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Between 2006 and 2012, Dr. Moy wrote memoirs to leave to his family. Here you will find a selection of his writings. Note that some names have been changed or removed.

As I lie in my solitude in the stillness of the night, my thoughts gravitate to the timelessness of the future and the briefness of our existence. It is important for me to be able to say to my grandchildren and theirs, “Be good, and listen to your mother,” but it is even more important to me to be able to offer guidance into the future.

Part I

The Early Days

In the beginning

At the end of the nineteenth century my father and his younger brothers emigrated from China to Chicago. Why Chicago I don’t know. It may be that someone from the family had settled there earlier.


From Chicago, some moved to adjacent Milwaukee and others continued on east to Boston. Those who stayed in Chicago settled in the shadow of the stockyards, the meat distributing center of the Midwest. Italian immigrants also arrived, settling with the Moys in this area, one of the least desirable neighborhoods in the southwestern part of town.

To give a descriptive flavor to that section of town all one need to say is that when the periodic cleansings of animal excrement occurred, there was a windblown stench so thick and heavy that you could cut it with a knife. This would last for days, but you just got used to it.

Home sweet home

The oldest child in our family was Helen, then, in order, Anna, Grant (that’s me), Patricia (known at the time as Sadie), Victor, Calvin, and Eugene. I was born in 1917.

Living quarters were crowded for our family of nine. Our apartment had five rooms: a kitchen, a small dining room, a small living room, and two bedrooms. Helen and Anna shared one bedroom, Father and Mother shared the other with Calvin and Eugene, Victor and I slept in a hideaway bed in the living room, and Patricia, the youngest girl, slept in the dining room on the couch. Heating of the apartment was by a potbelly stove in the kitchen, occasionally supplemented by lighting another stove in the living room. In the bitter Chicago winters this was barely adequate. At times, I had to use an electric heating unit for added comfort. I vividly remember huddling on cold nights near the oil-burning stove wearing a cap and overcoat, with a scarf around my neck, desperately trying to study.

Although we had a bathtub, we really never enjoyed a good hot bath. There was never enough hot water to adequately fill the tub as the water heater was quite small, probably a 25-gallon tank. A sponge bath was the norm. During hot and humid weather, a full tub of water was quite enjoyable. Nevertheless, mother always kept us clean and neatly dressed.

All of us were born at home. Childbirth events were heralded by the appearance of a brown oil tablecloth covering the entire bed. I never witnessed any cries or sounds of labor pain until the cry of the baby announcing its arrival. Just another day and another sibling

Mother and Father rarely spoke

Mother was a woman of few words, but she watched those around her closely and carefully, and she always knew what was going on. Father never said a word but was always around, and many times I wondered where he ate because I never saw him eating.

Early in my childhood my mother didn’t speak a word of English, so for the first several years of my life, neither did I. It wasn’t until I started kindergarten at the age of five that I finally had to learn English.

I learned from Mother to speak the dialect of our ancestral village so well that when I speak that dialect now, everybody thinks I was born in China and not in America.

Chinese school

As far back as I can recall, my siblings and I always attended Chinese school. All year round, five days a week, with the same vacations and holidays as the public grammar school schedule. Chinese school started at 3:30 PM, when grammar school let out, and went until 8:00 PM. We were given a one-hour break from 5:00 to 6:00 PM to go home for dinner. We really didn’t like it because it left us little time to play, but it was our parents’ wish that we must learn to speak, read, and write Chinese. It sure was a long day for all.

The color blurred

Going to and from grammar school, I passed by the Italian section adjacent to where we lived. The kids in that neighborhood normally taunted me and occasionally beat me, so that eventually I was afraid to go to school. One morning a big tall colored* boy known as Arizona came to my doorstep.

“Grant, I’ll take you to school,” he said.

Thereafter, every weekday he would accompany me to and from school, and from then on I had no more problems with the Italian kids. After that I stopped seeing Arizona as “colored”—he was just one of my friends. I haven’t seen him since grammar school days. I have often thought of him throughout the years.


* The word “colored” has fallen out of popular use, but at that time it was the most widespread descriptor for African-Americans. I use it here only to lend the flavor of the time to my story.

Annual festivities

I remember little about Thanksgiving or Christmas as a boy. Our biggest holiday was the festive Chinese New Year, which we celebrated every year by visiting the homes of friends and relatives and swapping boxes of candied fruits and oranges. We enjoyed sumptuous meals and set off firecrackers to bring in the New Year. But my most vivid New Year’s memory is of sitting in the family store wearing our best clothes, greeting all comers with a “Happy New Year!” and “Gung Hay Fat Choy!” (“congratulations and be prosperous”), receiving from every well wisher a lai see (red envelope) containing a coin—usually a dime, but occasionally a quarter from the most generous.

How well I remember those most awaited New Year’s celebrations. To this day I still carry out this tradition of giving.

The $300 appendectomy

In 1927, when I was ten years old, I had some unusual bowel movements after eating lunch, and the family doctor was called. The eventual result was that I had an appendectomy, in exchange for the hefty sum of $300. My parents didn’t have that kind of cash on hand, so my father had to borrow money to cover the fee.

Years later, after I completed my medical education and surgical training, I reflected upon this event. Why would post-lunch bowel movements lead to an appendectomy? I concluded that the doctor who operated upon me was a general practitioner, not a surgeon. He did not know what my ailment was. He must have done an exploratory laparotomy—creating a large vertical incision in the abdomen to have a look inside—in an attempt to see what was wrong. Upon finding nothing, this doctor did an unnecessary appendectomy to justify the surgery. How terrible! What a fortune my family ended up paying for what was probably just a normal variation in gastrointestinal reflexes.

When I came to this realization, I resented that something like this had happened. But the truth is that unscrupulous actions such as this are done all the time. Maybe this has influenced my care for the needy and the less fortunate, and my resolution never to do unnecessary surgery just for the money.

It really happened

Shortly after my appendectomy, when I was ten, I was awakened at 4:00 in the morning by a horrible nightmare that my father’s older brother had died and his body was displayed in a glass coffin in our store at the end of our block. All the lights were on in our apartment even though it was the middle of the night, so I called out for my mother. She answered from my uncle’s apartment on the floor below.

“Ah Ngai, your uncle just died.”

Uncle’s body was serviced at the funeral parlor directly across from our building. I was not allowed to attend because I had just returned home from an appendectomy and the Chinese believed contact with the dead would hinder healing. Consequently, I was left alone at home to watch the funeral service from the front window of our apartment. From the window a long narrow space led to a visible rolling hand towel. As the funeral procession started I repeatedly turned my head from the window to the rolling towel and was horrified to see the towel dancing and moving with a voice that I had heard before in the hospital room.

“Don’t be afraid Grant, it is okay,” the voice said.

This incident put me through quite an ordeal.

Just as I had dreamt on the night he died, Uncle’s body was placed in a glass-topped coffin and displayed in our store after the funeral procession, then subsequently shipped back to his village. It might have been the mournful cries of the family when my uncle died that caused my nightmare, or perhaps it really was an apparition. I don’t know.

Jumping off the top of the cab—I got it

My father only struck me once during his lifetime, and it was for doing something that endangered my wellbeing. At the corner of our street was a cabstand where there was always a queue of idle cabs with bored drivers looking for some form of amusement. One morning a young driver lifted me up to the roof of his cab and told me to jump down into his waiting arms. He did this over and over. My father happened to witness a number of these jumps and was absolutely furious. I could have been injured severely! He took me home, peeled off my shirt, and forcefully applied a hemp cane across my back, leaving a much-bruised and lacerated area. Mother cried out repeatedly as she later dressed the raw wound. I sure got it and the lesson was permanently etched in my mind. I learned that day to always pause before acting.

Eugene McDonald, president of Zenith Radio

I clearly remember Eugene McDonald, the president and owner of Zenith Radio Company. He was always sharply dressed in a dark suit with all the trappings of the super rich. His dapper appearance was somewhat deceptive, because he was in fact a very humble, courteous, and generous man.

I was about seven or eight when I met him, and he was looking for some children who could pass as Eskimos to help him advertise the ability of his radio to reach as far as Alaska. My sister Helen and I fit the part, so we dressed as Eskimos and participated in some of his radio shows. Shortly thereafter, he and his best friend Hermann—owner of the Cort Theatre on Dearborn Street—arrived in Mr. McDonald’s chauffeur-driven car and presented us with a new Zenith radio. On another occasion, Mr. McDonald visited and presented us with a basket of fruit. We expressed our appreciation for his generosity, compassion, and care for us.

Drunk as a skunk

When I was about seven or eight years old, I attended a festive dinner with my family to celebrate Chinese New Year. These sumptuous meals were always served with a very potent Chinese liquor called ng ga pei. In their drunken half stupor, some of the diners thought it would be fun to see a boy drunk and proceeded to thrust a large amount of ng ga pei at me. I soon became extremely intoxicated. I vomited all the way home—drunk as a skunk!—and was sick after that for twenty-four hours. I have never forgotten the incident. That was the only time I was ever that drunk.

This incident is still etched in my mind like it happened just yesterday. It caused me to always be mindful of how much liquor I consume. How amazing the way our mind and memory function over such a long period of time. More than 80 years have passed since this happened.

Don't know, don't judge

I must have been about ten years old when I began hanging around the pool hall doing odd jobs just to pick up a few shekels. Spending all that time there, I learned to play a fairly good game of pool. I admired and catered to the regulars—the pool sharks. A guy named Fred grew fond of me, so one day he took me back to his home to meet his wife or woman, Dorothy. She took a liking to me too and made me some pancakes. Seeing how much I loved the pancakes, she encouraged me to return on many a morning for pancakes before school.

Soon, many people began to ask: What was Grant doing in Dorothy’s house every morning? They conjured up many ill acts and admonished me for going. I innocently wondered what all the fuss was about.

I was aware of a “Mary” who hung around street corners waiting for a man to beckon with the wave of his hand, and I had heard rumors that a guy could have some “fun” with her. What fun? I wondered. I occasionally saw Mary at Fred’s home. Dorothy only fed me pancakes and was kind to me. Don’t judge if you don’t know.

1929 and the Great Depression

I barely remember 1929, the year before I left for China. That was an important year. The Great Depression began that year and gangland violence hit its zenith.

On the morning of February 15, 1929 all the newspapers were squawking about a heinous bloodbath that took place the day before and would forever be known as the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. On Valentine’s Day, seven members of Bugs Moran’s gang had been lined up in a North Side garage and executed. Their infamous leader Moran fortuitously missed the massacre by showing up late. Not a clue was left at the awful scene. Although the suspected mastermind of the plot was Al Capone—czar of gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging—the cover-up was so good that the crime was never solved.

On the South Side, where Chinatown was, Al Capone’s hangout was just a few blocks away but we were never bothered. No one would try to extort money from our penniless community. You just cannot get blood out of a turnip.

People have often asked me about the Great Depression. My response has always been, “What ‘Depression’?” I don’t recall ever seeing any Depression-era bread lines, so widely described in the papers and depicted in pictures. Our staple food was rice, so we had no need for bread lines. Moreover, we never had much to begin with, and what little we had, we had always shared. In our close-knit community it was customary to help others in their time of need. We were living as usual; the Depression just brought the other communities down to our level.

The Chicago World’s Fair, from 1933 to 1934, fell right in the middle of the Depression. My two sisters worked at the fair and brought all of their earnings home to support the family during those hard times. What wonderful sisters they were.

