"I found it fascinating to open people's skulls," says Dr. Yang, the first neurosurgeon to win the National Golden Apple for Teaching Excellence from the American Medical Student Association (AMSA). "The human brain is who we are, as individuals and as a society. We are what we think. It's also encased in bone and designed to be untouched. To operate on it is thrilling and a rare privilege."
Dr. Yang, then a medical student at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, changed career paths. Today, he's an attending neurosurgeon at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where he specializes in brain tumors. He's also an award-winning professor at his alma mater.
Successful career, successful life
A typical day for Dr. Yang starts around 3 am, when his 2-year-old daughter sneaks into her parents' bed. A couple hours later, he gets up and heads to work.
First, Dr. Yang meets with patients, which is his favorite part of the job. "Nobody wants to have brain surgery," he acknowledges. "For patients to entrust their brains to me — to let me be part of the journey they never wanted to take — is a huge responsibility. They don't know the nuances I know or the precise maneuvers I need to take. So they look me in the eyes and trust me to treat them like family and do my very best for them. It's a deep and intimate connection."
After a quick breakfast, Dr. Yang operates for the next five-to-eight hours, usually to remove brain tumors or repair superior semicircular canal dehiscence, a condition wherein a hole develops between the brain and inner ear, causing people to hear their own body sounds.
Next, he performs a few radiosurgery plans, a combination of radiation and surgery. He sees more patients, works on papers, prepares his lectures and goes home to his family.
"It's a rewarding but stressful job," says Dr. Yang. "When you care about your patients, you worry about them. I work crazy hours that keep me away from my family. Thankfully, I have an understanding, beautiful and accomplished wife. She and my daughter recharge my batteries, remind me who I am and fill me back up so I can give to others."
And the award goes to...
Dr. Yang never expected to win the AMSA 2015 National Golden Apple. He gives all the credit to his own teachers: his parents, wife, daughter, students and the brilliant doctors who've mentored him.
"I just teach what they've taught me," he says. "And I try not to forget what it felt like to be a student or resident. I've been part of more than 2,000 surgeries, but my student might be doing it for the first time. If I forget I didn't always know I'll lose touch with those who are learning from me."
Dr. Yang also seeks out opportunities to be a student. When he read about image-guided laser neurosurgery — a minimally invasive procedure that treats tumors too small or deep for traditional surgery — he immediately learned how to do it.
"It's really cutting edge," says Dr. Yang. "We drill a hole the size of a coffee straw, insert a catheter with a laser on the end of it and burn away the tumors. There's a very small scar, and yet it achieves great results."
"The learning never stops," he finds. "Every year, new technologies come out. Doctors have to be adaptable and humble and keep learning, because it's the best thing for our patients."
By Taylor Mallory Holland