Dr. Peter Rhee to Undergrads: Travel, Today's a Good Day

May 12, 2012
Dr. Peter Rhee (Photo by Patrick McArdle/UANews)
Dr. Peter Rhee (Photo by Patrick McArdle/UANews)

University of Arizona keynote speaker Dr. Peter Rhee, chief of trauma, critical care and emergency surgery at The University of Arizona Medical Center-University Campus, shared the following words during the May 12 Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony.

*** Graduating class of 2012, congratulations. We all know how much it took you to get yourself here today.

Next, to all the family and friends, congratulations. You all know how much it took you to get them here today.

To all those who work at the great UA, congratulations. We all know how much it took to get everyone here today.

To the distinguished dignitaries on stage, the Board of Regents, provost, deans and the countless number of people that make up the academic profession, you should be pretty proud today, because, today is a good day. Let's take a moment to reflect on what graduation represents and soak up the moment as... today is indeed a good day.

To President Sander, thank you for the invitation to be the commencement speaker. You seem to have a challenging but fun job. During times of economic and budgetary cuts to education, you've been so ingenious in your solutions including your choice of commencement speaker that is a professor here at the UA. Now you don't have to pay a speakers fee or pay for travel expenses. However, I am going to insist that my parking be validated. And I would also like a moderate raise. Ok, I will settle for a small one? No? Could you at least pull some strings to get my son into the UA for the fall class this year? He is graduating in two weeks.

Writing this commencement speech was not easy for me or my wife, Emily. I felt a lot of pressure to write something inspirational until I remembered that I don't have a clue who spoke at my college commencement 29 years ago. Whew!, What a relief! I am sure that he was an impressive scientist or a famous actor or politician or anchor person which is a combination of the last two. Wow, 29 years since my college graduation. I know the graduates are thinking, 29 years since graduation? Wow that dude is so old. But I would rather you be saying he can't be that old.

But I do remember the commencement speaker from my medical school graduation. I went to the Military Medical Academy called the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. I remember that commencement speaker because he was a great and famous actor. You may have heard of him. His name was Ronald Regan. My graduation was at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC and we invited him as a commencement speaker as we didn't have to pay him either as he was the president. In addition, he lived 5 miles up the road in a large White House so no travel expenses either. We did give him an honorary medical degree. During my commencement, he said, "well, when I went to college I probably paid a little too much attention to football and the girls and not as much as I should have to the classes. My mother said to me after graduation...Ronnie, if you had only applied yourself a little more to your studies, you never know what you could accomplish". So for those of you graduating today, wishing you should have applied yourself a little more, you never know where you will end up. We don't know what we don't know, but the only thing I do know and can predict is that the future is unpredictable.

Speaking of travel expenses, president Sander, this is the first topic of my 19 minute address. Not travel expenses exactly, but traveling. There will be two major messages from me today, first is traveling and the second is an explanation of why today is such a good day.

I have always loved traveling. It was fascinating to me. Maybe it was because flying on a plane was such a good experience back then. I was five years old when I took my first airplane ride from Seoul, South Korea to East Africa. We went through Asia and the Middle East and ended up in a small town called Torroro in Uganda. It was near the border of Kenya. We moved there as my father worked for the Ugandan government as a general surgeon and from what I understand, it was sort of like a Peace Corps kind of thing. My father was a sweet, gentle and kind man. He was inspirational but I didn't realize it so much until I became an adult.

When I got older, what I learned was how smart he was and how right he always was. Dang, I wish I had listened to him more when I had the chance, as he died of brain cancer 10 years ago. But I ask you, how was I to know that he was smarter than my friends? Last weekend as I finished washing my car for my son so that he could take it to the prom, and I remember wondering if my son would one day realize that I am at least just as smart as his friends.

When I went away to college in Atlanta, Georgia and got back home my dad seemed to have gotten even smarter. I went to college and HE got smarter? Go figure. How? Every time I went away for school or training, he got even smarter still. When I went away to medical school, internship, residency, fellowships, whatever, my dad got smarter. Now, did he really get smarter or was it that I just started listening to him? Not just hearing him but listening to him.