Eking by

It was difficult eking out a meager living selling merchandise from China to our own people, working in or owning restaurants, running laundries, and operating gambling houses. We were poor but didn’t feel deprived because all were in the same boat.

We had enough food—never chops or steaks, but plenty of free food such as chicken wings, chicken feet, giblets, chicken livers and hearts, kidneys, pancreases, brains and small intestines, which were always available as discards from the restaurants. Pig stomachs at ten cents apiece were very delicious cooked in soups and spices. Rice was cheap and in the form of gruel was always available to feed a hungry stomach.

Clothes were always hand-me-downs. Shoes with holes worn through the soles were kept serviceable by cardboard inserts. On rainy days and in the winter, we wore galoshes. I remember what pride and joy it was to have a $3.00 pair of shoes from Thom McAn (the discount shoe store) to wear on Sundays and special occasions.

Beggars can't be choosers

I cannot recall if I ever ate with either my father or mother at home—only at restaurant banquets on special occasions. For that matter we never had any dialogue at the table. Because of the limited amount of food and the number of siblings, dinnertime was quite prompt. We all sat down quietly with no conversation and started to eat at the same time. We served ourselves the allotted portion and could only save food for someone who was late if they had n reasonable excuse. We had no choice of food. If we didn’t like what was served we would either eat less or not at all. Those still hungry could have gruel.

We were only allowed to take the portion of food directly in front of us and could not reach to either the right or left side—much less over the top to the other side—to choose better morsels. It was quite proper, however, to select the best portion for a guest. There was not enough food to be wasteful. It was bad manners to take so much of a dish that less was left for others, and we were never to take more than we could eat. To this day I still feel very uncomfortable when I deviate from Mother’s teachings. I cringe when other members of the family breach this mealtime etiquette. I refrain from saying anything.

I have always remembered that Mother was forever standing by the dinner table watching her children eat and it never crossed my mind as to why she was doing this. In later years it finally dawned on me that she was watching to see if all of her children had enough to eat. If any food was left after everybody finished, she would eat it; if not, she would fill her need with the ever-present rice gruel.

Rats—bugs are popping

Our tenement apartments, about a block long, were built in the days of plaster and lathe. This construction provided easy access for rodents to travel from one apartment to another, so that if one apartment was infested the other units soon were as well. It was impossible to eradicate them. The sounds of rats moving around could be heard all the time. I spent many hours covering the holes in the plaster walls made by their chewing to get out. In the kitchen, with the flick of the light switch or movement of utensils, roaches would scurry for cover across every surface, necessitating the liberal use of pest control.

Bed bugs were constant companions. One wee hour in the morning my brother, Vic, unable to sleep because of the constant itching bug bites, got up, turned on the lights, and tore away the bed sheet, exposing the mattress and numerous bed bugs. He set to work grabbing and squeezing them. They died with a popping sound as our blood exploded out of their bursting bodies. I stood on top of the springs, spreading the coils apart to expose more bugs so Vic could pour boiling water over the area, killing them. We then returned to sleep. Over the years, brother Vic and I have often reminisced over our “bug popping” nights.

Leisure time

The only forms of recreation I had as a child were playing baseball in the streets, shooting birds perched on telephone poles in the alleys with a BB gun, bicycling around town, catching an occasional movie, and swinging from the fire escape stairs. This last pastime gave me a fractured left wrist—and a cast for it—when I was thirteen.

Once a week, we were visited by a red-haired, middle-aged woman named Mrs. Armstrong who came to our home to teach all of us to play the piano. Our parents paid Mrs. Armstrong five dollars per session, a pretty good fee at that time. She really loved all of us and took us to many White Sox ballgames on the South Side. What a wonderful person she was.

In spite of Mrs. Armstrong’s efforts, none of us succeeded in learning piano. Now I wish we had paid more attention and worked harder.

Cherished tidbits

I almost never ate candy as a child. We didn’t even have a candy store in our neighborhood. Instead of candy, we bought dried treats imported from China at the dry goods store. The closest we had to candy were Chinese mui: dried fruits fermented with various condiments, chewy and sweet and very inexpensive. With a nickel of spending money, a kid could get the most bang for his buck by spending it all on mui, about a penny apiece. The most choice tidbit, though, was dehydrated cooked abalone, a high-priced delicacy that sat on a slicer at the store. Five cents would only buy you one, maybe two thin chips of abalone. Once in a while for variety we’d spend our cash on roasted water beetles. The beetles, about the size of matchbox cars, were the most expensive but also the most substantial. The hard shell case, wings, legs, and head were all removed, leaving a deliciously crunchy body.

A horse-drawn cart was always around the neighborhood selling crispy little waffles made out of watered down flour batter, with powdered sugar sprinkled over the top. This was our equivalent of ice cream from an ice cream truck. Those little waffles were delicious.

On cold winter days the chestnut man could be seen with his portable stove out on the sidewalk. He placed the chestnuts, with cross-shaped cuts in their husks, over the burning charcoal. Hovering above and warming his hands over the heat, he would watch as the skins of the roasting chestnuts grew brown and opened outward like the petals of a flower, charring slightly at the tips. Our mouths watered from the alluring aroma, but we could rarely afford this treat.

The waffle cart, the chestnut man, and the tamale man with his over-the-shoulder sack of hot tamales for five cents each were always available and have all vanished with the economics of the time.

Oh how the bones howled

When I was a child it was customary to send the remains of Chinese who died in America back to the ancestral homeland, in China. The dead were initially buried here, but ten years after death, the bones would be exhumed, cleaned, placed in an urn, and sent on the long journey back to the village of birth to be settled in their final resting place.

In the apartment next to ours lived an individual who did this work, preparing bones for shipping at a yearly scheduled time. He would be up at 7:00 AM to go to the cemetery, dig up graves, and remove corpses. He related to me that he often had to scrape remnants of fleshy tissue from the bones.

“They sure howl with pain with every scraping,” he told me.

You cannot imagine how this, compounded by seeing him coming up the stairs with the dim hall light swinging and his pick and shovel on his shoulder, struck fear into my heart.

Although my mother and father only ever beat me on one occasion, my mother often disciplined me by threatening to come back and haunt me after she died. That always kept me in line. My fear of the dead continued to intensify. Eventually, whenever the mortuary that I passed daily to and from grammar school had a dead body, I would walk an extra block just to avoid passing directly by it. So great was my fear!

I was petrified when, around the age of eighteen, one of my buddies died in an airplane training course. A group of my friends decided to have an all night deathwatch for him, taking turns sitting with the body in the funeral parlor the night before the funeral. To be alone in the funeral parlor would be bad enough for anyone, but it was a terrible idea for someone as afraid of the dead as I was. What a relief when the deathwatch was called off.

My $1.50 underwear—poor Dad

As a boy about eight or nine years old, I really wanted a new set of underwear. When my father heard about this, he took me downtown to The Hub, which in those days was Chicago’s premier retail emporium, and spent a whopping $1.50 for a set of underwear for me. When we came home, poor Dad caught hell for spending such a fortune on a set of underwear, because we really needed the money for food. That was my father’s silent way of showing his love for me. Just to give you an idea of prices at that time, bread was about five cents a loaf and a streetcar ride cost three cents.

The exhibitionist

It was a rainy day and, unable to play in the streets as usual, we sat in the store in front of the plate glass window, watching the activities on the outside. A disheveled young man appeared in front of our store, unbuttoned the front of his trousers, and took out his penis. Yelling and crying with joy, he then commenced slapping it against the plate window. The storekeeper came storming out of the store wielding a broom and began beating the man, who backed out into the street, cursing as he retreated. I learned early in life not to do such a thing. What a sight.

Hail to the king!

One year my Chinese school asked me to participate in a play. Being somewhat shy, I reluctantly agreed, but only to say a few words. It was decided that my role would be to walk on stage, raise my right arm, and say, “Hail to the King!”

On the day of the performance, I entered the stage on cue and raised my right arm just as I had rehearsed, but no sound came forth. I waited a few moments but nothing else happened. I finally dropped my arm and ran off the stage. Needless to say how embarrassed I was.

Years later, shortly after I entered private practice, I joined a Toastmasters club to improve my public speaking skills. To this day I still have some qualms about speaking in public.


I grew up during the Prohibition era, when it was illegal to sell alcoholic drinks like beer and wine anywhere in the country. So to supplement meager incomes, families like ours made alcohol at home and secretly sold it. From age ten to thirteen, just before my sojourn to China, I helped out with this scheme by scurrying about the back alleys of our community, furtively delivering homemade rice wine for $2.30 a gallon.

We were constantly worried we might get caught, especially because the wine making process created a powerful odor that could be smelled from the street, and an inspector would make periodic rounds ostensibly to check for violators. On one occasion, we watched out our window in horror as an inspector headed straight for our apartment door. Mother and I became so scared, we began to frantically dispose of the fermented mash in our kitchen.

As soon as fifty dollars changed hands, the inspector walked away. This was my first encounter with scare tactics and corruption. I learned a lot.

You're not that old

As a boy, baseball was the only sport I loved. Chicago had two baseball teams. My favorite team was the Cubs, because it was based on the North Side, a better part of town compared to the poorer and rougher South Side, home of the White Sox.

During baseball season I would scrimp and save to get 53 cents (50 for the ticket plus a 3-cent streetcar fare) so I could spend a Saturday sitting in the bleachers for a doubleheader at Wrigley Field. There I saw some of the greatest ball players, such as Roger Hornsby and Hack Wilson. I’ll never forget 1930, when I was seventeen years old, and Hack Wilson set the National League’s home run record (56 home runs) and scored 191 runs batted in, a record number that has never been beaten.

I only went to the see the White Sox once, when I was about ten or eleven years old and they were playing the Yankees. I sure picked the right game to go to—Babe Ruth hit a home run! That year his salary was $80,000 while our president made $75,000. Whenever I say that I saw “the Babe” hit a home run, someone responds, “You’re not that old.”

On Leong tong vs. Hip Sing tong

All during our childhood days we were aware of two enormously powerful organizations operated by the Chinese in Chicago, On Leong Tong on the South Side, to which my family belonged, and Hip Sing Tong on the North Side, just south of the Chicago Loop. “Tong” means meeting hall, “On Leong” means peaceful and serene, and “Hip Sing” means united in victory. In later years the word “tong” was dropped from the names of the organizations; today they are referred to only as On Leong and Hip Sing.

During my childhood days, violence between these two tongs was prevalent. I once saw the body of a slain Hip Sing member in the back alley behind our home, the deed presumably accomplished by an On Leong member. We called the low-ranking foot soldiers who carried out jobs such as this bul tow jai, which means “hammer underling.” I do not know the origin of this nomenclature, but perhaps it shares a history with the term “hatchet man,” because at one time assassins may have used a hammer or hatchet for their striking weapon.

The functions of these organizations changed over time from the way they originally started at the turn of the twentieth century when my ancestors arrived from China. At that time the tongs formed to help their members acclimate to the American way of life, establish a livelihood, communicate with loved ones back home, send for their families, and protect their rights and wellbeing, although this was a very difficult task. As the years passed by the organization became more benevolent and social. For example, I once appeared before On Leong acting in a tribunal capacity, as I related in the tale about the money claim dispute with my uncle’s family.

Paw Paw’s father was a prominent member of the Hip Sing and although I was of the On Leong, Paw Paw’s father was always greeted with great honor and respect whenever he came into our community.

