The attending surgeon I met on a new rotation asked me where I had grown up.
“So you were born in South Korea?” he asked.
“Yes. In fact, my parents still live there.”
“Isn’t a war going to break out there any day now?”
I get this question pretty regularly, as rising tensions on the Korean peninsula are aired across major news outlets.
Yet it takes me off guard every time and keeps distracting me, like an alarm that I cannot turn off.
I am in the early days of an intense, eight-year residency in cardiothoracic surgery. For nearly 3,000 days, I will view the outside world mainly through my hospital’s windows, where I know that from before sunrise until after sunset, my primary focus will be my patients.
When I emerge from the hospital each evening, I hope the world will have remained more or less as it was at the start of my shift. So far so good, but every day, it appears that somewhere, stability, sustainability, and fundamental human rights are being upended. It feels as if the vital signs of society are deteriorating.
One day, I came out of surgery only to learn that international relations were coming undone at the Korean peninsula, where my family lives. I left the hospital to face a scary and uncertain new reality where threats and weapons appear to have replaced diplomacy.
Another day, I came out of a 30-hour shift only to hear that white supremacists at Charlottesville were injuring and even killing fellow Americans. Their racist rhetoric and violence undermines the core notion of what it means to be a new American, working hard each day to contribute to this diverse community.
More than alarming me, recent events threaten to divert me from the crucial work of learning to care for desperately ill patients. This is how an unstable society, directly and indirectly, hurts progress and productivity. It obstructs focus and clarity of thought. It limits the potential of of professionals whose ability to focus depends on living in a stable and healthy society.
A surgeon must rely on the anesthesiologist, the nurses, and the rest of the surgical team to keep the patient alive and safe. All of us who are in training need our personal support systems so we can focus on our work.
In these uncertain times, many of us derive comfort and reassurances from everyday reminders that good is still abundant, whether they come from friends who share these thoughtful concerns or colleagues who embody and practice inclusiveness. It was so heartening to me to learn that the chairman of my department went to the Philadelphia airport on the day of my interview to protest the proposed travel ban. I receive positive emails or Facebook posts almost every day from my college friends, who are actively organizing petitions and advocating for our society’s values in business, politics, academia, and other areas. In pursuit of our respective dreams, we all rely on each other.
As I continue my surgery training, I must stay focused on the path in front of me. Yet I must also have one eye toward the world. Even if only once or twice a month, I am looking for a volunteer opportunity to use my medical knowledge to help vulnerable people.
I am also committed to making financial donations, however modest, to organizations that fight the seminal battles of our generation on behalf of the rest of us.
Medical trainees like me may not yet have the power, time, or money to do everything we want for society. But that does not relieve us of our civic duties. We must strive to be aware and to engage in any way we can. Maybe then the world that awaits us when we are done will be the same — or even better — than the one that inspired us to pursue our dreams in medicine.
Jason Han, M.D., is a resident in cardiothoracic surgery in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.