Anyways, back to Uganda. I have the best childhood memories of the times there. It could not have been any better. We played Robin Hood frequently, as Uganda was imperialized by the British back then, I grew up under the British influence. Those toys we made out of sticks were the best. A spaghetti carton held the arrows we made, as well as the bows we made out of saplings trees with a machete. It was great as we were allowed to play with a machete and even run with it. This was during the tail end of the British Empire. Remember the British Empire? They said that the sun never set on the British Empire. But the American Empire was taking over and peaking. It wasn't until the 20th century when the American Empire started to really take off and we peaked at the end of the 1900's with the software dot.com industry boom. Mid 1900's were dominated by our military but we really dominated the world culture though Hollywood and TV. But it was the invention of the computer and the internet that really wrote our history as the dominant empire at the turn of the century. We dominated through culture and economics. We became global.

Anyways back to Uganda one last time. We were having a good old time when all Asians got thrown out of the country by its new president -- Idi Amin. This was "a good day" as it forced us into the next chapter of our lives. We hopped around a little through Europe, but eventually my family of five ended up in a small hotel room on Manhattan Island, trying to go through immigration so we could maybe stay in the United States. My father chose the US because of the opportunities to educate the kids in the American Empire and not the British Empire. Our family of five lived on one roasted chicken a day that we bought from the rotisserie that they had in the department store next to the hotel. We eventually got an apartment in the ghettos of Passaic, New Jersey where my father had to do his internship again, and then moved to Youngstown, Ohio where he repeated his residency. He finally got a job as a doctor in a small coal mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania called Uniontown, which is where I call home as that was where I graduated from high school. In high school, I didn't get into as many fights as before as everyone kept getting bigger while I didn't. But my older brothers were seemingly always expelled from school as they were constantly not taking any crap from the idiots who had never seen Asians before. I guess those that challenged my brothers didn't travel much.

After high school, I asked my parents to drive me 12 hours south to Atlanta Georgia so I could go to college at Georgia Tech so I could become "not a doctor". I wanted to be anything other than a doctor. You see, I am Korean. There were two Asians in my home town; me and this other Chinese girl. Everyone figured and hoped I would eventually marry her as we were both Asians. Everyone pressured me to be a doctor. I had to rebel. I figured I would move far away and become some type of engineer but somewhere along that career path I went astray and ended up applying for...you guessed it, medical school. I eventually told my dad that I got into medical school. I am sure he did a little dance of joy when he hung up the phone, when no one was looking. I admired my father for always being able to accept my idiotic decisions when growing up, like when I used to say I wanted to be a marine biologist like those guys on Jacque Cousteau so I could work with the dolphins. He said ok to all these desires after making a long sigh and he tried desperately to not roll his eyes.

I then decided that I would join the military, for the usual reason that most of us do, which is that I needed the money to pay for medical school. I am sure that my dad did another little dance of joy as he learned that he didn't have to pay for my medical school. During medical school, that's when the traveling started to really escalate. I took every opportunity that came my way and did every out-of-town rotation I could. When I became a Navy doctor, I felt that I made circles around the globe. I didn't know how to say no to any opportunity. It seemed as if I got to go everywhere and do many interesting fun things. Whether it was humanitarian aid mission in East Timor, or deployments out at sea during peacetime or deploying to the wars with the Marines or even a luxurious presidential tour of China as President Clinton's trauma surgeon, traveling was fun and I loved it. I kept traveling, and I got very good at traveling; a road warrior. I traveled light, and always went far forward. I hated being in the rear with the gear. Traveling meant experiencing the different cultures, the beers, the sights, the wines, it was pretty fabulous. Being in the Navy really was an adventure and not just a job.

But today, I did not have to travel much to get here, and that's another reason that it is a good day. Today just feels good; it feels right. So many here today to celebrate, and I hope nothing ruins your day today. You deserve a complete, full, entire good day. Don't let the little things like being late today spoil your day.

