Yanghee Woo: 'Healing hands and an unconditional heart'

April 18, 2017 | by Abe Rosenberg

Long before she thought about becoming a doctor, Yanghee Woo had a plan.

“I wanted to impact the world,” she said.
April - Minority Month - Woo Yanghee Woo, M.D.
Her deeply rooted desire to be a leader guided her early career choices, which did not include medicine.

“I hated doctors.” she recalled. “And I hated hospitals.”

An odd thing to hear from Woo, who is a City of Hope surgeon, scientist and one of this country's foremost authorities on minimally invasive and robotic surgery for treatment of stomach cancer.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Woo moved with her family to the U.S. when she was 7 years old. Growing up in New Jersey, she attended public school, then went on to Princeton where she studied architecture and political science, searching for that path to leadership, either as a builder or a public servant.

Eventually, Woo realized there was a better way to make a difference.

“Around my senior year,” she said, “I started thinking that I could change the world, one life at a time, as a doctor. It would be a much more meaningful path, something I could put my whole heart into. That was my motivation and it totally suited my personality.”

But that same personality made it unlikely that she'd become just a doctor.

“She's one of those people who is born to lead,” said Yuman Fong, M.D., chair of City of Hope's Department of Surgery. Fong, The Sangiacomo Family Chair in Surgical Oncology, has known Woo for more than a decade; he hired her for his lab at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and later recruited her to join him at City of Hope after he arrived in 2014. Early on, he recalls, Woo wanted career advice.

“She flat-out asked me, 'What do I need to do to be a world leader?'”

The question didn't surprise him. But it did impress him.

“It's exactly the distinguishing factor I look for in every surgeon I've trained and every doctor I've recruited,” he said. “Someone who wants to lead. And she's a natural. You could see it right away.”
Fong White BG Yuman Fong, M.D.
Fong urged Woo to return to South Korea to study robotics with the acknowledged “guru” of the field, Dr. Woo Jin Hyung at Yonsei University. She did, focusing primarily on stomach cancer (though she is well-versed in other procedures).

“I chose gastric surgery because the need for it, especially in Korea, was so great, and because it can actually cure patients,” said Woo. “The idea of being able to 'fix' things with my own hands was tremendously appealing. And the training was amazing. I saw more gastric procedures in that one year than I would have encountered in a decade in the U.S.”

Her expertise and experience have added to City of Hope's reputation as a world leader in robotic surgeries, with more than 11,000 performed since 2003. Even more striking is the fact that barely 3 percent of all gastric surgeries nationwide are performed robotically, but at City of Hope nine out of 10 are robot-assisted.

Experts point to the many benefits of robotic surgery. Incisions are smaller. Bleeding is reduced. The surgeon sees better, can control multiple instruments at once and performs with a higher level of precision. The patient generally recovers faster and experiences less postoperative pain.

One major drawback is operating time: Compared to open surgery, a robotic procedure can take up to twice as long  a serious problem for frail or elderly patients. Also, there will be times when open surgery is preferable because of the size and location of the tumors.

Talk with Woo for even a little while and you'll hear her enthusiasm for robotics, especially how the technology is improving every day. She'll tell you about advances in software and instrumentation, like the potential for infrared light to enable surgeons to “see beyond the anatomy.” Or how systems which enable robots in space to make tiny 2-millimeter repairs may soon do the same here on Earth.

But her patients most emphatically do not get the robotic hard sell.

“I don't even mention it until the very end,” she insisted. “We go through everything else first: the nature of the disease, all the available options  surgical and otherwise  the differences between open and minimally invasive procedures, the benefits and challenges ... everything. Only then do I say, 'My approach and my training is in robotics.' And it's always perfectly OK for the patient to say no.

“To tell you the truth, I really like doing open surgery! It's more interactive, more hands-on. I'm right there at the patient's side!

“But with robotics, the outcome for patients is consistently so much better. That's why I recommend it. I'm doing it for them, not for me.”

And “doing it for them”  putting the patient first  is a big reason Woo's fan club is growing.
victoria soudaros white bg Victoria Soudaros
“I just love her to death,” said Victoria Soudaros, a food blogger from San Diego who was treated by Woo for Stage 4 gastric cancer.
 
“The first doctor who diagnosed me ... I was just a number to him. But when I came to City of Hope for a second opinion, what a difference! Dr. Woo's compassion was immediate and extraordinary. She gave me all the time I needed; treated me like I was her only patient. And when I cried, she cried! How many doctors do that?”

The journey for Soudaros was longer than most, due to a variety of complications. She said Woo was always there, even speaking with doctors at another hospital when Soudaros needed emergency follow-up surgery.

“She'd call me on her day off to see how I was doing.” said Soudaros. “Even now, more than a year later  and thank God I'm cancer-free  I still look forward to going for my checkups and seeing her.”

Woo, who describes her bedside manner as “honesty and a hug,” appreciates the praise but realizes it doesn't always come.

“You can't predict how patients will react,” she said. “Look, it's difficult to entrust your life to a total stranger. And in some ways, I don't look the part. I'm small (just over 5’1) and still look rather young. I understand that. And you know, if I can't gain a patient's trust, I can't heal them. I may be able to cure their cancer, but “curing” and “healing” are two different things, and healing only happens with trust.”

Woo has also gained the ongoing trust of her colleagues, continuing to work in Fong's lab on molecular categorization of tumors and 21st century viruses capable of killing cancer. She's also playing a key role in City of Hope's growing Department of International Medicine  she'll be lecturing shortly in Italy, China and Turkey.

“To be a successful physician,” said Fong, “You need three things: A thorough understanding of medicine, the technical skill and empathy. Dr. Woo is not only a great doctor, she's one of the best patient advocates I've seen.”

Soudaros puts it in a patient's terms: “She has a great mind, healing hands and an unconditional heart. She's my angel.”
 
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