Part II

Off to China and Back to High School

Across the Pacific

Most people can recall a period or event in life that they believe may have directed the course of their destiny. Mine was when my father decided to send me to China.

I was thirteen and just finishing up my first year of high school in Chicago when my Father said to me, “Go back to China and learn some Chinese.” I was already fluent in the village dialect, but language wasn’t enough—what Father meant was that I needed to learn some Chinese culture and values firsthand. So along with my nephew Fred, who was actually one year my senior, I dutifully took a train to San Francisco and, on July 17, 1931, boarded the President Madison steamship. A full month later, Fred and I arrived in Canton city in the southern part of Kwangtung Province, China.

We stayed with my sister Ann and her husband Paak Shing, known familiarly as “P.S.” P.S., who had a PhD in political science from the University of Chicago, and was then the secretary to the mayor of Canton.

Fred and I enrolled at the Lingnan Overseas School, where students from all over the world came to learn Chinese language and culture. The math teaching was far superior in China; even the grammar school level classes there were more advanced than the one semester of high school math I had taken in Chicago. Although I had experienced a lot of difficulty understanding algebra word problems during my first semester in high school back home, I completely mastered those problems in China without much difficulty.

Thrown for three years into an educational system with students from all parts of the world and widely varying cultural backgrounds, we found it very difficult at first to make and keep friends. We lived in an all male dormitory with four students to a room. To keep abreast of each other’s likes, dislikes, and values, we had to fully embrace truth and honesty. We learned by necessity to share with and accommodate each other. Maintaining such a constant awareness of others helped us develop quick and agile minds capable of producing valuable foresights and insights.

We played baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis, and volleyball, and we swam. I competed in the 100- and 200-meter footraces. We went on overnight trips into the mountains where we learned about cooking and self-management. On weekends, Fred and I accompanied Ann and P.S. on boat excursions with wonderful banquets hosted by P.S. and his political friends.

I slowly matured from these experiences, learned how to get along with people from all walks of life, and most importantly became self-sufficient. All in all we had a wonderful experience in China. But in spite of seeing my sister regularly, we both felt homesick after three years and were ready to come back. We journeyed home on the President Coolidge steamship, which made it back to America in much less time than the month it had taken us to travel to China. We arrived in San Francisco in September 1934 and caught a Greyhound bus to Chicago. I made it home with only ten dollars in my pocket.

What an unforgettable experience.

Not valedictorian

Because I received excellent grades in all of my courses I was able to graduate in 1937, completing high school in a total of three-and-a-half years.

I received the highest grades in my class of 4,000 students: “superior” grades in all subjects except a single “good” in English. In spite of my grades, I was not named the class valedictorian. My brother Victor reminded me, though, that I delivered a valedictorian speech in the school auditorium. School administrators told me that I couldn’t be the official valedictorian because I had not participated in any social extracurricular activities. Looking back, I wonder if the real reason I was not named valedictorian was that I was Chinese. In those days, racism and racial discrimination were much more common than they are today.

Don't cut off your nose to spite your face

Beginning in high school and continuing through pre-med and my first year in medical school, I worked to save some money so that I would be able to continue my schooling in case my father, who was well into his eighties, should pass away. I did some odd jobs for the local pool hall, but my primary employer was Won Kow, a Chinese restaurant that catered to a relatively wealthy clientele. I started there as a busboy. I worked hard, was well liked, and bided my time with the expectation that I would eventually be promoted to waiter, a much sought after job.

After I worked four years as a busboy, a position opened for a waiter and I felt sure that I would be given the job. Much to my surprise and chagrin, my cousin was hired instead, even though he was less qualified than I. When I found out I had been unjustly passed over for the promotion, I was quite angry. I felt like throwing my working jacket on the floor and leaving! I hesitated and thought for a moment before taking such a drastic action. If I stormed out, I realized, it would make no difference to the restaurant owner, who would have no trouble at all finding a replacement busboy. I would harm only myself by eliminating my source of income. I took a deep breath, swallowed my pride and anger, and accepted the situation. Rather than responding with outward resentment, I took my cousin under my wing and did my best to help him serve his customers well.

Of course the owner noticed all this and appreciated my attitude and effort. Soon after that another waiter position opened up, and this time it was given to me. Do not cut off your nose to spite your face. Always revisit your goal!

I worked another four years as a waiter at Won Kow. It was unquestionably tough to work thirty hours per weekend, from 10:00 AM until 2:00 AM on Saturdays and from 10:00 AM until midnight on Sunday. Though the hours were long, I was happy and thankful for the job. Each weekend I earned about thirty dollars in tips. That was a lot of money at that time.

We should always appreciate the opportunity presented to us regardless of how difficult it seems.

American chop suey

There are few occasions in one’s lifetime that produce a long-lasting memory and shape our attitude forever. For me, one such occasion centers on what I think of as the “American chop suey” incident.

Shortly after I became a waiter at Won Kow I waited on a colored man who came in to eat chop suey. The manager, concerned that white customers might be deterred if they saw a colored diner in our restaurant, ordered the cook to add a large amount of salt to the food, making it inedible. I placed the dish on the customer’s table. After a single bite, he realized that he was not welcome. He got up, paid his 35-cent bill, and quietly left, leaving behind a generous 10-cent tip for me.

I felt deeply remorseful to have participated in this affair. The image of Arizona, my boyhood friend and guardian, flashed in my mind for the first time since grammar school days and enhanced my shame. To this day I vividly recall the injustice of it all.

I can’t imagine what would happen if this incident occurred today instead of then—1937. I suppose one could claim that the added salt was an accident.

High school

Back in Chicago, I returned to Harrison Technical High School in the spring semester of 1935. Unlike today, not all high schools at that time were designed to prepare students for college. A few of the more expensive private high schools were “college preparatory” schools. The majority of high schools, however, including mine, were known as “vocational” schools and offered primarily technical courses intended to instill in students the skills necessary to enter the workforce upon graduation. I enrolled in courses such as woodworking, foundry, electrical, mechanical drawing, physics, and typewriting, as well as the required English and the selected French classes.

As soon as school started back up I delved into my studies with the same curiosity and fervor that had earned me the childhood moniker “Why-Why Grant.” The courses I took improved my manual dexterity and spatial reasoning. Mechanical drawing was the most demanding; I was required to draw complex mechanical objects with multiple facets, lines, corners, and sides. Precise measurements of the front, top, and side views all had to be included. The end goal was to render a drawing from which the subject could be physically produced. This was a most daunting mental exercise.

In addition to studying hard, I aspired to follow in the footsteps of my older cousin Sam and earn a varsity letter at Harrison. Sam had attended Harrison years earlier and been a star player on the basketball team. When I was a child, Sam used to proudly display his varsity letter on his high school sweater, and all the kids would talk about it. Naturally, I always wanted an “H” as well.

Like Sam, I played basketball; however, I was only able to make junior varsity. I was only 5’4” tall—inches shorter than most of the other players, who called me “Shorty.” I was never able to match their prowess. I tried to become a boxer, but my boxing days were short-lived. In my very first bout, my opponent clamped my left arm against his chest with his right hand and arm. Although this was a clear foul, the referee failed to call it, so I lost. That was the end of boxing for me. I never ran competitively at Harrison. Nor did I swim competitively, even though I had learned to swim in China. The only swimming I did in high school was on hot summer days, when I would bicycle to the Lake Michigan shoreline and cool off by diving off the rocks into the water.

I eventually earned my “H” as a substitute player on the varsity basketball team. I wore that letter proudly.

It's not what it seems

There will always be periods in our lives when uncertainties challenge the state of our wellbeing, when situations seem to be something they are not.

During high school, I developed an upper respiratory infection that left me with a lingering cough for which I required the care of our family doctor. An X-ray of my chest revealed a questionable shadow in one of the lung fields. I was ordered to stop all strenuous activities and hard work, curtail my basketball playing, and if possible to quit my busboy job. Even fast walking was not recommended; horseback riding, I was told, was the only advisable form of exercise.

My humble riding equipment consisted of a fifteen-dollar pair of riding boots, my regular trousers, and a gabardine jacket. The riding stable was located on the North Side of Chicago, about an hour ride away from home on the streetcar. I traveled there three times a week and paid three dollars each time for a lesson. After two months of riding (and about $75 of my meager savings), I decided to reevaluate my status. My health had improved. I ate and slept well, worked as a busboy without any ill effect, and the cough had just about disappeared. Horseback riding was too time consuming and my money was running low. I finally said, “The hell with it,” and decided to return to my normal lifestyle.

It came to pass that I had just had a bad cold with a stubborn residual cough. The gloomy diagnosis came from the same doctor who took out my appendix. In all probability, he was incompetent. How was I to know? That doctor, I believe, took advantage of the ignorant.

Remember always to reevaluate a dark situation—it may not be as dark as you think.

Not for me

As far as I can remember there were two funeral parlors in our neighborhood. The older establishment was the one that I passed daily as a child going to and from school and which I have previously mentioned. The other one, the Harry Stephens undertaking parlor, was located across the street from our home. From our front window I frequently witnessed bodies being transported into the mortuary. It was widely known that Mr. Stephens, the owner, would give five bucks to anyone who brought an unclaimed body into his establishment. This offer was particularly extended to the police who delivered paddy wagon sized loads of dead bodies picked up from the streets of Chicago. After preparing the bodies for burial, Mr. Stephens would bill the city for the job. His was a thriving and lucrative business.

One day when he was dining at Won Kow, Mr. Stephens said to me, “Grant, there’s good money in what I do. How about I send you to embalming school, pay all your expenses with a few extra dollars for living expenses, and in exchange you come join my business when you finish?” I was quite surprised and shaken and just could not find an immediate answer.

No doubt Mr. Stephens thought his offer was a generous one, but in fact the idea was quite repulsive to me, as it would be to any Chinese. We Chinese usually shunned and avoided undertakers. If I went into that line of work, I would lose my friends and family, and would find it very difficult to find someone to marry. It was just a no-no. My aversion to Mr. Stephens’ profession was so strong, I even felt squeamish about handling the generous tip money he gave me for serving him, as if the money were tainted. I could not seriously consider taking him up on this offer.

Time passed and I made no response to Mr. Stephens’ proposal, so he eventually approached me and asked again. I told him that I was planning to go into medicine, but thanked him for his interest in me.

I was seventeen at that time, studious and hardworking. I would have made a good addition to his business; together, we would have cornered the Chinese clientele. It was a fortune-making offer but it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Part III

Becoming a Doctor

Medicine or engineering?

During my final month in high school, I faced quite a dilemma trying to decide whether to go into medicine, which I really wanted to do, or engineering, which was a more practical choice. Father was 85 years old at that time. It would take me at least eight years to become a physician: three years of pre-med, four years of medical school, and one year of internship. Given my desire to be a surgeon, it could take even longer. If during this time my father should die, the responsibility would fall on me, the firstborn son, to support the family. I would be required to put my education on hold and go to work fulltime without any specific training. If I went into engineering, however, I would have a degree—and therefore be a better provider—in only four years. Since my father and uncles were all alive and healthy in their eighties, I thought it possible that I still had time to complete my education in medicine. With confidence, conviction, and courage I plowed ahead.

Not only did Father survive this eight-year period but also my two-year surgical residency and the almost three years I spent in the army—a total of thirteen years before he passed away at the age of 97. Shoot for the moon and get there!