Once upon a time, when I was a battlefield surgeon in Ramadi Iraq, I wrote a little piece in my journal and it was called ... "today is a good day". Let me tell you of that good day. It was December 7, Pearl Harbor day. No surgical cases the night before and that meant that I got to sleep early, and I had gotten what was seemingly plenty of sleep. You see, you can't sleep forever as Mother Nature calls or otherwise I would have stayed in my cozy sleeping bag a little longer. Normally I get up to use an empty water bottle, but what I had to do you couldn't or shouldn't do in a bottle. It was quite cold outside, and I laced up my boots, got my gear on, and went to the port-a-john. Clean crisp air and I felt good. Because it was cold, the flies were not so active yet, and the smells were tolerable, but most important of all, the port-a-john was freshly cleaned and hosed out. I was the first to use the port-a-john that morning. So my wife and a few others asked me to take out this portion about the port-a-john from my talk and asked why are you talking so much about going to the bathroom? Because we didn't have bathrooms out there and it was a luxury to have a port-a-john. During some deployments like in Afghanistan, when the war started, there were no port-a-johns. I am not going to go into the details of how we did it, but let me tell you that that port-a-john was a good thing and I was really thankful for it. Washing your face and bathing using rationed bottled water for months makes one appreciate the simple things. So that morning, when others started to wake up, I was being greeted by all the other troops. They would say to me "good morning CAPTAIN, how are you today?" I would snap back my usual reply. "It couldn't get any better". And today with that clean port-a-john, I felt that I really meant it. Now let me explain my usual reply. It would seem like a pretty sick answer from someone who was at war, seeing the horrific, nonsensical injuries that were a daily occurrence. I also was without my wife and kids. So why would I say, "It couldn't get any better?" Well to me, at that time, that was how I felt. You see, although I chose the military for the money. The deal I made was pretty simple. They pay and if there is a war, I pay. That was the deal, straightforward and simple. They paid for my training, and now it was my turn to pay back as our country was at war. It's like a tank commander who had trained all his life and was about to retire without ever having to fire a round out of his tank during a war. Now, one could argue, over beers, the philosophical points about whether this is a good or bad thing, that the tank commander never had to fire at an enemy during war. I was sort of in that situation, you see. I was military trauma surgeon training everyone else how to do battlefield surgery. Now that there was a war and I was at the top of my game: physically, mentally, professionally, my rank, etcetera. I was a trauma surgeon and it took me 15 years of training to become one, had 10 years of experience and now I was in a warzone. I wanted that opportunity to do what I had trained to do. Although it meant yet another period of separation from the family, another Christmas missed, it was what I wanted. I had no possessions to really worry me. Two pairs of pants, extra pair of boots, and so on. All I had to do was just concentrate on doing my job--a job that only a few could do. The troops needed me. The military needed me. The country needed me. I wanted to serve when I was needed and they needed trauma surgeons. I had to wear a gun at all times but didn't have to shoot anyone or worry about things like that. Didn't care what they were fighting about. Didn't matter, it was not in my control. All I had to do was help the torn flesh placed before me. Kids, civilians, marines, Army soldiers, the enemy, it didn't matter. No questions asked. I worked for a country that lets you take care of the enemy, how great is that? Didn't have to question what was going on or why. You need that sometimes, people who don't question, but just do as ordered.

So later that night, on Pearl Harbor day, Dec. 7, we had a mass casualty. Kind of like the one in Tucson on January 8, 2011, when 19 people got gunned down- shot on the corner of Oracle and Ina, 9 miles up the road. Except in Ramadi that night, 19 marines were blown up and then shot up. Six were killed here in Tucson that day, but none had died yet that day in Iraq. You get them to me alive and you got a pretty good chance they stay alive. We trauma surgeons may not be the smartest in the group but we make up for it by working long and hard and in stressful conditions. We like making the tough choices that matter. The first six marines that came to me had tourniquets on both of their legs at the level of the groin. Four legs were already blown clean off at the level of the thighs on two of the marines. I won't go into the details of the hell that ensued that day, but I have been told to warn you that I will open a small window that will show you a little of that night. We only lost one of the 19 marines that came to us that day. I do apologize to the family of that one marine. We should have done better. Mistakes were made and we are sorry. Sorry for many things. We share the loss, we too felt it deeply.

