University of California San Francisco

Dr. Lan Vu

Dr. Lan Vu Spotlight

Interview with Dr. Lan Vu performed by medical student Ruth Laverde. Dr. Vu is a pediatric surgeon at UCSF and Associate Program Director for the general surgery residency.

Ruth: What is one thing you know now that you wish you had known during your training?

Lan Vu: It all depends on where you're at in your life and what is the most important thing at the moment. If you had asked me this three months ago, the answer may have been different. I think your experience and the life that you create are very much affected by the people with whom you surround yourself. It’s not that I didn't recognize this when I was in training, but it has become more profound now that I’m done. I feel very fortunate that I’ve met the people that I have along the way, both during and after training. Some of it is pure luck, to be honest — but then what you make of that, I think, is up to you. I think the relationships that you create make a huge impact; those relationships may lead you to the next step in your career and your life. For example, I remember every resident I worked with when I was a medical student. I can imagine that the residents do not remember me because I was just, you know, a medical student, and they work with so many. I think it makes you realize as you go further in training and then become faculty that everything you do, on a daily basis, our responses or interactions, makes a huge impact on the people that are around us. So, it is a huge responsibility. That’s what I wish I knew sooner in training - just recognizing the importance of that. It might be a minor interaction to you, but it could be a big interaction to somebody who's just at the beginning of their learning. Everybody who has trained me has had a huge impact; I remember all of those small moments. Making the most of these interactions is important.


Ruth: You often tell me that the people around us have so much influence on our career paths — what impact has mentorship had on you and your surgical career?

Lan Vu: My mentors gave me the confidence that I didn't have in myself. They made me feel like I was capable and were able to show me all of the things that I could do that I thought were like second nature to everybody else. My first mentors in surgery were the residents with whom I worked when I was a third-year medical student. I was in awe of their commitment to their patients. I would try to see if I could see myself in their shoes … there were big shoes to fill, and so I didn't think I was capable of that. Then I met Dr. Hanmin Lee, who's my boss, my colleague, and now my friend. We met when he first started as UCSF faculty and I was a third-year medical student. He has always kind of pushed me in directions that I felt a little uncomfortable — uncomfortable in the sense that I didn't feel like I was capable. It's easy to fall into a comfortable position, like something that is always easy or to take the easy way but he's always kind of nudged me into leadership and things that required me to speak up and allowed for my voice to be heard. He challenged me and made me realize that I can do this. And that's what keeps me going  — to have that kind of support: "I know you can do it; I know you didn't think you could, but you definitely can do it."

One example of Dr. Lee's mentorship happened when I started out as faculty, fresh out of training. I was doing a thoracoscopic lobectomy in an infant. The affected lobe can be inflated with large cysts in these congenital cystic lung lesions, which can obscure the operative field. The case can be kind of stressful and Dr. Lee was proctoring me; even now it's always good to have a friend in the room. I was struggling during the case given the less than optimal view and he just let me struggle. At the end of the case, he said. “You know, Lan, maybe next time you should put another port in to help you" and I said, “... Four hours into the case, we're done, and you're telling me this NOW?” He's like “well you wouldn't remember unless you struggled, right? If I told you, from the beginning, then it would just be like somebody told you how to do it, but now you'll remember the struggle.” The struggle IS what you’ll remember and I feel like it makes you in tune with your learning and those are the most impactful moments.


Ruth: As I’ve told you many times before, I really admire you as a surgeon and mentor. Who do you admire?

Lan Vu: There are so many people that I admire for different reasons, and a lot of people have made a huge impact in my career. One of my mentors at the Texas Children's Hospital just retired. He taught me that the strongest voice in a room of people doesn't have to be the loudest voice. That one can lead without the normal stereotype character of a leader who's ferocious and loud. You can lead by allowing people to succeed around you. Those who rise to the top by lifting others around them instead of pushing others down, those quiet leaders, are the ones that I admire the most. There are moments where you can't be quiet though, you need to speak up. A lot of the women surgeons have had to advocate for themselves and so it's not meant to say that you should be meek, but you should know when to allow others to speak so that they can also have opportunities to be heard. And, if you feel strongly about something, then you need to have the voice to advocate for yourself.

There's a great book that I read during training called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I talk about this book a lot because when I first read it, I just felt like somebody was writing a book about me. One of the most powerful and relatable parts of the book is an excerpt about an expert in his field who was very much an introvert. He would stand in the lecture hall and give this passionate presentation and, at the end of the lecture, when people wanted to come and talk to him, he would retreat to the bathroom stalls because he needed a moment to decompress and be by himself. It can be overwhelming to be around people, but at the same time when he was talking about this thing that he loved, he was very engaged and animated. I think that's really important to be able to recognize in people. Just because somebody is quiet and reserved doesn't necessarily mean that they don't have something important to say. As a mentor to others, it’s important to give people these opportunities to be heard. I was allowed those opportunities. I’m here because people gave me those opportunities, and so you need to pay that forward.


Ruth: If not surgery, then what?

Lan Vu: Oh that's an easy one because I've thought about this since I was a kid. I’d be a journalist. I would like to travel the world and write about people. I would be a journalist because it was something that I didn't think I could be. English wasn't my first language. Speaking English or being able to communicate wasn't something that my family stressed as important. As an immigrant, it's a little bit harder. You feel that you're not the best speaker or that you don't write as well. Other things like math and science always came a little bit easier for me. I had to work really hard to express myself in writing, but, when I did, it felt great. It was a challenge, and so when I did succeed it just felt like I could own it. I became a doctor, instead, because that was easier!


