because that’s the study of the history of humankind, and I found
the science behind it fascinating. In the end, medicine best fit with
my interest in participating in human issues.
When your father was a medical student during the
Korean War, he barely escaped with his life. Would you
share that story?
My dad was a second-year student when the war started. If you
had not yet reached your fourth year of medical school, the
communist party killed you for being a capitalist. But if you were
in the fourth year they kept you, since you’d know some basic
medical care. My father was in front of a firing squad multiple
times—blindfolded, the whole bit. Several times the gun did
not work, and twice his mom bribed the shooter to spare him.
The last time, he was asked if he was a fourth-year. I never saw
my dad lie in his life, ever. But he told me the one time he lied
was when he said, “Yeah, I’m a fourth-year student.”
How did your family end up in Malaysia?
My dad was the surgeon general of South Korea, which was at
that time one of the most unstable political environments and
countries in the world. He did not like that life and didn’t see a
future there for his kids, so he did it the hard way—he took us
to Malaysia. Back then Malaysia was a developing country with
very poor medical care, so the government recruited physicians
from Korea. They did not need help in Kuala Lumpur; they
needed help in the jungles. I remember my dad saying, “This
will all be good for you.”
Do you have any specific childhood
memories that influenced you?
My dad’s job was basically 24/7, but he
made a point of coming home for dinner, because he wanted to catch up with
the four kids. That influenced me. As
busy a life as Mary and I had juggling
our careers, we always made sure that
from six p.m. to when our kids went
to bed, it was family time. And I got a lot of push-back from my
bosses: “What do you mean you’re leaving at five o’clock to go to
soccer practice?” But I’d never trade that, because at the end of
the day your family is the only constant in life.
Why did your dad decide to bring your family to the U.S.?
He was a successful cardiothoracic surgeon, but he felt that for
his four kids, the educational system in the U.S. was the future.
So he came here when he was forty-three and had to do his
internship all over again—and you’re talking about the first man
in Asia to do open-heart surgery. Sometimes I wonder: When I
was forty-three and chief of pulmonary care at the University
of Pittsburgh, would I have gone to a foreign country to be an
intern for the sake of my kids? For my kids, I would have—but
would I have had the strength to start again from the bottom
of the totem pole, as my dad did?
COMMON CAUSE: The Choi family boasts three physicians—Justin
(far left), Augustine, and Mary—and a future one, University of Michigan
medical student Alex
‘As busy a life as Mary and I had
juggling our careers, we always
made sure that from 6 p.m. to
when our kids went to bed, it was
family time. I’d never trade that,
because at the end of the day your
family is the only constant in life.’
How do you think your experience as an immigrant to the
U.S. influences you?
When your peers are preparing for the PSATs and you have just
begun formal schooling in English, you’ve got a challenge. The cultural aspect was also huge. But I think it helped me grow up quicker
and made me stronger, and gives me a better balance when I’m on
a tough road. There’s a drive for survival. I really think this is what
has made America so strong, so great—the
strengths that immigrants bring.
What do you like to do in your
Mary and I are foodies, so we love the
cuisine in New York. Mary likes the opera
quite a bit. We like to travel. Personally, I’ve
always been a history nut. I love to read
about ancient history, like Mesopotamia
and China, but I also like post-World War I
I love to watch sporting events on TV, because at one point I was
a very competitive athlete.
What sport did you play?
I played competitive table tennis for more than fifteen years.
When I was thirteen, the Chinese coach came to my home and
said to my dad and my mom, “We’re going to take your son
for five years and make him into an Olympic champion.” My
mom was crying and saying, “We didn’t immigrate to the U.S.
for you to become a ping pong player.” That was a family crisis.
Ultimately, I trained for the U.S. team when I was in college and
condensed my undergraduate studies to three years to prepare for
the 1980 Olympics, but then the USSR invaded Afghanistan, and
President Carter boycotted the Games. I still joke that I should
have delayed my medical career to be in the next Olympics. n