You see, during the evacuation helicopter flight to Bagdad, in the back of the apache helicopter it was pitch black and as the injured marine officer got shoved into the helicopter, his IV line got cut, and he bled out just a little but it was enough to kill him. I didn't have to amputate his legs before I sent him because he already had them blown clean off but he was alive when the helicopter took off and we should have been able to keep him alive. The nurse flying with the marine that died told me what happened when she got back from transporting him. That nurse's call sign or nickname was "blue light special" as she loved the blue light specials at Kmart and she always carried a small blue LED flashlight on her body armor. When I approached her, she said she had to brush her teeth first before talking to me. You see, she had to do mouth to mouth and CPR in the helicopter and the marine vomited into her mouth as he was dying. 19 marines came to us that night and of the first batch of six marines, we were only able to save one leg out of twelve. One out of a dozen wasn't that great, but I guess it was better than none. Or another way to look at it is that we only lost 11 out of the 38 legs that came to us that night. That day was still a good day in my opinion.

We got finished around 0430 in the morning, and when I got out of the operating room with the last casualty, most of the medics and nurses had gone to sleep already as all the other casualties already got flown out. I got the sergeant to get the troops back out of bed and get in formation. I needed to talk to them. Of course, they were probably all expecting to get chewed out. It seemed chaotic that evening and as if everything went wrong. I can get demanding and they all knew I wanted things perfect all the time. They were expecting a debrief of the night's event. When they were assembled, I did raise my voice. But I didn't chew them out. I thanked them for how they performed that night and praised them for serving their country. I knew it was a pretty rough night for all those medics and nurses. Some were your age and most of them did not want to be there. I asked them to remember that night and said to them, I know you might not recognize what all happened tonight for years, but if you don't feel anything after tonight, then you have no heart. You all had a chance to serve tonight, and together we served well. You see, in military medicine, there is no better honor or privilege than to serve those who serve in battle. That is why that day was a good day. A silver lining if you look for it.

So, today is a good day. I know that when you look or listen, you will hear about the wars around the world, the hungers, the pains, the war on drugs, global warming, border issues, the inequities, failing economies, the loss of jobs, budget cuts to education and health care. There are 40-50 million Americans with no health insurance, the jobs are tough to get, and so on and so on. Seemingly the world is imploding today or tomorrow. According to the news, it's only going to get worse.

But I say, "Look around you. What do you see?" In an airplane, when the gauges all tell you that you are falling out of the sky, the first thing you are taught to do is look out the cockpit and see if the instruments are correct. Let me tell you what I see when I look out the cockpit today. Life is good and it is getting better. I see educated people graduating. I see people who will make the world better and not worse. Education is responsible for our progress in civilization. Look at the unbelievable accomplishments made in the last three decades alone. Did you know that when I went to college, we didn't have computer screens? We used IBM punch cards. I know that you may have no idea what punch cards are, but they are redonkulous things. Today, we can move ten feet, and based on the change of the detected speed of light from three satellites, your phone will tell you where you are, and where the nearest restaurant or club is. Based on the zeros and ones flying through the air, the picture you took will be sent to your friend, and by the sequence of zeros and ones, your friend's phone, when it detects the exact correct sequence of those zeros and ones traveling through the air, buildings and your body, it will sound the notification ring tone on your friend's phone and your friend's phone will receive that picture and not your mother's phone. Today we can take a heart, or liver, from a dead person and put it into a dying person so that they can live longer. We can shoot lasers into your eyes so that you don't have to wear glasses. People are living longer than ever before. We have cured diseases. We can do many things today that we could not even imagine when I graduated from college. Yes, today is a good day. When everyone is convinced that our world is spiraling downward towards impending implosion, look outside the cockpit and see if those gauges are correct. I say they are not. It looks great outside. It is sunny and there are 5,000 smarter people graduating today, and over 10 thousand proud family and friends that can attest that today is a good day.

So back to the traveling. I am finally getting sick of traveling and it's because as I see the world and the rest of the country, I see that the best place for me is here, with my wife and kids, in Tucson, in Arizona, in the United States of America. I have traveled and I know now that I like it here the best. But I think this only because I have traveled; and I urge you to do the same and say yes to all the opportunities in front of you. Travel, and experience the world. Don't take my word for it. And one day you too will realize for yourself, how good it is, right here, right now and that's why today is such a good day.

If we see each in the future, stop me and let's chat. However speaking professionally as a trauma surgeon, I hope to never see you again. Seriously, good luck and farewell wherever you may fare.

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