's most recent trip to China was in June for two weeks accompanied by a volunteer team of three other Scripps physicians: Dr. Marc Sedwitz, vascular surgeon and current chief of staff at Scripps La Jolla; Dr. Ali Hamzei, cardiologist; and Dr. Brad Foltz, anesthesiologist.

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