Resident Interview: Harry Han, MD

A Conversation with Harry Han, 2nd Year Resident in the Dept. of Medicine

Where were you born and raised? Tell me about your family and the family hierarchy.

Harry Han
Harry Han, PGY-2

I was born in New York, in the Hudson Valley area. I lived there until I was 9 or 10, and my parents got sick of shoveling snow. One of my aunts had moved to Odessa, Texas, (which was the inspiration for the book, film, and TV series Friday Night Lights), and we moved to nearby town of Big Spring in west Texas during my preteen years, and then to Austin where I went to high school – such a great place to live. We moved around a lot because my dad was a restless spirit. He is a psychiatrist and my mom was a chemical engineer before becoming a homemaker when she had my sister, who is 8 ½ years older than me. We are so far apart in age that we were both felt like the only children and never had the typical sibling rivalry or fought for toys or attention. We became closer as we grew older and she became a guiding figure and confidant, someone I could turn to before anyone else. When I went to college, before I left she said to me, “Call me first if you ever end up in jail. Don’t call Mom or Dad.” She is a huge part of who I am. She cares deeply about everyone and is the one who remembers everyone’s birthday and sends cards and care packages. She is now an Assistant Principal of a middle school in Fort Worth.

How did your parents come to the United States?

Harry Han with family
Harry with family, circa 1997

My parents emigrated in the late 70s from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, which gained independence from Great Britain in 1948. In 1962, there was a government takeover and my parents decided to emigrate as soon as they could. They first went to Toronto, Canada, and then moved to New York where my dad did his psychiatry residency. Afterwards, they moved to Ottawa where my dad did a second residency in Neurology. We still have family in Myanmar, but we are fortunate to be an immigrant family that has been blessed with many opportunities and to be part of the American Dream through my parents’ hard work, my sister’s and my own.  

How important is faith in your family and culture?

Burma 2018
Visiting childhood home in Burma, 2018

My mother is a non-denominational Christian and the rest of the family is Buddhist. I went to church when I was younger but I’ve since fallen away, but I do believe that there is some presence or higher power looking over us. In 2012, before I started medical school, I traveled with classmates through China and ended our trip in Burma, where my grandmother was at end-stage kidney disease. Her wish was to see all of her grandchildren before she passed away. Although we could not communicate very well, I spent a week with her and she passed shortly afterwards. I truly believe that the human spirit is amazing and powerful. We can do all the science in the world but the spirit that we carry within ourselves is so important to the way we care for ourselves, to our ability to be present, and sustain the will to keep moving forward. I don’t think of it as God, but I believe that there is something bigger than us.

What is the best advice you ever received?

The two best pieces of advice that I’ve taken to heart are from my Dad. The first is to have multiple options (Plans A-Z) and to always think through different possibilities and options before acting; to ensure that an action is the best thing for you and for everyone concerned. His second piece of advice was to always trust my gut. When, as a teenager and in college, comparing multiple plans of action would overwhelm me, he’d ask what my gut was telling me and reassure me that it would probably be a right instinct. The combination of things has, I think, served me well and helped shape the decisions I make in life and even in clinical practice. I share much of my work with him and he has been behind the scenes in my choices about how to live my life.

Other than a medical topic, on what subject could you give an impromptu presentation?

During my last year of med school, I stumbled upon a documentary series on YouTube called "Assignment: China", about American and Western news reporting in modern China since 1949. At first, it was just background noise while I did “real work,” but it was captivating to learn about the dynamic relationship between western media and China, how journalism works in China, how China opened up over time and regulated what can or cannot be published, or how journalists are either courted or actively prohibited from chasing stories. Most are beautiful anecdotes and interesting stories about human rights, economics, and wealth disparities by journalists like David Barboza, Michael Forsythe, and Melissa Chan. I started reading books like Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos. He was one of many journalists to focus on the everyday lives of Chinese citizens as they balanced the growing economic prosperity with the government’s efforts to modernize. He wrote about Hutongs, the narrow alley neighborhoods of Beijing, where many families have lived for decades and centuries, and the emotions families endured when the government uprooted these historic enclaves and neighborhoods and demolished them in exchange for new roads and buildings for the Olympics. He also wrote about socioeconomic relationships by following small businesses – like a biscuit shop that existed only until the Olympics, when economic pressures in Beijing forced it to close. It subsequently became a pancake shop, then a brothel and finally, what survived, a hardware store – an evolution that depicts the socioeconomic forces of the booming era.

Which personality trait of yours is best suited to your profession? Which aspect do you sometimes need to rein in?

Something that was really important and valuable to my growth as a physician was learning to listen and to let others talk, to remember that everyone has a story. It’s really hard to do! I was very extroverted as a child, but over time have become more introverted and quiet, needing my own space and time to reflect. I have to rein in my need for weighing many options and needing every piece of data I can get, of over-thinking. We rarely have all of the information or a big picture in order to plan, and we often have to make calls and move on. It was hard at first, and I spent a lot of time second-guessing my decisions. It took awhile to forgive myself for wondering if a situation could have been different, but I can do it now. It helps tremendously to know that there is a supportive community behind you: your family, colleagues, and sometimes, even your patients.

Just as your father gave you, what advice might you share with your child or a dear child?

Harry with family, 2017
Harry with family, 2017

That it’s okay to have feelings, to be human, and to be comfortable with yourself. I would want them to know that nothing could change the way that I perceive them or care about them. As adults, we tend to portray ourselves, in our profession, in social media, and in life, in one particular light, when being human encompasses so much more. Children should be reassured that everyone has internal struggles and failures and a social media post or a full CV only reveals a very small percentage of the full story.

How will you celebrate the Lunar New Year and what are your wishes for it?

Chinese New Year celebration
Lunar New Year celebration, 1993

One of my really good friends is getting married near Austin so I’ll be able to celebrate the Lunar New Year with friends and family. You can’t put your life on hold while you’re in training; it’s not about work-life balance, it’s about work-life integration. My wish is, with residency and fellowship looming, I want to take time this year to reflect on my next steps and how my choices will fit into the rest of my life and career.

Thank you, Harry.

Interviewed by Oralia Schatzman