At age 7, Wendy B. Kang, M.D., J.D., a physician anesthesiologist at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, left her native Taiwan and flew with her mother to Chicago. Landing on Christmas day, the young girl was baffled by the snow blanketing the city. She was far from her tropical homeland.
Without knowing the alphabet or how to speak English, Dr. Kang soon began second grade in Brecksville, a small community outside Cleveland.
Her first teacher, Frieda Larkman, was one of many wonderful teachers. “She passed me even though I had a D- in all subjects but math, where I had an A,” she said. “Mrs. Larkman instructed my father to take me to her house once a week so she could help me learn to read. At the end of each difficult reading session, she would reward me with a bowl of ice cream and let me watch the cuckoo clock. She knew how to keep me motivated to learn!”
Years later, when Dr. Kang gave the commencement address at her high school graduation, she invited Mrs. Larkman to be her guest. “She showed me the difference a teacher can make in a student’s life.”
Bound to be a physician
Warmer weather and a scholarship with a guarantee of in-state tuition drew her to UT Austin, her father’s alma mater. “I just loved Texas. I studied microbiology and French there, and I loved how friendly all the people were.”
Dr. Kang said she always knew what she would do after earning her bachelor’s degree. “From the moment of consciousness, my mom said I knew I would be a physician. My aunt always said I had a calling. It was strange. There were no physicians on either side of our family. But, I just always knew I was going to be physician,” she said.
Dr. Kang, a clinical professor of anesthesiology at the Health Science Center, said she didn’t play with dolls like other girls.
“My first patient was my teddy bear. He received bandages, and I checked his vitals with a pretend stethoscope,” she said. “I was fortunate to grow up in a small town, but one that was large enough to have two family physicians. I admired both of them. They looked like doctors out of a Norman Rockwell painting.”
She started medical school at UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. In her third year, Dr. Kang said she had a hard time deciding on a specialty. “I loved everything about medicine. I decided to specialize in anesthesiology because I can use everything I learned. I get to work with all ages of patients. You have to know every aspect of medicine so you can treat the patient.”
Dr. Kang, who came to the Health Science Center in 2002 with more than 20 years of medical experience, created the university’s Regional Anesthesiology Program at University Hospital, which is part of the University Health System. “Regional” in the program’s title refers to the type of local anesthesia used on one region of the body. These are commonly referred to as nerve blocks.
“When I got here, Dr. Fred Corley, a hand surgeon, could only do three operations a day because of how long it took to put patients under anesthesia and then how long it took them to be held in the post-anesthesia care unit,” Dr. Kang said. “By doing blocks, we are saving the patients time and money, and they are able to recover more quickly after the procedure. They can go home afterward instead of stay in a recovery room. Dr. Corley can now do six to eight surgeries a day.”
Lessons in medicine and law
In her teaching role, Dr. Kang instructs medical students and residents at the Health Science Center. In addition to mentoring them and offering them her years of experience in anesthesia, she gives them an unusual insight – that of a lawyer who understands the world of medicine.
Early in her career Dr. Kang witnessed firsthand the medical malpractice crisis that occurred in the United States. This was the impetus for her enrolling in law school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
“I love to learn so I really enjoyed taking the law classes. I got my law degree and passed the state bar, but I never practiced law. I use it now when I am in the operating room, and I use it when I am teaching my residents. They must understand the importance of their words.
“I never promise a patient that I am going to make them pain free. Every patient is so different. I do the best I can to take care of each patient,” she said. “If you always try to do right by your patient, then you can look at yourself in the mirror and know you have done your best as a physician.”