Hung’s (Finding Fat Lady’s Shoe, 2013) second memoir updates the classic American immigrant’s success story: A young man emigrates from Hong Kong to the U.S. and, despite hardships and failures, works his way through college and medical school to become a doctor.
In 1965, Hung arrived F.O.B.—fresh off the boat—in Hawaii with just a few hundred dollars in his pocket. He enrolled in college and worked as many as four jobs, struggling all the while with the English language; a blind date, he thought, meant going out with a blind person. Just an average student, Hung never earned his bachelor’s degree. Attempting to study optometry at Indiana University, he floundered there and, later, in dental school at the University of British Columbia, barely passing some courses, flunking others and enduring “a year of bad days.” Switching to medical school at the University of Hawaii and then the University of Nebraska, however, he earned his degree in medicine—a “uniformly strenuous” experience. A preceptorship in a country hospital in Wahoo, Nebraska, ensued, in which he treated all kinds of conditions, followed by an exhausting internship in Fresno, California, where he helped save some patients, watched helplessly as others died, and made beginner’s mistakes, such as putting an obese woman’s suppository “in the wrong hole.” Hung has written an absorbing and witty book. Dramatic, nuanced vignettes and vivid descriptions of people and places create a rich tapestry that shows the medical profession at its best and worst. He sees the wonder and the mystery of the human body and mind and the frighteningly big part that luck plays in patient outcomes, despite modern medical advances. As someone who’s “proud to be average,” Hung also demonstrates the value of hard work and persistence in reaching one’s goals. Though he overindulges in exclamation points and devotes a few too many pages to his early days in Hawaii, this memoir provides a fascinating insiders’ look at the study and practice of medicine, a view few outside the field will even guess at.
Hung’s thoughtful book deserves an audience wider than just those contemplating a life in medicine, “an impossible and often thankless job.”