The Straight-Talk Doc: Peter Rhee

Rhee serving in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2006.

Dr. Peter Rhee may be best known as the trauma surgeon who treated Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others wounded in the Tucson shooting tragedy, but the former military doctor has long been respected in his field for his “hard-earned experience.”

By Suevon Lee
Photos Courtesy of Dr. Peter Rhee

Literally overnight, Dr. Peter Rhee of Tucson’s University Medical Center was catapulted into the national spotlight when one very high-profile patient was brought under his care Jan. 8, the day of a horrific mass shooting that would capture global headlines.

That morning, the country seemed to let out a collective gasp after a gunman opened fire at a community meet-and-greet hosted by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords outside a Tucson, Ariz., Safeway supermarket. Authorities said suspect Jared Lee Loughner, 22, first shot the congresswoman point-blank in the head from just a few feet away, then shot at the crowd of people waiting to meet her, wounding 12 others and killing six. Among the slain were a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.

Although some early reports erroneously said Giffords had perished, people following the breaking news were quite stunned to learn that she was still alive. Then, at a press conference mere hours after the shooting, Rhee, the trauma chief at the hospital to which the lawmaker and her fellow wounded were taken, declared that he was “very optimistic” about Giffords’ chance of survival.

“I’m about as optimistic as it can get in this situation,” the Korean American doctor said to a throng of media and a nation still shaken by the brazen attack, which authorities would later say was an assassination attempt on Giffords’ life.

In place of the caution typically reserved by medical doctors, Rhee expressed that first day an unflappable confidence that even took peers in the medical field aback. In the days following, the doctor reappeared on television and in the national press, always in his signature white lab coat and sometimes in his colorful surgeon’s cap, delivering the same positive outlook on Giffords’ progress while also providing updates on her condition.

“She will not die,” he firmly said in interviews. “She does not have that permission from me.”

Some observers couldn’t help but wonder if this doctor was either prematurely optimistic or cocky. Those who have worked closely with the 49-year-old physician over his decades-long medical career say neither. Rather, they characterize Rhee—a widely respected trauma surgeon who formerly served in war zones—as a man who simply calls it like he sees it.

“In general, I’m actually very pessimistic about a lot of things, and I usually tell it very straightforward,” said Rhee during a phone interview with KoreAm last month. “But it was very obvious to me, [Giffords] wasn’t at any risk of dying. There are survivable injuries, and [that was her case].”

Indeed, the 40-year-old Democrat who represents Arizona’s 8th congressional district has demonstrated her remarkable resilience following a bullet wound through the upper left part of her brain. As of this writing, Giffords was flown to the Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center Hospital in Houston, where her husband, NASA astronaut Capt. Mark E. Kelly, is based. She was expected to enter a nationally renowned rehabilitation center there once she is well enough.

Rhee, known for his aggressive approach to treatment, pointed out that only 10 percent of those who suffer gunshot wounds to the head survive. “It’s a bigger percentage than what people think, but survival is not the be-all, end-all outcome we hope for,” he said. “While they may be alive, they may not be functional. In the congresswoman’s case, she has a lot of potential and capability to make a recovery that will be astonishing in the future.”

In the days and weeks following the tragedy, Rhee and his trauma team at the University Medical Center were singled out for their skilled handling of the shooting aftermath by everyone from President Obama to Kelly, who marveled to ABC’s Diane Sawyer during his first televised interview about Rhee’s unwavering dedication to his patients. Kelly noted that the doctor’s wife and two children even stayed temporarily at a hotel near the hospital so they could see Rhee, working around the clock, in between shifts.

“He is absolutely tireless,” said Col. Geoffrey Ling, a brain trauma expert based at DARPA Defense Sciences Office in Arlington, Va, in an email. Upon Rhee’s request,  Ling flew out to Arizona to assist with the early treatment of Giffords. The two first met 15 years ago at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., where they were starting their research careers.

“[Rhee] is a highly accomplished researcher and innovator, so his patients get cutting-edge ‘beyond state of the art’ care,” added Ling.

Rhee, who in addition to his medical practice is also a professor of surgery at the University of Arizona, described his sudden visibility in the aftermath of the shootings as “surreal.” He dismissed the interest in him as a profile subject by adding, dryly, “I’m not very interesting.”

