Eugene Gu has been dealing with controversies from the very beginning of his training as a surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. But after being put on a mandatory two-week leave in November, the Asian-American medical resident says it’s racial discrimination that has made his training a kind of professional and personal hell.
In 2015, Gu’s research group was subpoenaed by Congress when conservative politicians attempted to crack down on fetal tissue research, which Gu had led through his biotech company, Ganogen. When he went public about the issue—speaking to a Huffington Post reporter—his supervisors at Vanderbilt weren’t happy. “It made me the black sheep,” he says, among his cohort and faculty.
But Gu, 31, was back in the spotlight when one his tweets went viral last September. He posted a photo of him kneeling—Colin Kaepernick style—as a response to white supremacy.
The catalyst for his post was a violent incident in the medical center’s parking garage, where Gu was attacked by a white man allegedly yelling racial slurs and calling him a “chink.” In The Globe and Mail, Gu wrote that the officer came to him with a stern look on his face and said that Tennessee law states that he had to arrest both him and his assailant. The police report from the incident shows that Gu was arrested for attempting to drive through the parking lot, in which the alleged attacker’s mother pressed charges against him for driving recklessly when he was leaving.
“They always jump to the conclusion, this Asian guy is wrong, the white person is telling the truth,” Gu tells me.
After the “kneeling” tweet, Gu received death threats and backlash. But closer to home, a patient’s mother asked him to leave her son’s room because she had seen his post and disagreed with his statement and politics in September. In screenshots of the patient’s mother’s Facebook posts (now either deleted or private) from September and November that I reviewed, she complained that Gu’s political beliefs would interfere with her son’s treatment, and said he shouldn’t have access to medical records.
In November, Gu also publicly called out an incident from February of 2017 when another resident elbowed him from a chair, in a way that he said made him feel bullied and assaulted.
In a probation letter dated Nov. 22 from Vanderbilt to Gu, his program director, Kyla Terhune, said Gu wrongfully identified the resident as a “chief resident” in his tweets (he was resident, but not a chief resident), but the letter did confirm that the university counseled a resident involved with this altercation.
“They didn’t even punish the guy who physically assaulted me,” Gu says, “They never denied that I was physically assaulted. But it’s in dispute because I violated their technicality of calling him on chief resident.”
The resident involved has since left the program.
It can be tricky to confirm racially motivated actions, but discrimination and bias exist throughout the field of medicine. Several physicians have written about dealing with racist patients, and studies have quantified how minority medical students fare in the field. In one 2009 study, almost a quarter of Asian physicians surveyed said they had left a position because of workplace discrimination. This is a systemic issue, though Asians comprise about one-fifth of all medical school graduates as of 2015.
While Vanderbilt’s statements about the situation say they are focused on diversity and inclusion, Gu and other medical professionals say otherwise. “I think you are encouraged to be as generic as possible when you work in health care and what does generic mean? It means white and middle class and Christian,” says Ronica Mukherjee, a lecturer at Yale University, nurse practitioner, and advocate for equitable health care.
On November 10, Gu was officially put on administrative leave for two weeks. The letter states that the medical center was investigating Gu’s complaints about his own safety, but also the “safety of other employees, complaints that VUMC has received from patients and external sources.”
In the past few weeks, things have come to a head. After Duke Chronicle, Duke University’s student newspaper, where Gu attended medical school, wrote about his leave, Vanderbilt put out a public statement about the situation, saying that Gu’s leave was a matter of social media policy violation and performance. In other posts, the medical center tagged Gu in their posts about the incident, which he says opened up more doors to online harassment.
Several notable physicians have called out Vanderbilt for how they handled Gu’s situation. Harvard University professor Neel Shah tweeted the sequence of some of Gu’s events:
And Prabjot Singh, of Mount Sinai in New York, called the issue a matter of censorship.
When I reached out to Vanderbilt, they sent me an iteration of their generic public statement and pointed me to the social media policy that states that residents need to clearly differentiate their own political views from their university. “All of VUMC’s actions concerning Dr. Gu have been consistent with the institution’s commitment to diversity and inclusion,” the spokesperson said.
Update 1/18/18: In the police report I obtained from the Nashville police department, Gu's alleged attacker was charged with assault for following Gu to the garage, grabbing his identification badge, and taking patient paperwork out of his lab coat. No injuries were reported, and the report does not include anything about racial slurs.