In Stitches: A Memoir
Tony Youn will keep you in stitches.
This is the story of an awkward, shy, dutiful, second-generation Korean-American member of the only Asian family living in a tiny blue-collar burg where his father, once a peasant farmer, is the only ob-gyn in town. The minute Tony was born, his father decided he would be a doctor when he grows up. Tony's mother never contradicts her husband. His fate is sealed.
But first he has to get through high school with geek glasses and a huge jaw that ultimately requires plastic surgery, a harbinger of his future career. Tony swears that he is so unsuccessful with girls that at one point he announces, "I'm the only guy in town who hasn't screwed my girlfriend." Then there's college, where he has to get the best grades. In his freshman year, Daddy, furious because his younger brother made some Bs, cancels Christmas so that Tony and his brother can study together non-stop. And heaped onto this misplaced punishment is Tony's secret humiliation: he is still a virgin.
Then comes pre-med. Tony recalls his anatomy class: "I see dead people." But there he falls in love with a bucket full of hands, realizing that each one was donated by someone who cared enough about medical science and their fellow human beings to allow their bodies to be chopped up and examined after death. It's clear that Tony loves medicine, despite killing (well, not really) his first patient and being so fascinated by a woman's six-toed feet that he almost forgets to deliver her baby, and despite his sadistic minders, his dank, creepy basement digs, and grueling shifts like the nine-hour op with no bathroom breaks. Rarely has the chaotic, exhausting, Kafkaesque world of the med student been so faithfully, and hilariously, portrayed.
With the advice of his roommates, Tony finally overcomes his fear of females and meets the woman of his dreams. Unfortunately, Amy is not Korean, or even Asian, and taking her to meet his parents is something he keeps putting off. When the dreaded moment finally comes, he learns that his mother and father are "relieved. We thought for sure you gay."
Underlying the humor of this fast-paced memoir is the certainty that Tony will survive medical school. He has abilities that will make him a good doctor --- exceptional manual dexterity, a high IQ, and a genuine interest in people. He talks to patients, sometimes overstepping his boundaries as a student and running out the clock to listen to their side of the story, reminding himself that what's important is not what disease a person has, but what person has the disease. Indecisive even in the last years of his studies, he tells his father he wants to become a family practice physician, which is greeted with, "It's okay. You go into debt, won't be able to afford a house, or a car, or new clothes, or food, or shoes, and you cry yourself to sleep every night, but it's okay. Daddy's not mad."
When Tony, now a renowned plastic surgeon, has to help treat a child whose face has been bitten off by a wild animal, he finally realizes what he wants to become; not just a doctor, but a healer of distorted flesh.
And what is best, Daddy really isn't mad this time.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on May 2, 2011