Others beg to differ, as everyone from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times has taken a stab at profiling the physician following the Tucson tragedy.

Born in Seoul, Rhee moved to the United States at age 10 after spending five years of his childhood in Uganda, where his physician father was stationed with the Peace Corps. A former Navy surgeon who has been on wartime deployments in both Afghanistan and Iraq, Rhee, has accompanied former presidents, including Bill Clinton, on overseas trips as their personal surgeon and crisscrossed the country to build upon his medical career.

As the former director of the Navy Trauma Training Center at the Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center, he used to prepare military doctors and other medical personnel for the battlefield. He completed a surgical internship at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego and his residency in general surgery at the University of California, Irvine, Medical Center, as well as a fellowship in trauma and critical care at Harborview Medical Center at University of Washington.

“Peter is a highly experienced trauma surgeon, an excellent teacher and a great investigator,” Demetrios Demetriades, the director of trauma at USC Medical Center, said in an e-mail. “He knows from hard-earned experience, not just from books.”

Demetriades also described Rhee as the type not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom. “He was always forthcoming and called things by their name,” said Demetriades. “He never tried to be politically correct in order to please anybody.”

And in that typical straightforward fashion, Rhee said this about himself, “I chose this job because it’s one of the few in the country where your decisions determine whether someone lives or dies.”

For all his success in the field, Rhee, however, didn’t initially seek out a medical career. “The only thing I knew leaving high school was, I didn’t want to be a doctor,” he said, citing early parental pressure as a deterrent. “Growing up with a Korean father who was a doctor, everyone wants you to be a doctor or a lawyer. So I went to engineering school to be an aeronautical engineer.”

He spent his adolescence in Uniontown, Penn., then a small, working-class mining town where his father worked as an anesthesiologist at Uniontown Hospital. It was a cold wake-up call to find himself the only Asian male in his school. His two older brothers were often suspended, he said, due to fights caused by tensions with classmates.

“It was very difficult for me as the only Asian male in my high school,” Rhee recalled. “You have a tendency, when you grow up in a place like Uniontown, to reject your heritage. When you’re trying to fit in, that’s a natural human instinct. I went through that period in high school and college.”

Despite earlier protests, Rhee ended up pursuing a medical education, after all, but in the military so he could avoid school loans. Plus, he knew first-hand about life in the military; one of his brothers is a retired Marine colonel. It was in places like Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq and Camp Rhino in Afghanistan where Rhee learned to work under what he termed “austere conditions.” He recalls one particularly traumatic scene now burned into his memory: a mass casualty event in Iraq in which he was confronted with a group of 11 injured Marines, all of whom but one had lost their legs.

“I was fortunate enough to be able to serve,” Rhee said humbly. “I think it’s one of the biggest honors and privileges a trauma surgeon could have, to go to a wartime environment to help. I can’t think of a higher calling.”

Rhee met his wife of nearly 20 years, Emily, a former intensive care nurse of French-Canadian heritage, during his medical residency at UC Irvine. They have two children, Michael, 16, and Anna, 10. They are the primary reason he decided in 2007, after five years of heading the Navy Trauma Training Center in Los Angeles, to move to Tucson.

“I wanted stability for my family. In the military, I had never had an address longer than three or four years,” he said. “It’s so gratifying to serve, but it’s unfair to your family to be gone all the time.”

With Giffords no longer at the Tuscon hospital, the attention on Rhee has subsided somewhat. But he notes that the daily task before him and his trauma team, and the weighty responsibility his position holds, remain long after the cameras and reporters leave.

“Our patients don’t stop coming into the trauma center,” he said.

Still, the depth of this most recent high-profile shooting is not lost on the surgeon. After all, his own personal narrative has become entwined with a national tragedy that has caused its citizens to grapple with everything from how we conduct civil political discourse to gun control policy. Rhee, who sees the damage done by gun shot wounds “all the time,” couldn’t help comment on the latter issue.

“We have 35,000 deaths per year in the United States because of guns yet we only have 400 to 500 people who die in war each year,” Rhee said. We [surpass]  that [figure] 100-fold, and that’s because our country wants to have guns.”

“I can tell you one thing for sure,” he added. “If you have guns, you will need trauma surgeons.”