My first year in pre-med could not have gone better. Perhaps because my experience with technical mechanical drawings in high school had provided me with an excellent understanding of spatial orientation, I did extremely well in embryology. I read the textbook from cover to cover and understood it so well that the teacher asked me to make a presentation and explain various developing organs, especially the heart. He liked me so much, he made me his laboratory assistant. This allowed me to attend tuition-free for the remaining two years of pre-med.

Other than purchasing essential books, carfare, and food, I spent very little money during my three years of pre-med. I saved up as much as possible.

Rock-bottom-priced suits

I can only recall buying two suits as a young man. I must have bought more than just two, because the salesman at Rothschild’s Men’s and Boys’ store was very friendly and solicitous to me, often calling me up to let me know about clearance sales. At one such sale, I bought a presentable green suit requiring multiple alterations for the rock bottom price of only twenty dollars. I am embarrassed to relate that a week later I changed my mind and took the suit back to the store hoping to return it for salvage value. Much to my surprise my salesman friend gave me full credit for it. What excellent customer service!

In my last year of pre-med Paw Paw’s father, my future father-in-law, bought me a much wanted but unaffordable fifty-dollar blue-gray suit at Rothschild’s. I didn’t look too good in my shabby clothing. What a good future in-law.

Freshman year

I entered medical school in 1940. In my freshman year I paid only $300 for books and tuition, and $150 for a microscope.

Shortly after school started I began to hear about “AOA” and soon learned that it was the Alpha Omega Alpha Honorary Medical Society that most students aspired to join. Many studied ten to twelve hours a day in the attempt to reach this goal. Given the fact that I worked in addition to attending school, it was impossible for me to spend this much time studying. My goal at that time was merely to complete my studies and obtain my MD degree.

Freshman year was uneventful. I did quite well in the comprehensive anatomy course, a combination of gross anatomy, embryology, and histology. I had already taken much more detailed histology and embryology courses in pre-med, so I spent most of my time studying gross anatomy.

In that first year, we had weekly or biweekly surprise examinations designed to make sure we studied regularly and were well-prepared at all times. It was impossible to study all of the voluminous materials with equal intensity, so I learned to study selectively, mastering the points I thought were most important (and therefore might be the basis of questions on the surprise examinations), and spending just enough time on others to be familiar with them. This approach helped me to achieve high test scores, and I ultimately received a good grade in the 900 credit hours.


Big things happened during my sophomore year in medical school, both for the country and for me. In addition to being the year when the United States officially joined World War II, that was the year of the greatest challenge of medical school: the terrifying “sophomore comprehensive examinations.” These daunting examinations, which came at the end of the school year, tested every subject covered in freshman and sophomore years and were evaluated on a harsh pass/fail basis. Students who passed were allowed to advance to junior year; students who failed were given the choice of repeating a year or dropping out of school completely. Everyone approached these exams with trepidation. Those two days, and the months leading up to them, were the most grueling of medical school. Thankfully, I passed.

Having achieved tuition-free status only on a one-year basis for each of the first two years, I needed to find a new way to finance the third year of medical school as well. I was fortunately selected to be the anatomy professor’s helper that year, and my tuition-free status was renewed again.

As I progressed through medical school, the war continued, and in an effort to increase the number of physicians in the military, the United States government began ordering medical schools to accelerate their curriculum and steer graduates directly into the military. Thus in early 1943 most students at the U of I College of Medicine, including me, were inducted into the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). A lesser number joined the V-12 program of the Navy. Students who did not want to join either specialization program were inducted directly into the service.

Those of us who joined ASTP or V-12 immediately became commissioned officers with pay. Our tuition and books were fully covered by the Army. Summer break was eliminated that year so that we graduated in December 1943, several months earlier than originally scheduled.

Immediately upon graduation, I was promoted to Second Lieutenant of the Army Air Corps. As a graduate in the top 10% of my class, I was also elected into the AOA Honor Society that year. This accomplishment took confidence, conviction, and courage.

Got married

As soon as I graduated from medical school, Paw Paw and I were married in the Catholic church near her home where she always went to Mass. Shortly after that, she began working at the department store Goldblatt’s to help pay the bills while I completed my internship and residency. I made only ten dollars a month as an intern and twenty-five as a resident—not even enough to cover our fifty-dollar rent. It was tough but we never complained; we just charged ahead. Paw Paw did a yeoman’s job. I loved her for that.

For our honeymoon we went to New York, where we stayed at the Roosevelt Hotel and saw a show. Even after such an extravagant vacation, we still had about $800 left when we came home. I had saved up quite a bit of money working over the years at Won Kow.

Cook County Hospital

I started my internship under the accelerated “9-9-9 program.” This program and its counterpart, the V-12 program of the Navy, were implemented to keep up the supply of physicians and specialists available for the war.

The 9-9-9 program began with nine months of internship. When the internship was complete, if you were selected to become a resident, you would stay for a nine-month residency; if not, into the service you went with general medical knowledge. After the residency, if fortunate enough to be selected again for advancement, you would complete training in a specialty and enter the service in your specialty.

All of my training during this time was at Cook County Hospital, where most training was passed on from the residents with very little supervision from the attending men. I was often left to fend for myself. I found this to be very important in the development of independence.

On January 1, 1944, my first day as an intern, I was in the pediatric surgical ward. I vividly remember a nurse calling out for help.

“Doctor, come here! This child is in acute respiratory distress!” she yelled.

I looked around to see whom she was addressing, not realizing at first that I was the doctor she was calling for. Because it was New Year’s Day, the resident had left without properly briefing me on the acutely ill patients. Somewhat flustered, I quietly read the chart and decided that the child had an acute empyema—fluid in the chest pressing on his lung. On my own, without any previous experience, I drained the chest. I had no choice. The patient did well.

I made it through the whole 27 months of the program. Following my nine months as an intern, I spent three months in internal medicine and fifteen months in the fracture service. I finished my residency in fractures. Residents in fractures—independent of orthopedics—were only trained in Chicago and Boston.

Many of the residents were appointed based on politics rather than chosen by the merits of their performance. I recall during my last month of medical school trying to determine what hospital I should apply to for my internship. I knew that a private hospital was not adequate for good training and County Hospital had the reputation of turning out some poor doctors. As my internship proceeded I soon learned that the poor doctors were the ones who didn’t care about the welfare of their patients. They were just there to obtain experience—especially in surgery—and to hone their skills. Doctors who had compassion and sympathy for the less fortunate, however, did well. They looked to see that patients were well cared for and procedures were done properly. When these virtues were carried out, very good doctors became better. They developed greater skill and confidence.

My attending man in fractures did not impart any confidence in me and barely spoke to me, so I usually did not consult him. I only presented complicated cases to him for his information. I endeavored to learn as much as I could on my own, though. I read the two volumes on fractures by Watson Jones from cover to cover and practiced it to perfection. My attending man would wonder about me to my supervising resident.

”How does Moy do this?”

Usually there was no answer. I was not addressed directly.

Using my training in mechanical drawing, I developed a new method to calculate how to wedge a cast to correct a misaligned tibia fracture. At that time, although cast wedging was widely performed, it was usually something of a “guessing game” for the physician involved. My method enabled me to wedge a cast with precision, ensuring superior alignment of the patient’s tibia. I showed the attending physician and he shot me down. He stated that the method was not acceptable for publishing. His son, who later became an orthopedist, took my work and published it in an orthopedic journal.

In spite of such negative attitudes, one can learn a lot and develop great confidence from being forced to fend for oneself. When one comes out of such a residency one feels that if it can be done, it will be done. Confidence, conviction, and courage are required to make it through such a challenge.

During my internship, I roomed on the seventh floor of the main hospital. I enjoyed my living situation immensely. My buddies and I were known as the two Jews, one Nazi, and the crazy Chinaman.* To celebrate interns and residents leaving after completing their services, we often had raucous parties with beer flowing freely and the piano pounding throughout the late evening. In spite of the noise we never received any complaints. After all, we interns and residents ran the hospital. If one of us got so drunk that he could hardly stand up, we would just place him on a gurney and roll him to his quarters.

One dark and rainy night we were traveling from one building to another through an underground tunnel. As I opened the door to the tunnel I was slapped in the face by a meaty object hanging from the doorframe. Much to my horror, I realized that it was an amputated penis from a dead body.

During my days at County we did anything and everything with impunity. What pleasure it was to be an intern back then.

Keesler Army Airfield

Upon completing the 9-9-9 program, I was made Chief of Orthopedics at Keesler as I replaced an orthopod (an orthopedic specialist) who had just returned from overseas. As you can imagine, the airfield, which was used for training, produced many fractures for me to treat. In severe cases, after initial treatment the patients were transferred to General Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. I usually accompanied them to Atlanta.

I remember one severely fractured tibia, which I reduced and casted. After the reduction, there was a misalignment of the tibia, which I corrected using the cast wedging technique I had pioneered. Then I reinforced the wedged area with a large amount of plaster, giving the cast a grotesque appearance.

When we got to Atlanta, the receiving doctor took one look at the cast and wanted to remove it. He was about to do so when I interceded to ask that he take a look at the X-rays before removing the cast. He did, and was astonished and embarrassed when he saw the perfect result. He apologized for jumping to conclusions about the quality of my work based on the appearance of the cast and the fact that it came out of a small regional station hospital.

Look before you jump.

The plugged toilet

When I arrived home around 5:00 one evening, Paw Paw told me that the toilet was plugged and there was discharge on the bathroom floor. Having just returned all sweaty from bowling, I really wanted to shower. I asked her why she didn’t call housing maintenance to have someone take care of the problem. She said that she had called a number of times, starting around 3:00, and still no one had come.

I picked up the phone immediately and called housing again. An enlisted man answered the phone and explained that since it was now after 5:00, everyone was gone for the evening and he would need to call Washington to approve an overtime order to have the problem fixed that night. Fuming, I hung up, picked up the phone again, and called the General directly. This was a violation of the chain of command, but I was not concerned. “General, this is Captain Moy,” I said. “I have a plugged toilet and it’s not good for my newborn.” The General instructed me to call Major Frank and said he would take care of the problem. I called the Major and said that General Anderson told me to call him to take care of the toilet problem. I could barely hear him over the phone, as there were a number of children climbing and yelling over his shoulders, and he could also barely hear me.

“The general wants me to fix your toilet?” he asked.

“No sir,” I replied, “I believe he wants you to send somebody over to take care of it,” and hung up the phone.

Within ten minutes a crew of three arrived to take care of the problem. Before they left they completely cleaned and sanitized the bathroom floor. From then on I only needed to pick up the phone and call. Word spread like wildfire over the base about the “crazy captain” who didn’t follow chain of command and just called to get the job done. I am sure there were more insulting appellations used as well.

If you have aces in your hand, use them.

No room for Chinese

One year prior to my anticipated discharge from the service I decided that it was time to look for a surgical residency. My first choice was to return to Cook County, but I decided it would not be possible because I lacked the proper connections to land such an appointment. My next choice would have been to go to the University of Illinois Research Hospital. The scuttlebutt, however, was that if you had not interned at Research you didn’t have a chance at securing a residency there—especially if you spent your time at Cook County. (I found later that this was not true.) So I returned to my medical school and sought the advice of Mr. George Moon, the Registrar. “Grant,” Mr. Moon said, “go to the Mayo Clinic. Our school will send them a letter of recommendation.” The Mayo Clinic was—and still is—a world-renowned research institution.