Ruth: Classic! Who would your first article be about or where would it take place if you were a journalist?

Lan Vu: I don't know, I hadn't thought about that! As I got older, I thought the best job in the world would be a food critic. I could write about the food and the people. You would just meet all the local people, eat different types of food, and write about the history behind the food and how it all integrates into life and culture. That would be my dream job.


Ruth: If you were to suddenly stop operating and decided to run a street food blog I would read it! It sounds like a dream job.

Lan Vu: My son gets really excited about the fact that you could sit on the sidewalk in Vietnam and eat food. He's like “We can go EVERYWHERE in the street and there's food?” and I'm like “Yeah ... just walk outside and there's food at every corner!” I can't wait to go back with him.


Ruth: Well, maybe that’s what he'll end up being: a street food critic.

Lan Vu: I can live vicariously through him!


Ruth: Is that every parent's dream? I’m still trying to figure that out.

Lan Vu: To be honest, I think there's a little bit of a push from your parents to do what they would have wanted for themselves but didn't have the opportunity to do. My parents didn't have the opportunity to go to college and do all of the things I did. My mom loved science, and she would buy medical textbooks and anatomy books. When I was going to school, we’d have a library of old books. She would love to read the books and would absorb all of this information because I think she always wanted to be a doctor. Fortunately, I enjoy being a doctor and I enjoy being a surgeon so I’m happy to have her live vicariously through me.


Ruth: What inspires you to do what you do?

Lan Vu: I feel like I’ve been given a lot of amazing opportunities and I’ve been very fortunate. Sometimes I don't think I deserve it, and I want to be able to give those same opportunities to others. For example, from a social standpoint, I know my education was supported by federal funding, so I think about how I need to pay that back. From a patient care standpoint, recognizing health inequities that occur and making sure that patients get the care that they need, regardless of the resources that are available to them. And for the trainees and the learners around me, I think about how I can try to be a positive influence. I think it's important that people see that you're human too - you can't be upbeat all the time. We all have little different facets to our personalities and our life.  I am a surgeon, but I am also a mom and a wife. For example, two years ago, in the middle of a 19-hour tumor resection, I had to step out and breast pump every 5 hours. It’s important for people to see the reality of who you are, even the things that frustrate you or how the system can be frustrating. It requires a lot of vulnerability, but I think you have to be honest about those things.


Ruth: What are your hobbies outside of the hospital?

Lan Vu: It all revolves around food.


Ruth: I’m sensing a theme here.

Lan Vu:  I think the theme is creating something that gives me instant satisfaction because surgical training requires delayed gratification. I learned to do other things that gave me more immediate satisfaction. Obviously, eating gives you immediate satisfaction because the food is delicious. I also enjoy cooking on my days off. It's really fun for me, or maybe psychologically therapeutic for me, to make a meal because then I can enjoy the meal with my family. It's just like trading something (like your time and energy) to get some satisfaction. I also like making costumes for my kids, but I haven't done that for a while. It's like you have a project, and then you do it, and then there's some immediate satisfaction from it. I remember one of the chief residents giving a Grand Rounds presentation on food and eating in San Francisco - it was fantastic. The Chair had asked her “what is your hobby?” and she said “EATING.” She was told that “eating” was not a hobby, just something you do every day and her response was “but I REALLY like it.” I can totally relate.

One of my life mantras — “Some people eat to live, I live to eat.”


Ruth: What's your go-to food?

Lan Vu: I don't have anything specific because I like to try different things. If you asked me what my favorite food is, it changes. I just like to explore. During the pandemic, we bought my son a globe to expose him to all different types of foods. Each month, we would spin the globe and point to a random country and then we would eat or try to make a meal that originates from the country. I can't get tired of eating Vietnamese food, of course, because that's just like home to me. My husband likes to cook things that are very straight from recipes. I tend to improvise - pulling leftovers from the refrigerator and then coming up with a random dish. This is partly because I am frugal and I don’t want to throw away any food, and partly because it’s more fun to be creative. That’s how my mom cooked. She had no recipes and she just conjured up random dishes, depending on what we had available at home that day. One thing I do make a lot is apple pie - the kids love apple pie, that's their favorite thing to make together.


Ruth: I see this theme of flexibility and food, food and flexibility. These are the things I'm learning from you. Did your mom also teach you how to sew?

Lan Vu: Well, I don't know if she taught me, but I was around her so much and she was a seamstress. She had two sewing machines in the garage. She's made pajamas for all of us, even now as adults.  She made maternity dresses for me when I was pregnant. I was around sewing all the time, so I knew how clothes were made. As kids, we would sew the buttons back on our clothes and patches to cover tears and things like that. I think I'm the only one of her children that took up sewing as an adult. I have my own portable sewing machine at home, though not as nice as my mom’s.

I liked seeing that you could make things. Again, I like getting out of my head, and when you're sewing, you just think about the sewing. When the pandemic hit and the mask mandate took effect, I sat down and shifted through all the kids' old clothes, even my daughter's unused bibs, and then stayed up until three in the morning making masks for the entire family. It was quite therapeutic given all of the craziness that was happening in the world. I needed to get outside my head and since I could not sleep, I put my sleeplessness to work and made something out of it.