Dad’s mission in Korea inspires cardiologist’s research

A doctor’s aim to boost the heart care of Asian populations reflects the ambition of a former ambassador to the United States.

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Early this month, Dr. Eugene Yang and other UW Medicine representatives shared a conference table with South Korea’s minister of health and welfare and other delegates from the nation. Yang had worked behind the scenes to get a Seattle stop included in the visitors’ tour of U.S. healthcare systems.

The diplomatic endeavor no doubt gratified Yang’s dad. Yang Sung-chul, 83, is a former South Korea ambassador to the United States (2000-03) and member of that nation’s National Assembly (1996-2000). Decades earlier, in 1960, he had helped to force South Korea’s president to resign, a story his son recounted proudly. 

“University students started to protest against the government because the election was considered fraudulent. My dad helped organize demonstrations that led to the overthrow of the Korean government,” Yang said. “They were written about in Korean history books.”

picture of Dr. Eugene Yang and his dad, Yang Sung-chul
Photo courtesy of Eugene Yang Dr. Eugene Yang and his dad, Yang Sung-chul.

The elder Yang left Korea in 1965 to study abroad in Hawaii. There, he met his future wife, Daisy Lee, and received a job offer to teach political science to college students in Kentucky. Twenty-two years later, the fully tenured professor pulled up stakes and, with his wife and daughter, returned to Korea to pursue his great ambition: to help reunify his homeland.

“My dad’s adult life, his research and political career, were totally focused on the reunification of North and South Korea,” Yang said. “Koreans have a lot of national pride, and he wanted to do what he could for people after the country was artificially split due to politics between the United States and the Soviet Union.”

Left behind to finish school in Kentucky, Yang followed his own path to college and then medical school. Even as he watched his father’s ascent to a seat in South Korea’s National Assembly and his selection as Seoul’s ambassador to the U.S., Yang’s own sense of heritage ebbed, he acknowledged.

“For a while I was disconnected from the Asian community. Finishing my medical residency and fellowship, and then I was married with two little kids,” he said.

When Yang came to Seattle in 2007 as a cardiologist, he got involved with the Korean American Health Professionals Association. Conversations with those clinicians shaped his research focus to study differences in cardiovascular risk among Asian populations.

“I’m trying to understand, for instance, why South Asians, like people from India, have higher risks of heart disease, and why East Asians like Koreans, Chinese and Japanese, are at much lower risk. Cardiovascular risk-assessment tools aggregate us all together and don’t account for ethnic differences. As a result, we may be over-aggressively treating some groups, like East Asians, and under-treating higher-risk groups.”

Today Yang holds the Carl and Renée Behnke Endowed Professorship for Asian Health and directs the Asian Health Initiative at UW Medicine. 

He recalled a conversation from decades ago with his dad.

“He would ask, ‘What is your legacy going to be?’ For many years I told him it is to raise my children to be good people. But now that they're older, I’ve had a chance to rethink what could be my contribution to society. A primary goal is to make Asian health more visible, and to better understand cardiovascular disease risk among Asian subpopulations.

“My dad came from a small town in Korea and went on to hold highly respected positions in the government. I have far more resources than he had to do more. So why not do more?”

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