I went to Mayo for an interview and then returned to school to eagerly await their decision. Much to my disappointment, I was rejected. I was the only applicant recommended by our school that Mayo had ever rejected. They rejected me not because of my résumé or skills, but because I was Chinese. The rejection from Mayo guided my decision to go to Edward Hines Veterans Hospital, where most of the consultants and attending men were staff from our university.

As it turned out, the rejection from Mayo was a blessing in disguise. At Hines I received far better training in surgery than I would have received at Mayo. I did not realize this until late into my residency.

The lost wheels

Coming out of service I was able to obtain priority on a brand new black two-door Chevy Aerosedan for a total of $600, including all fees. It was beautiful.

One Saturday, a week after I got the car, I parked it outside my house. About fifteen minutes later I came back to retrieve some packages from the car, but it wasn’t where I thought I left it. I scratched my head and figured I must have parked it somewhere else by mistake. I began to walk around the building complex, looking everywhere. I went into my locked garage, came out again, and circled back to the front of the house where I thought I left the car in the first place. No car! Hell, I realized, it’s stolen!

I had no choice: I was forced to accept this turn of events. I was fortunately able to buy a replacement quickly.

I heard nothing else about my missing set of wheels for a long time. But one day, over three years later, two federal agents accosted me.

“Dr. Moy, have you ever owned a two-door black Chevy Aerosedan?” they asked.

I replied in surprise, “Yes, why?”

They explained that they had been investigating a ring of car thieves working out of Chicago. The thieves would use an accomplice working at a car dealership to obtain the VIN of a new car, which they would then stamp transfer to a stolen car. The thief had claimed that my car was unattended with the keys in place. Of course I could verify that was false! It had taken the feds three years to finally trace the vehicle to me. They said it was an enormous ring of thieves they had finally broken.

Two tears and he was gone

I have known many people who died, but usually I only saw them after the fact. I was only present at the exact moment of death for the passing of my father. I remember it vividly.

It happened during the last of the two nights that I was off call from the night rotation at Hines. I returned home for the final care of my father, who was nearing his end. It is our culture that if at all possible, all of the family should be present upon the demise of any family member. In my second night sleeping in his room, at about 3:00 AM I noticed his breath had become erratic. I thought that the time was near as his conscious periods waxed and waned. He looked about the room and saw that I was the only one present. Thereafter his respiration gradually improved, he grew mentally clearer, and I thought it had been a false alarm. This episode recurred at about 9:00 AM and still no one was around. All had gone to work except me. I had taken the day off because of his condition. This second episode lasted for about a half hour, then ended as the first one did.

Late that afternoon, Father completely evacuated himself of feces and urine and would take no more food or water thereafter. This was in preparation for his death. We Chinese firmly believe that we should not leave any spoilage upon leaving this earth. Father certainly adhered to all of his beliefs.

At 7:00 that evening Father again started breathing erratically. This time, almost everyone was home. As each member of the family stepped into the room he would turn his head toward the door and cock his ear toward the sound of the footstep, apparently identifying the individual. As the hour almost passed my eldest sister, Helen, called and stated that she had some car problem and probably would not have a chance to see father. I relayed the message to father but he still continued to listen intently for footsteps. My sister finally arrived and when she stepped into the room my father turned his ears toward the sound and one tear dropped from each of his eyes onto his cheeks.

“I can’t bear to go,” he said.

With that, he closed his eyes and just stopped breathing. It was as quick and definitive as turning off a water faucet. I have never witnessed anything else like it.

I truly believe that there must be something more to life than just live and die.

Dr. Puestow's Protegé

Before long, I was selected to be the junior resident on the most sought-after service: that of Dr. Puestow, the Chief of Surgery. Dr. Puestow’s senior resident had the duty and privilege to see all surgical consultations and select the most interesting and difficult cases for Dr. Puestow himself to operate on and use to teach. Hospital policy was that no one could spend more than six months on his service because he was in such high demand. That meant a resident could only be on Dr. Puestow’s service once. The selection of a resident for this position was not by the usual system.

All senior residents were given the responsibility of total surgical care of the hospital from 6:00 PM until 7:00 the following morning. Grade points were submitted by one’s mentor (attending man) after the completion of the rotation on his service.

I was an eager beaver, always enthusiastic about my work. Sometimes I got so excited that I leaned in far enough to block Dr. Puestow’s field of vision. “Grant, can you see alright?” he would ask when he could no longer see. That was my signal to back off.

As I mentioned earlier, I think being rejected from Mayo was a blessing in disguise. I received excellent training at Hines and was given a lot of independence and responsibility. In contrast, Mayo fellows in their training were generally not given the chance to make decisions on their own or assume full responsibility, and therefore missed one of the key components in the development of a good surgeon. Years later I saw the ill effects of this poor training. In one case, while doing a gastric resection for a scarred duodenal ulcer, one surgeon was so inept and so rough that he tugged on the stomach and tore away the distal end of it. Another surgeon was so indecisive as to whether or not to repeat a blood count on a patient, I closed the door to the patient’s room so that he would not be able to pass judgment on whether or not the patient should have surgery. Both of those individuals were certified general surgeons, Mayo trained.

Dr. Puestow was also Mayo trained. In spite of this, he became a great surgeon on his own after he left Mayo. He developed his operating skill while working with the residents at the Illinois Research Hospital and doing some of their cases and also while in private practice.

A change in the rules

Three months prior to my last six-month rotation, when I would be a senior resident in general surgery, I was in the Assistant Chief of Surgery’s office, where he was looking at his recently received diploma from the American Board of Surgery.

“George, what is the size of that diploma?” I asked him.

“8 x 11,” he said. “Why do you ask?”

“I am making frames for all of my diplomas,” I said. “I might just as well make one for that.”

He exploded. “You conceited son-of-a-b**ch!” he said.

“No George,” I responded. “I will get it, even if it takes me ten years.” Confidence and conviction!

He paused. “Who are you requesting as your senior service mentor?” he asked.
“Puestow,” I replied facetiously.

He laughed in disbelief. “You are crazy,” he said. “You already had him once.”

“But George, you asked me what I want. That is what I want,” I said.

A month later a bulletin came out announcing a new policy. The senior resident with the highest grades would be allowed to choose any service he wished. I had the highest grades, so I chose Puestow’s service and became his senior resident. This set a new precedent. I glowed knowing that he had changed his rule for me.

My confidence, enthusiasm for learning, and reputation as a crackerjack made me something of a legend in the hospital.

Work hard and the impossible may happen. Remember and remind yourself that even under the worst circumstances the best results may emerge. Be upbeat and optimistic and the sun will shine!! Don’t despair!!

My teacher—the ultimate dedication

Back when I was an intern at Cook County, I had often gone to the morgue and sought out Dr. Loeffler, an old pathologist who had come to America from Vienna as a Jewish refugee. I would go to him with questions, and he was always willing to spend time explaining the correlation between physical findings and pathology specimens. He loved to teach, and I made an eager pupil. I lost track of him when I left the County Hospital.

During my last six months at Hines as a senior resident, I was given a final cadaver to dissect. My job in this dissection was to focus on the abdomen, chest, and neck as these areas were where we did most of our surgery. I had just finished working on the chest and was exposing the head and neck when I noticed the face. It had a familiar hawkish nose, strikingly similar in appearance to Dr. Loeffler. I looked at the nametag and I almost cried. It was Dr. Loeffler. I dropped everything and walked away with a heavy heart. I couldn’t finish. I was heartbroken, feeling as though I had mutilated my friend.

He dedicated his body to teaching, in which he truly believed.


Although I worked hard at Won Kow, the money I made there was insufficient to pay university tuition. Determined to pursue my goal, I looked for another way to finance my education. I decided that I must find a scholarship.

In those days, scholarships were awarded based on applicants’ performance on an examination. Setting my sights high, I first attempted the scholarship examination at the prestigious University of Chicago. But having not attended a college preparatory high school, I found I was totally unprepared for the University of Chicago’s demanding examination. I realized this immediately upon opening the examination booklet. Without writing a word, I quietly closed it and left.

Since my sister Helen had recently graduated from the Lewis Institute, I decided to try my fortune there. The Lewis Institute’s scholarship examination was much more general. Shortly after I sat for it, I was awarded a one-year scholarship.

When I enrolled at the Lewis Institute, I did not know how good the school’s reputation was. I later found out that the registrar at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, who was not a doctor, was taking pre-med courses at the Lewis Institute with the goal of eventually attending medical school himself. This validated the quality of the Lewis Institute’s teaching.

The Bowl of Rice party

During the late 1930s, when I was in pre-med, China was at war with Japan. Chinese citizens who were here in the U.S. were very active in war fundraising so they could send money back home to support the war.

On June 17, 1938, the United Council for Civilian Relief in China hosted a “Bowl of Rice” fundraiser dinner and dance at the Sherman Hotel. It was there that I first met my future wife, whom you know as “Paw Paw.” She was wearing a gardenia in her hair, and she was the most beautiful girl at the party.

I was twenty years old when we met, but Paw Paw was only sixteen and still a student at Hyde Park High School. Together we often rode the “L,” Chicago’s elevated train system, to her high school dances. On many of our dates, she would climb up and sit on the handlebars of my Ranger bicycle and we would travel the streets of Chicago together.

When Paw Paw graduated from high school, I gave her a gardenia corsage. She continued on to college at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee.

Finding a medical school

As I approached the end of pre-med, I began surveying my medical school options. I knew right away that Northwestern was out of the question because it had a quota of one oriental per year and had already accepted my cousin, who had attended Northwestern as an undergraduate. Besides, I could not have afforded it. Loyola was also too expensive.

I decided that the University of Illinois was my best choice. As a state school it had the lowest tuition, and as the largest school it had the greatest number of available seats for entering students.

Unbeknownst to me, admissions at the University of Illinois College of Medicine were highly competitive for applicants from Chicago. As a state school, U of I was obligated to set aside a portion of seats in each entering class for students from each county in the state. Cook County, where Chicago is located, was allotted the most seats per class; however, as the county with the largest population, Cook also had the greatest number of highly qualified applicants. Admission was strictly judged based on applicants’ scholastic achievements. Out of 600 applicants only 60 were selected for my class.

I consider myself quite lucky to have secured a seat in medical school. But as with most luck, I likely had a hand in making my own luck. I had worked hard to receive excellent grades in pre-med, and that hard work paid off.

Mind over matter

Before I started medical school I was deeply concerned as to how I was going to handle dead bodies, especially given my longstanding fear of the dead. The moment of truth came during freshman year, when each student is required to dissect a human body in order to successfully complete the anatomy course.

At the beginning of a dissection the entire body is wrapped in a heavy cloth. Dissection begins on the arms. After that, the lower extremities are done. The abdomen is next, then the chest, and finally the head. As the process progresses steadily from limbs to head, one’s emotions regarding the dead disappear gradually. I completed the dissection with flying colors.

My second opportunity to dissect a body came during summer following freshman year, when a student who had flunked anatomy asked me to help him do his dissection over again. I was all for it. As I worked on that second dissection, I became completely comfortable with the dead. Often tired in the early afternoon, I grew accustomed to pushing the body over and taking naps on the table next to it.

Because I received such high marks in my freshman year, I was selected to be one of six prosectors of anatomy in the following year. As a prosector, I was tasked with carefully dissecting a human body in advance of its use in a classroom demonstration. The school would compensate me for this gruesome job by giving me a tuition-free second year.

