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Passion behind the practice ‘I always give credit to my father’

‘I always give credit to my father’

Inspired by his dad’s medical practice and driven by a neighbor’s cancer battle, Dr. Eugene Ahn’s approach to life and patient care has been shaped by caring mentors.

We are often, in large part, products of those who surround us in life. Our parents, our siblings, teachers, friends and many others help to mold the ever-evolving sculpture called “me.”  For Eugene Ahn, MD, the influence and inspiration came from many directions. Among them:

  • The “brassy” and beloved high school debate coach who help him articulate his thoughts and break through social anxieties
  • A friend and colleague who, he says, “set my path in stone” as a doctor and researcher
  • Uncle Bill, the dear neighbor whose cancer battle exposed him to the ravages of the disease
  • And foremost, a caring and loving physician who happened to be his father.

“I always give credit to my father for having put me on the right track of being a good physician,” says Dr. Ahn, a Medical Oncologist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), Chicago. “He really gave me this drive to find a better solution for cancer treatment because he shared the losses that he had and how tough that was for him. For him, there was always this underlying message: ‘The more we focus on this and those who are suffering from cancer, the more we will learn how to better treat this disease.’”

Dr. Eugene Ahn and his family

‘A powerful message to me’

Born in Miami to Korean immigrants, Dr. Ahn learned about the challenges of being a physician at a young age during conversations around the dinner table. His parents met in Pittsburgh, where Dr. Ahn’s father, Dr. Yeon S. Ahn, was doing his oncology fellowship training. His mother Won Ahn, studied to be a pharmacist, but eventually became a stay-at-home mom and part-time real estate agent. They moved to Miami, where the elder Dr. Ahn practiced as an oncologist and hematologist and served as professor at the University of Miami (UM) for decades. Soon, the senior Dr. Ahn’s cases became a family affair, with young Eugene absorbing the details.

“When he came home for dinner, he often would share challenging situations, or stories, or some discoveries that he had at work,” Dr. Ahn says. “It was all part of the day-to-day flow of our family.

“I was always fascinated with the challenges he was talking about. He would say, ‘You know, we have cancer, and it's a very tough diagnosis to treat. But we're getting better, and with time, it's going to be an increasingly rewarding field.’ The puzzle that is cancer was definitely something that was in my mind at a very young age.”

Eventually, Dr. Ahn was allowed to “tag along” with his dad during hospital visits. He saw firsthand the compassion and honesty his father shared with his patients. And his father instilled in him the single-most important component in any doctor-patient relationship: trust.

“I remember when he took me over to the clinics to see his practice,” Dr. Ahn says. “He would tell me as the first teaching point that, ‘You're nothing to your patient if you don't have their trust.’ And so that was a powerful message to me. But never really talked about in medical school”

Dr. Ahn’s parents are now retired and live near family in Philadelphia. Dr. Yeon S. Ahn left a legacy as a physician who offered compassionate care to his patients. Writes one former patient on the website healthgrades.com: “Dr. Ahn is a caring, compassionate, courteous physician that truly combines the excellent qualities of intelligence, medical knowledge and empathy that a patient needs from their medical doctor but so seldom finds.”

‘It became personal’

Among the earliest patients the younger Dr. Ahn remembers visiting as a child was a man known to him as “Uncle Bill,” a next-door neighbor and close friend to the family (he was affectionally called “uncle” even though he was not a blood relative). Uncle Bill was a blonde, blue-eyed U.S. military veteran who served in Korea and married a Korean woman. His wife’s Korean ethnicity and participation in the local Korean church, brought them all together like an extended family.

When Uncle Bill was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, his health declined rapidly, causing a stunning transformation in his physical appearance. It left an indelible impression on the young physician-to-be.

“That was the first time I ever saw someone dealing with cancer who I knew,” he recalls. “And it was pretty… memorable. It was only about maybe two months after we had heard about the diagnosis, and we came there to see him when he was hospitalized. And just seeing him suddenly looking so thin and in pain, and looking almost unrecognizable to a young child’s eyes. That wasn’t the Uncle Bill we knew. The only thing we knew to do, my sister and I when we saw him, was to cry and hug him. Because we didn't have any words for what we were processing.”

For young Eugene Ahn, the concept of cancer moved beyond the challenging cases his family discussed at the dinner table.

“It became personal at that point,” he says. “It was no longer just an intellectual exercise. It just put it all together that this puzzle my dad's been talking about every dinnertime became so important. There's great suffering created by it. And the more we understand it, the less suffering we'll see.”


‘I am very grateful’

As a student at Miami’s Palmetto Senior High School, Dr. Ahn soon joined a long list of students inspired and counseled by Francine Berger. The late, legendary speech and debate coach turned Palmetto High into a national debate powerhouse. Her teams placed in the top 10 of several national tournaments, and her students excelled in school and later in life. Among them is Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first black woman to be nominated for the United States Supreme Court.

As a member of the school’s debate team, Dr. Ahn says Berger was a powerful influence in helping him overcome social anxieties during his teenage years.

“Usually, as a student, you're just asked to do a lot of homework and get good grades,” he says. “But with debate, it really challenged a part of me that wasn't really developed, which was the ability to speak comfortably in front of a public audience. I think that's a skill that all of us would like to get better at. To have that in high school, to go on bus trips and compete really made it fun. I think it’s probably one of the most important skill developments that I had in high school. And I am very grateful for that.”

Described as a courageous and tireless advocate for her students, Berger was inducted into the National Speech and Debate Hall of Fame in 2002. She passed away suddenly in 2008 after a series of health issues.

Dr. Eugene Ahn and his family

‘An important person’

Dr. Ahn graduated from the UM Miller School of Medicine in 1997 and completed his residency in internal medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City.

He was then recruited back to Miami by revered doctor and scientist Bill Harrington, MD, a leading researcher in viral-induced cancers, such as lymphomas caused by HIV or the Epstein-Barr virus. Like Dr. Ahn, Dr. Harrington’s father was a prominent physician and professor at the university—a commonality the two bond over.

“I felt a lot of kinship to him because we were both children of faculty at the University of Miami, and that comes with a lot of challenges,” he says. “You have to work hard and make your own narrative.”

While his time in the lab was beneficial and his friendship with Dr. Harrington valued, Dr. Ahn realized that his calling was elsewhere—with patients.

“I missed the time, while I was in the lab, actually seeing patients, and so it was around that time that I really realized I was more of a clinical researcher than I was a basic scientist, so then I decided at that point to become a full hematology oncologist clinician.”

Unfortunately, Dr. Ahn later learned that his friend suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died at the age of 54.

“I’ll always admire William Harrington because he had a brilliant mind and was a very successful researcher,” Dr. Ahn says. “He was definitely an important person in my life.”

Dr. Eugene Ahn

‘We can always get better’

During his life, Dr. Ahn has been surrounded by good friends, caring mentors and loving family. And he honors their contributions to his life, not just by reflection, but by his actions.

“I reflect occasionally,” he says. “But it's not something I think about too long just because I'm grateful about the role I have now and the ability to help people. And if I didn't have that, I feel like my life wouldn't have as much meaning. What drives me is just that we can always get better.”

Driven by the close connection he develops with his patients, Dr. Ahn says he’s constantly learning, constantly teaching—himself and his patients—about ways to improve cancer care and outcomes. And he’s continually striving to be a better father, husband, friend and, of course, doctor.

“I have two beautiful daughters. I enjoy every moment with them,” he says. “I have more gratitude for the miracles that are in our lives, such as our children and our family. I think that allows me to also appreciate the good that a lot of us can take for granted sometimes.”

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