Huan Dong, Class of ‘07, is currently a medical student at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He continually finds parallels between medicine and theater, and says that his theater training is helping him become a compassionate physician.
TDPS graduate. Kaiser Permanente Theater Program Performer Educator. HIV Prevention teacher in Tanzania. Medical student. While only 30, Huan Dong has an impressive resume, and a career path that’s encompassed many disciplines and taken him to multiple countries. Through it all, his love of theater remains constant, as has his passion to find the career that best suits his talents.
Huan’s love of theater began in elementary school and, despite his parents’ reservations about pursuing theater in college, he continued to perform onstage, dance on Lower Sproul, and work backstage at UC Berkeley. He knew he wanted to double-major, and studying Theater and Performance Studies was an easy choice. The other major was harder to pin down. Says Huan, “I have many different hobbies and had to find out what I wanted to learn more about and use as a foundation for a career and personal life in the future.” Huan first studied Astrophysics, then switched to Architecture, before finally settling on Integrated Biology. “My parents never really supported me in theater,” Huan relates, “but when I graduated with a double major and received the Mark Goodson Prize (for Distinguished Artistic Talent) they were very proud.”
During Huan’s last year at Cal, he volunteered in Vietnam as an English teacher and found theater games to be excellent teaching tools. “People who had studied English for years hesitated to speak it because they were nervous about mispronouncing words or using them out of context,” Huan explains. “I was adamant about them speaking English and used improv activities to encourage them to think on the spot.” While in Vietnam, he also volunteered at an orphanage and was recruited for a medical mission in the country’s rural hills. Huan recalls, “Even though I was just assisting and had no medical knowledge, I was touched by the experience. I realized how much impact you can have on the life of a person, and that began my path to medical school.”
After graduation, Huan’s interests in health and theater aligned when he became a member of Kaiser Permanente Educational Theatre. The touring theater troupe performs shows for school-age children and other community members that address topics like obesity, non-violent conflict resolution, and STI and HIV prevention and education. “I utilized both majors (Theater and Biology), made an incredible impact on the community, and further invested in a career in health,” says Huan of this convergence of his passions.
Huan also drew from his theater background when he traveled to Tanzania with Support for International Change, a nonprofit organization that aims to limit the impact of HIV/AIDS in underserved communities. Huan educated students in Tanzanian villages about HIV in an effort to reduce stigma about the disease. To personalize the disease, he dug into his theatrical toolkit to create the fictional character of Kaka Bob:
“Many people refuse to get tested because they are afraid of what the community will think of them. I challenged that mindset by creating the character of Kaka Bob for my classroom (kaka means “brother” in Swahili). Kaka Bob sat in on the basic skills class I was teaching, becoming a friend to the students, and at the end of class he was tested for HIV and found out he was positive. This prompted a discussion about whether Kaka Bob was now any different, and how we could help him. The children rallied around Kaka Bob. The character was a powerful tool to start dialogue about fighting the stigma of HIV. I wouldn’t have thought to create, or been able to create, this character without my training at TDPS and my experience at Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Theater Programs.”
During the next phase of Huan’s career, getting a Masters in Human Nutrition and Metabolic Biology from the Institute of Human Nutrition of Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, he also managed to include theater. To compliment his intense study, he joined the Bard Hall Players, one of the longest running and operating theater groups at a medical school in the country. There, he stage-managed, played Brutus in Julius Caesar (and also designed the lights), and choreographed a production of Urinetown.
Currently, Huan is a medical student at the special Charles R. Drew University—David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA program. Reflecting on his interview process before being admitted, Huan muses, “It’s interesting how in medical school applications and interviews, I ended up talking most of the time about my involvement with theater. Theater has given me the ability to empathize and connect with patients through universal human traits. That’s what’s going to help me to become a compassionate physician.”
As an MD candidate, Huan is still deciding on a specialty. “My first choice is infectious diseases because I enjoy investigating how the ecology of viruses and bacteria becomes our pathophysiology as they live in our bodies.” His second choice is Emergency Medicine, since, Huan ruefully admits, “I feel I am a very anxious person and tend to talk fast, but many of my friends in medical school say I stay calm under pressure and that’s why they think I should go into emergency medicine.”
Whatever specialty he chooses, he plans to connect to his future patients by utilizing the art of listening. “In theater we are taught to be in the moment. Performers actively pay attention to a character’s narrative and that’s exactly what you do in a medical office,” Huan explains. “Just as performers are vulnerable onstage, so are patients in a doctor’s office. When I interview patients as a medical student, even though I might be nervous, I am a sympathetic and active listener. In both performing and interacting with patients, you learn to listen and be in the moment with someone who is telling you their story.”
Active listening is not the only parallel Huan has noticed between medicine and theater. “In theater there’s months of preparation for one performance and in medical school we also prepare in detail for a surgery we may perform only once.” He continues, a bit surprised at how his two majors have matched up into a career, “We do all this preparation and everything comes to a pinnacle where you try to connect with an individual under the lights of the surgery room, or under stage lights. You are under bright lights, you have a team you have to trust and it’s an amazing dance of life.”