Although I started medical school with a fear of the dead, I ended up dissecting more bodies in the first two years than any other student in my class. Every student dissected at least one body. Prosectors typically did two. I was the only student who dissected three bodies. What a conquest of mind over matter!

I don't believe you

“I spent only $450 for my entire medical education,” I tell people.

“I don’t believe you,” they often say. “It must be a figment of your imagination. How could that be all you spent on your medical education? Show me.”

Except for the $450 I spent in my first year of medicine, I did not spend a cent during my three years of pre-med and the remaining three-and-a-half years of medical school.

The first year of pre-med was tuition free for me because I was awarded a competitive scholarship. I received the remaining two years tuition free in lieu of payment for my teaching duties.

In the first year of medical school I spent only $150 for a microscope and $300 for tuition and books. I remember very vividly that there were very few books to be purchased. The anatomy professor had incorporated embryology, histology, neurology, and gross anatomy in their entirety all into one book, thus eliminating the need to have separate books for each subject. This comprehensive course was credited for 900 hours.

I was invited to attend the second year tuition free as compensation for my work as a prosector—one of six sophomore students chosen to dissect a cadaver for demonstration for the incoming freshmen. This has always been part of the teaching.

For reasons unknown to me, I was selected to be the laboratory assistant to the anatomy professor in my third year and thus earned another tuition-free year.

The last six months of my senior year were paid for by the government under the Army Specialized Training Program. This program, which I entered at that time, was formed to keep the fighting forces supplied with physicians during the war.

I have spent many wee hours pondering this. In 1940, the year I started Medical School, tuition at both Loyola Medical School and Northwestern Medical School was $600. This daunting figure stood out against the $300 yearly tuition at Illinois. As of the writing of this book, 2012, in-state tuition at Illinois is now $25,000 yearly; out-of-state tuition is $50,000. No wonder my declaration has been challenged repeatedly—it was unbelievable. My total expenses were $450; my total tuition was only $300.

You can call it a dream, only possible in America.

“You must be damn lucky. This I still don’t believe,” people say.

1+2 always equals 3

“Doctor, I need your help!” the man exclaimed. “For the past two weeks, my twelve-year-old son has been awakening, screaming with pain. He gets out of bed, holding his head and walking around, and then shortly the pain disappears. He has seen many doctors and the only finding was that both tonsils were severely infected and enlarged, almost completely obstructing the back of his throat. He’s been on medication for the past three weeks. Everything was found to be normal. My brother is one of your patients and says you are a pretty good doctor. I thought you might help me.”

I examined the man’s son and found nothing new. I moved his head in various directions and noticed that on forward flexion (bending) of his head there was some laxity. I took X-rays of his neck in forward and straight upright positions and found an abnormal increased spacing between the atlas of the first vertebra and the odontoid of the second vertebra. I believed this abnormality was the cause of his complaint. To clinch the diagnosis, I carefully flexed his head forward until the boy felt pain, and then reversed the movement and his pain was completely relieved.

To fully understand what I just said I need to describe the anatomical relationship between the atlas and the odontoid. The odontoid process is a tooth-like projection on the axis of the #2 vertebra. This projection articulates with the atlas of the vertebra above it, the #1 vertebra. A thick strong band of ligament arches across the ring of the atlas and holds the odontoid in place. The tonsils are located just in front of this attachment band.

In this boy’s case, a severe prolonged infection of his tonsils had caused a severe inflammatory reaction, bringing much blood to this area. The swelling resulted in a loosening of the ligamentous band, causing backward pressure on the odontoid and spinal cord with forward movement of the boy’s head. When his head was straightened to an upright position, the pressure was released and the pain relieved.

I told the boy’s father that his son would need to have his head and shoulders in a cast for a period of six weeks. Once the cast was removed, he’d have to wear a cervical collar for a prolonged period of time.

This was a very unusual case as the infection had gone unchecked for a long time. Today, such an incident would be highly unlikely given the easy availability of antibiotics and treatment of infections. I have yet to see or hear of another similar case. 

The diagnosis of this problem was not unique. Why the diagnosis had not been made previously is of no surprise, as there is always a cause and effect. My equation is 1 + 2 = 3. #1 is the complaint, #2 is the cause, and #3 is the effect. The attention given to the numbers depends upon the emphasis placed on each component. The greater the importance, the larger the influence. If none, the number is eliminated. Therefore it is essential to place the most attention on the important factors for each step.

Evidently, the other physicians who saw this boy before me did not consider the seriousness of #1 (the complaint), #3 (the effect: pain), or both. Therefore very little or no effort was made to determine the cause and diagnosis since the only finding for #2 (the cause) was a normal examination. 

The success of the equation depends upon the astuteness and diligence of placing the correct value on each step in the equation in order to make a proper evaluation. Thus 1 + 2 must equal 3.

It is cause and effect always.

Do no harm

While I was working at County Hospital there were many opportunities to learn from some very skilled surgeons. I remember in particular one demonstration of the gall bladder operating technique, performed by a professor at Northwestern Medical School for a post-graduate training class. The demonstration was going forward as planned when someone called out a question from the audience.

“Doctor, how do you repair an injury to a common duct?” the trainee inquired.

“Oops!” the surgeon called out in response. “I just slipped and cut the duct!”

My jaw dropped. That patient could have been anyone. There but for the grace of God go I, I thought.

That day I lost my respect for that man as a surgeon and as a person. In his arrogance, he committed the poor soul on the operating table to what could be many years of repeated surgical operations and difficulties. Being a good surgeon takes more than just operating skill—you also must have compassion, morality, and a commitment to do no harm. This instructor was just a skilled operator, not a human being. An incident like this explained why this hospital had a bad reputation. I have never forgotten that episode.

The demanding colonel

Some people don’t believe what they read. The Keesler Army Airfield was located along the Mississippi River, where there was good swimming and diving during the hot and humid summers. But although it was safe to dive during high tide, there were many signs warning swimmers not to dive during low tide, when the water is shallower and diving is dangerous.

One day a stupid flyboy disregarded all the signs and dived during low tide, breaking his neck. I was called to the scene, where I stabilized the fracture and had him transported back to the hospital.

At the hospital, I used “Crutchfield tongs” (like the tongs the ice man uses to pick up a block of ice) and applied proper traction to keep the fracture stable. After the patient rested for two weeks, I removed the tongs and instead applied a “Minerva cast” around his head, neck, and shoulders. The cast would keep the fracture stable while allowing the patient to walk around.

A cast around one’s head, neck, and shoulders would be uncomfortable in any weather, but it was a hot Mississippi summer, which made this patient’s discomfort particularly intense. So he complained to his commanding officer, who in turn called my commanding colonel and asked him to have me remove the cast. Shortly thereafter, I was making rounds when the colonel came into the ward.

“Captain Moy, please take off the cast,” he barked.

“Colonel,” I said, “it is not time yet.”
Raising his voice in agitation, the colonel said, “Captain, take off the cast.”

I replied, “Yes, sir. Will you please write the order?”

He didn’t say a word; he just turned around and walked off the ward. He knew that I knew exactly what should not be done, and he didn’t want the responsibility of telling me to do that.

Know your position, hold your ground and stand firmly.

The nasal bleed

While I was still stationed at Keesler Airfield I received repeated calls from my sister Helen regarding her husband Steven’s persistent nasal bleeding. At the onset Helen thought that it was just a minor problem and that it could be adequately cared for by the local town physician.

Steven had taken what appeared to be a menial job for a highly educated engineer with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the University of Michigan. The job required him to travel out of town during the weekdays and return home on the weekends. But Steven desired this particular position because it gave him the experience he would need to run and manage his family’s railroad business when he returned home to China.

I was very concerned about the ominous sign of the continued nasal bleeding. I told Helen to contact Dr. Glatt, an ear, nose, and throat specialist. At his first visit, Steven had a biopsy taken. It turned out he had cancer of the nasopharynx. Steven underwent radiation treatment to the affected area, but minor bleeding continued to ooze. Subsequent surgery was done to interrupt the blood supply to the tumor, but in spite of this, the bleeding was still not completely controlled.

When I was discharged from service, I returned home and assisted my sister in the continuous care of Steven. Multiple blood transfusions were administered to treat his constant loss of blood. Increasing doses of narcotics were required for his discomfort. He lost his appetite for food, was unable to drink adequate fluids, and required supplementary intravenous fluids.

As Steven’s weakness progressed, he lost the ability to go to the bathroom by himself, and I had to give him a device known as a “retention catheter.” He became disoriented from all the narcotics he was on for the pain, and at one point he almost fell out of the second floor window. This mandated the attachment of a “cow bell” that would make noise when he moved so we could more easily monitor his movements.

Steven slowly slipped into oblivion. He left us serenely and peacefully. Steven was more than just a brother-in-law; he was like a true brother to us. We loved him dearly and missed him.

Although Steven’s diagnosis was missed for a short period of time, I do not believe that the outcome would have been any different. When the diagnosis was made the disease was already far advanced.

In spite of two ardent suitors for Helen’s hand following Steven’s death, she never considered another marriage, even to help ease the burden of caring for her children. She never lamented what could or should have been. She was steadfast not only in the care of her children but also the welfare of the entire family. In her we had a sister with no equal.

The crackerjack at Hines Veteran Hospital

The three-year surgical residency was divided into two six-month periods of general surgery and four six-month periods in subspecialties. I chose anesthesiology, urology, plastic surgery, and vascular surgery as my subspecialties. In addition to the areas I mentioned, Hines also offered orthopedics, neurosurgery, and pathology. We had a total of about 130 residents, of which 100 were in general surgery; the other 30 were in other specialties.

The selection of subspecialties was simple because each of us knew what fields we wanted. The selection of a general surgery mentor, however, was another story. When we first entered the program we had not yet had an opportunity to see or know the work of the mentors, making it quite difficult to choose.

To gain enough information to select a good general surgery mentor, I chose anesthesiology as my first subspecialty service. Working in the anesthesia service would allow me to see and evaluate all of the operating surgeons before it came time to be matched with a mentor.

I started well in anesthesiology because I was already able to insert a spinal needle rapidly. I had mastered the technique as an intern at Cook County, where I performed diagnostic spinal taps on a number of psychotic patients.

One morning we had just finished operating on a patient who had extensive carcinoma of the left neck with metastasis. The case was done under general anesthesia. When the surgery was over, I removed the patient’s breathing tube. He started to turn blue! I quickly reintubated him and restored his color and respiration. Then I used a technique called “percussing” his chest—tapping it and listening to the sound it made—to try to find out what was wrong. I determined that he had bilateral pneumothorax; pockets of air inside his chest were pushing down on both his lungs, making it difficult for him to breathe.

I called out to the supervising anesthesiologist, “Max, we have a bilateral pneumothorax here.”

“You must be crazy!” he responded. “It can’t possibly be bilateral pneumothorax, because we only operated on one side of the neck.”

I ordered a chest X-ray to check it out. Sure enough, the X-ray confirmed my diagnosis. Later I researched the literature and found out that this happened due to a congenital abnormality in which the patient’s two pleural cavities, normally separate, were connected. Word spread like wildfire throughout the hospital that there was a “crackerjack” resident in the anesthesia service.

Later on, when I was in urology, a patient came in complaining of an inability to void. He was experiencing pain, nausea, and vomiting. These are classic symptoms of acute appendicitis, but the pain was in the wrong place for that. This patient’s pain was low down at the bottom of his abdomen, just to the right of the pubic bone, not in the right lower quadrant where the appendix is. He also had a tender swollen prostate gland.

That afternoon the consultant came in and I gave him the history and physical findings. He did a rectal examination, found the tender swollen prostate gland, and declared, “Grant, this guy’s symptoms are caused by prostatitis. Put him on antibiotics.”

He left and we started the antibiotics. The patient’s pain, however, continued to increase throughout the afternoon. When 6:00 came around, I was the responsible surgeon. I reexamined him a number of times and was thoroughly convinced that he had an unusually low-lying appendix down against the right side of his bladder that was inflamed and pressing against his prostate. Knowing full well that if I operated it would be under my diagnosis and against the diagnosis of the consultant, I took the patient to the operating room and opened him up. Inside I found a gangrenous appendix lying low in the pelvis against the bladder—just as I had envisioned.

I had been so convinced of my diagnosis that I didn’t even realize until later that if I had been wrong there would have been hell to pay. Confidence, conviction, and courage! That incident increased my standing as the hospital crackerjack.

Just a small token

Shortly after I came on the service of Dr. Puestow as his junior resident, I encountered a non-communicative, fidgety patient sitting unobtrusively in the corner. His chart indicated that he had gallbladder disease requiring surgery. I realized he was quite worried about his planned surgery, so I sat and explained to him in detail all aspects of the procedure. He had heard through the grapevine that he was on Dr. Puestow’s ward with the best residents chosen for his service.

The surgery went well and this man made a complete recovery. On his day of discharge he stopped by to say goodbye.

“You are best at what you do,” he began, “and I am best at what I do. Please allow me to make you a couple pairs of slacks to show my appreciation for all your loving care.”

Two weeks later I was presented with two pairs of the most beautiful gabardine slacks. Such sincere appreciation is very rare.

Tender loving care

I remember another patient who I cared for as a junior resident for Dr. Puestow. This patient had been on the ward for a long time for the continued care of his chronic infected indolent leg ulcer. It needed daily cleansing with saline solution and debridement. The preparation of the recipient site for grafting was paramount although tedious and time consuming.

One day he approached me and said, “You have cared and done a lot for me. I want you to have this small TV with a five-inch screen. I made it from a kit while waiting for my surgery. This TV is not yet on the market, and I think your children might enjoy watching just as I have enjoyed making it.”    

What sincerity. This man spent hours in making this TV and gave it to me to show his appreciation for my continued care.

One for the boss

All the big surgical cases from the adjacent Midwestern states funneled into Hines Hospital, especially carcinomas of the esophagus. Morbidity rates for this condition were well over 30%, and Dr. Puestow’s pet project was trying to improve the results. He kept very careful documentation of his work in this area. 

Operating on these cases required 6–8 hours of surgical time, with a combined thoracic and abdominal approach. I recall in particular a very difficult case in which I assisted and completed the surgery successfully. But shortly after the patient was admitted to the recovery room, he died suddenly with no apparent cause. 

Dr. Puestow was deeply concerned that his surgical technique may have somehow contributed to the death. Not only was he personally troubled by the mystery, but he would not be able to report the case in his series without information about the cause of death. An examination of the chest tube drainage made it obvious that the chest was not involved. We wanted to evaluate the patient’s intestinal anastomosis to see if it contributed, but we would have to perform an autopsy to do so because the abdomen was completely closed. The family, however, would not grant an autopsy permit. What to do? 

After hours that night I went quietly to the morgue. My heart was pounding, knowing that what I planned to do was against the law. If discovered, I would be charged with assault and battery. I quickly removed the abdominal sutures and checked for visible signs of leakage of intestinal contents and blood but found none. There was no disruption of the intestinal anastomosis. I then closed the abdomen and left as quietly as I had come. 

The following morning I reported to Dr. Puestow that the patient’s sudden death was probably due to his heart. The chest and abdomen, I told him, were normal with no evidence of any leakage. I said nothing about how I got the information and he probably thought that an autopsy had been performed. He did not ask me; I did not lie. A shade of gray?

It does happen

What a jolt! Over the phone came a solemn voice.

“Grant, your brother has pulmonary tuberculosis.”

I had taken my brother Calvin to Hines Veterans Hospital for the evaluation and treatment of what he suspected was a stomach problem. Upon receiving the terrible news about his preliminary X-ray results, I rushed to the Radiology department and was immediately relieved by what I saw. The X-ray was not of Calvin, but of a larger and taller man who indeed had pulmonary tuberculosis. Somehow the film had been marked incorrectly.

To avoid future problems, the hospital instituted proper identification procedures. We reduced to a minimum problems like this, as well as glitches in blood transfusions and the administration of wrong medication and dosages. It was impossible, though, to entirely eliminate mistakes as the inherent factor of human error still remained.

Fortuitously, Calvin had a benign problem.

Part IV

Going West

To California

On the last day of my residency, Dr. Puestow asked me where I wanted to work afterwards. I said that on my way to and from China I had passed through San Francisco and liked it. He looked at me and nodded.

“We have a former resident who is now the Chief of the Veterans Hospital in Livermore, California. Go there, and if you don’t like it you can always come back.” He picked up the phone, and quick as that I was on my way to be a ward surgeon.

Even though Livermore was a general medical and surgical hospital, it turned out that most of our cases were of tuberculosis. This gave me the opportunity to become proficient at bronchoscopy and pulmonary resections. Tuberculosis was a personal concern of mine because a fellow doctor—another general surgeon trained at the County—had developed pulmonary tuberculosis and required surgery.

About a year later, at my request, I was transferred to the surgical unit of the Veterans Hospital in Oakland. At Oakland, the cases that came in were assigned according to rotation, so the big and interesting cases were distributed by chance. Of the five ward surgeons, only I and one other had equal training; the remaining three were there to learn. Due to the random method of case assignment, some of the big cases ended up in the hands of the inexperienced and thus didn’t fare too well. The cases that I and the other experienced surgeon did, however, were always finished quicker and with a better result.

Once this became apparent, it seemed that the big cases always came to us “by chance.” The good will just about always find a way.

It was during this period that I had another opportunity to dissect a fifth body in preparation for my American Board of Surgery examination. I prepared furiously, reviewing three textbooks, five years’ worth of five surgical journals, and about a thousand pathology slides. I studied that hard for fear of flunking the examination—which many of my fellow residents did.

I passed the examination without a problem and became a member of the American Board of Surgery. If my memory serves me correctly, that year I and a Dr. James Yee were the first Chinese Americans to ever receive American Board certification in General Surgery in California.

It was 1952. The following year I became a Fellow of the American College of Surgery.

While at Oakland I performed a radical removal of an extensive carcinoma of the thyroid gland on our landlord’s son, who was—and still is—a well-known merchant in San Francisco Chinatown. He did very well and became tumor-free after follow-up surgery and radioactive iodine treatment at the University of California Medical Center. This patient, Willard Lee, remains a friend to this day. He is known to our family as “Uncle Moe.”

Around the same time, there were two other people in the community with the same diagnosis who both died relatively shortly after surgical care. Their deaths were tragic, but under the circumstances my reputation as a good surgeon received a boost.

Shortly thereafter I came out to San Francisco to practice. I shared office space on Van Ness Avenue with a surgeon recommended by a classmate of one of the internists at Oakland. To be much more accessible I later moved to Grant Avenue, where I shared office space with an ophthalmologist.

Oh no, not again!

One night I was out playing liar’s dice—a gambling game—with several friends. Every time someone lost a round, he had to buy drinks for the other players. As you can imagine, I headed home somewhat inebriated!

On the way home, I was pulled over by a California Highway Patrol officer.

“Get out, walk in a straight line, heel to toe,” he sternly ordered me. He looked at my paperwork and realized I was a doctor. His tone changed immediately. “Dr. Moy,” he said, “you must be careful, you almost ran me off the exit ramp! I’ll help you home to be safe.”

This was the first time I had been pulled over for driving under the influence, and only the second time I was ever pulled over. Maybe it pays to be a doctor.

One of us

When a colleague at 890 Jackson Street, asked me to do a colon resection on his wife to remove cancerous tissue, I felt honored and privileged to be asked. There were many capable surgeons in San Francisco, especially on our medical school staff.

The major operation went well without incident except for an unexpected small bowel obstruction This was secondary to wound healing adhesions on the fourth post-operative day and was relieved by a short operation to free the adhesions. The patient recovered completely and was discharged shortly thereafter. She remained completely cancer free.

My colleague could not have given me a greater compliment than his trust in me. Later in his declining years, he developed a benign stricture of his lower rectum that impaired his bowel movement. I was able to surgically correct this for him, returning normal bowel function. After that he had no further related problems.

It is a privilege and honor to be able to serve your colleagues.

If you can

I remember one young woman who came to me with cancer of the rectum. I broke the bad news to her and described the treatment of removing the tumor. If the uterus was involved, it was possible that I would need to remove that as well. She looked at me with resignation in her face.

“Do what you must,” she said. “Save the uterus if you can; I have no children.”

At surgery I found the diseased colon firmly adhered to the side of the vaginal wall. In the preoperative examination I had found the vaginal mucosa free of tumor invasion. Was the wall not involved? Was there any spread beyond the palpable edge of the tumor? Was the firm adhesion of the tumor to the vagina due to a great inflammatory reaction instigated by nature’s reaction to tumor stimulation? These questions would have to be answered before I could initiate treatment. I carefully examined the surrounding and adjacent areas, took multiple biopsy specimens and submitted them for immediate microscopic examination by the attending pathologist. Assured of no tumor spread, I proceeded to remove the rectum with the tumor, as well as the firmly attached vaginal wall and a wide cuff of normal vaginal tissue. I then closed the vaginal defect.

The final pathology report showed that the tumor had been completely removed, with free operative margins.

I followed her routinely for her colostomy care for over 30 years.

Many years later, on the announced day of my retirement from practice, she came into my office and gave me a picture of a young man and a red envelope containing a twenty-dollar bill.

“This is my son Roger,” she said. “He recently graduated from Berkeley with an architecture degree.” With tears in her eyes she continued, “I can’t bear to see you retire. They don’t make them like you any more.”

My eyes were moist when she left. I cared for her as she cared for me.

Chinese Hospital

The Chinese Hospital started in the early 20th century. At that time it was impossible for a person of Chinese heritage to be admitted into a private hospital for care. To address this, a concerted fund drive was made and the proceeds were used to construct a clinic where any Chinese would be welcome.

As the years passed, the Chinese community grew and its medical needs outpaced the number of available beds in the small clinic. This was coupled with the advent of more sophisticated diagnostic procedures that required specialized equipment, which of course took up space as well. We needed more room. To fund a new larger hospital, we conducted another drive for donations among the Chinese in the U.S. On top of that we received a loan from the Hill Burton Fund, funds from the endowed real property of the Chinese Hospital, and a $300,000 donation from the medical staff. Our new hospital cost five million dollars.

Not long after I began practicing at Chinese Hospital, I was called to the hospital at about 8:00 PM for an emergency. The patient, a prominent merchant from Hong Kong, had exited the freeway going the wrong way and been involved in a car accident that seriously injured his lower abdomen and pelvis. Examination revealed that he had a severe pelvic fracture and a torn urethra. With my experience treating fractures, it was no trouble for me to treat the pelvic fracture, but there was no urologist available to take care of the torn urethra. Realizing that I would have to take care of the situation myself, I took the patient to the operating room, opened his bladder, and reconnected the urethra. I then ordered balanced traction to stabilize his pelvic fracture.

The patient remained in the hospital for six weeks and made a full recovery. Later, he returned to Hong Kong and sent me a thank you scroll.

Who you are, not what you are

Paw Paw and I met Bill when we frequented a local furnishing store. We sought his advice on home-decorating as that was his vocation. We became very good friends with him and were seen together on many occasions. People often looked askance at us and asked why we were associating with someone who was homosexual.

Little did they know what a highly educated, gentle, kind, and considerate individual Bill was. He never showed any impropriety toward anyone. We respected him and enjoyed his friendship tremendously.

My family and I truly believe that it is not what you are but who you are that counts.

The health services

During my years of active practice in our community, our physicians developed three worthwhile health services. I have been actively involved since their inception.


NEMS stands for “North East Medical Services.” This service was developed to provide clinical care to low income and indigent patients in a prescribed area. People in this area are entitled to care regardless of ethnicity. This has been a godsend for the refugees and new immigrants arriving into our county. It is a federally funded program and it continues to run successfully.

Many young Chinese physicians who came to San Francisco to practice found that it was economically quite difficult to start up a practice. By working at this clinic for a period of time, they are able to start a private practice with a core group of patients who are no longer eligible for this free clinic care. This has been good for the community and it fills a void left by attrition.

On Lok

On Lok is Cantonese for “happiness.” It was initially started by one of our social-minded dentists who saw a great need in the community for the care of the aged. From this beginning more health care units were built through federal funding, donations, and other fund raising activities. At the present there is a large domiciliary of units providing supervised health care and living for the elderly. This program has been so successful that the federal government used it as a model in creating other such facilities.

Chinese Community Healthcare Association

It wasn’t too long ago that a group of physicians, including me, became acutely aware of insurance companies encroaching upon the practice of medicine and the development of the PPO and the HMO. We strongly believed that if we didn’t do something about this encroachment we would eventually lose our patients, our practice, and the hospital. It was a huge undertaking for a group of dedicated physicians and a large organization with deep pockets was needed for sponsorship. We knew that Blue Cross Blue Shield did not have any of these programs and was interested in exploring the idea. With their wholehearted support we convinced the Chinese Hospital to join the medical staff in a fifty-fifty joint venture. It was constructed and agreed that 20% of all professional fees of the physicians and 20% of the hospital’s received payments were to be held in reserve and used only if the operation lost money. As we had a very strict utilization guideline the plan made money from the very beginning. It wasn’t too long after that Blue Cross Blue Shield turned the program over to us.

Today we have a very large enrollment and are the only HMO in the city that is operating in the black. Certainly many of us are proud of what we have accomplished for our community.

What you say is not what you meant

As soon as I started to scrub for surgery one day, I turned to the nurse also scrubbing in for surgery.

“You look nice,” I said to her. “You’ve lost some weight.” 

She exploded. “You think I was ugly and fat,” she shouted loudly. She then proceeded to rant and rave at me for the entire ten-minute scrub.

“What’s wrong,” I muttered to myself. “She must have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed.” 

The incident was soon over and forgotten.

This memory laid dormant for over a half a century; it suddenly came to the forefront of my mind when I read a passage from The Big Short by Michael Lewis: “My compliments tended not to come out right; I learned early that if you compliment somebody it’ll come out wrong. ‘For your size, you look good.’ When trying his best he was often at his worst.”

The interpretation of what you said is not always what you meant. After all these years the reason is now apparent. It was a great faux pas, not meant to be. It never should have happened. Always be careful in expressing your compliments.

Misconstrued. Yes.

The silent one

One patient at Oakland was transferred to me from the medical ward, where he had been undergoing treatment for a stroke when he developed a bleeding stomach ulcer. He required repeated transfusions and constant monitoring. The bleeding continued unabated and the patient required a gastric resection. When told, he said not a word, merely nodded in compliance. The operation went well and he recovered quickly and completely.

Sometime afterward, as I sat during a lull period, I wondered why I had not heard any questions or statements from him in regard to his surgery. I decided to ask him.

“I had full confidence in you,” he replied. Everybody knows you and your good work and I felt very fortunate and happy to have you as a surgeon. I have nothing to ask.”

I would not have known this if I did not ask. His silence could have been misconstrued. 

Confidence in your doctor is supreme.

Veterans home

To supplement the meager income I made in my fledgling private practice, I took a general surgery consultant position at the Veterans Home in Napa. I was paid $50 per visit to be in attendance three mornings a week. At first I only saw patients as a consultant offering my medical opinion. At that time, a University of California trained urologist who had retired to Napa was working there. He was interested in helping me do surgery and taking responsibility for the postoperative care.

Subsequently I began to do major surgery, such as gastric resections, colectomies, and gallbladders. The original one-year consultant appointment turned into a five-year ongoing extension. By the end of five years, though, my private practice had grown large enough that I could afford to relinquish the position in Napa. This saved me from the frequent 125-mile round trip to Napa.

The 890 Boys

To provide good care to the Chinese community, in the 1950s a group of us doctors decided to build a medical office building at 890 Jackson Street, directly across the street from Chinese Hospital. The building would house American Board certified doctors including Thomas Hum, an obstetrician/gynecologist; Jonah Li, internist/hematologist; Harry Lee, internist; Stanley Louie, pediatrician; two dentists; and me. Some other doctors worried that we were trying to corner the market in medicine, but that’s not what we envisioned. We simply wanted to give the best care possible to our community.

We were known collectively as the “890 boys.” All of us were staff at UC Medical School and we certainly knew how to give good care. Without reservation and for the welfare of our patients, we freely discussed all difficult cases among ourselves, and we referred cases to each other. The improvement of our hospital was one of the greatest concerns. We learned to know and trust each other. We valued honesty and welcomed true criticism.

As our reputation grew because we gave better and better medical care, more specialists were inspired to join the staff. At the time of this writing, we have almost a full complement.

Harry the millionaire—
don’t believe all you see

One day around lunchtime, Harry knocked on my office door. He came in and told me that he thought he had malaria. After examining him and ordering some laboratory work, I told him to return the next day.

“That’ll be five dollars,” I told him.

“Put it on the book—I’ll be back tomorrow,” he replied.

He had on a dirty faded blue pinstripe suit and a food-spotted tie. What was I to do with this individual? I sighed and said okay.
Sure enough, Harry returned the following day—still with a fever. I told him that the lab test for malaria was negative. I charged him another five dollars for this visit, and he again told me to put it on the book.

The following day Harry returned again, and his fever was completely gone. True to his word, he wrote me a check for the three visits.

A month later I was reading the business section of the Chronicle and saw a story about a man who had purchased $500,000 of United Steel stock. Something about the photo caught my attention. I peered closely, noticing a faded suit and dirty tie, and suddenly I remembered the $15 visit man. According to the story, one afternoon he wandered into a stockbroker office. Due to his shabby appearance, no one would pay any attention to him, except for one young newly hired broker who felt he should be helpful. Because that young man spoke to Harry, he ended up making the commission on this large order.

Don’t believe all you see.

Later that month Harry came to me with jaundice, and I hospitalized him at St. Francis Hospital. A full workup revealed that he had obstructive jaundice. He gave a history of coming to San Francisco and developing acute gangrenous gallbladder. He had a cholecystectomy with no study or exploration of the common bile duct, probably due to a severe edematous reaction from the gangrenous gallbladder. I told him the diagnosis and that this was likely the cause of his previous episodes of fever. I explained that he needed to have a common duct exploration to remove the stone. He said that he would think about it, and that I should return in the morning for his answer.

Although I had been in practice for 7–8 years by that time, and had done some major surgery as a member of the San Francisco Medical School staff, I was not yet a fully established surgeon. I felt that I would lose this case to a well-established medical school surgeon. The following morning I returned to his room.

“Dr. Moy,” he said, “if you can do the surgery do it; if not I am sure you will have someone else do it.”

“I can do it,” I said.

He asked, “How much will this cost me?”
”Don’t worry about it,” I told him.

He continued to push for an answer. “How much does this usually cost?

“$600,” I said.

“Go ahead then,” he replied.

The surgery went well. Later, when I removed his stitches at home, he gave me a check for $900. He had required a quoted fee in advance because he wanted to be assured that he would not be caught with a huge bill. He was evaluating me as I was evaluating him. It worked both ways.

A sticky situation

This story is a little raunchy.

Late one cold afternoon, Harry came into my office and said, “Doc, I have a pain in my ass.”

”You probably have an infection or a hemorrhoid,” I speculated. “Drop your pants.”

I examined his anus and found neither redness nor the appearance of a possible thrombosed hemorrhoid. With gloved fingers and hand I dilated his anus and inserted my finger. Just past the anus, I felt a hard smooth object. I wondered, what has this man been up to? I recalled my days at Cook County, where patients had come in with butter knives, vibrators, and Coke bottles in the colon. As I continued to advance my finger, it slipped over a very sharp point that caught the fingertip of my rubber glove. Once caught in this way, I could no longer advance my finger forward without moving the sharp pointed object as well, causing Harry to howl in pain. I was immobilized.

What was I to do? I looked around the office and realized that I didn’t have the proper instruments to extract my finger. I dropped Harry's trousers the rest of the way to the floor and told him to step out of them. Then I grabbed his topcoat and draped it over my finger inserted in his rectum. What now? We had no choice but to try to get across the street to Chinese Hospital! I called out for my secretary and asked her to stop the traffic. As she held the cars at bay, Harry and I began to shuffle across the street. With every movement, Sam cried out in pain.

“Ow Moy—ow!” he yelped.

I steered him directly to the operating room and slipped a curved pean over my finger, finally disengaging my glove, then carefully extracted the sharp object. It turned out to be a fish bone measuring about 3” long, ¼” thick, and ¾” in width. Harry had swallowed the whole fish bone at dinner the night before. I had seen open safety pins pass through patients’ gastrointestinal tracts before, but nothing like this.

St. Francis Hospital

I assisted a general surgeon doing a lobectomy for a carcinoma of the lung. The surgery took about two hours to complete, and the anesthesiologist administered intravenous fluids from the start. When the resection was completed and we started closing up the chest, the anesthesiologist began to bag the patient forcefully. The patient went into shock and subsequently died.

Later, at the mortality and morbidity conference, the medical reviewer stated that the patient died of a blown out closed bronchial stump due to poor closure. The attending surgeon sat quietly and did not say a word. Either he wasn’t sure of the quality of his closure, or he had no explanation. After a period of silence, I stood up and said that the reason the stump blew out was not due to the poor closure but because the anesthesiologist gave the patient three liters of fluid, producing pulmonary edema and poor ventilation. When we were closing up the chest he tried to push in more oxygen by forcefully bagging the patient, but the force just blew out the delicately closed stump.

I was quite convinced of my answer and I presented it with conviction. There were no rebuttals or any comments from anyone. Shortly thereafter I was appointed as a reviewer, but my presentations were frank and I didn’t hesitate to point fingers. Soon I was told that I had done my tour of duty and was no longer needed as a reviewer. I was never asked to fill that role again.

Always speak up if you are involved in a situation, particularly if you believe you are right.

Copyright © 2012 by Grant G. Moy. All rights reserved.

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