August 21, 2014
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Dual Fluency

Bobby Hong studied at some of America’s most-renowned medical institutions. But he learned everything he needed to know about people at his parents’ liquor store.

Photo by Jonathan Timmes

Bobby Hong knows what it’s like to move between worlds.

As a radiation oncologist at Virginia Hospital Center, Hong spends his days toggling between the human and the high-tech, treating his cancer patients with personal warmth while targeting their tumors with ruthless precision. He deals in hope and despair, databases and lasers, and life and death.

To the uninitiated, it sounds like an emotional whipsaw. But Hong sees the work as a gift. “There is not a single more-motivated, more-gracious group of patients,” he says firmly. “We are always fighting for the same goal.”

If the young doctor sounds determined, that’s because he is. Just 36, he oversees the hospital’s growing radiation oncology department, publishes clinical research and has a curriculum vitae full of prestigious institutions. Harvard Medical School. Johns Hopkins. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Like so many people, though, his resumé only tells part of the story.

The son of Korean immigrants, Hong grew up in rural Georgia, where an Asian family wasn’t exactly the norm. “We were the first Koreans there,” he says.

As a child, he tagged along with his parents while his mother cleaned hotel rooms and his father serviced vending machines. After his parents saved enough to buy their own business, he worked alongside them in the family’s liquor store. He continued that practice even through medical school at the Medical College of Georgia, driving the 200 miles along I-20 from Augusta to Conyers whenever his schedule would allow.

That dedication remains a marvel to his wife, April Oh, also a first-generation American of Korean heritage who grew up in the South. (The couple now live in Ashton Heights with their son, Tyler, 3, and daughter, Mira, 1.)

“We have a similar culture and a shared immigrant childhood, but it still amazes us that our childhoods could be so different,” says Oh, 35, a senior behavioral scientist at the National Institutes of Health. “My father came here from Korea to get his Ph.D.; Bobby’s family came here to start a business. Bobby always grew up with the expectation that the store was his responsibility.”

In many ways, it was also his classroom. At the store, Hong absorbed the value of helping others, watching his Korean-born father eagerly sharing his hard-won American knowledge with a new generation of bewildered immigrants—most of whom came not from Asia, but from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries. Many needed assistance with the simplest things.

“I remember my father going out of his way to help them with a 29-cent stamp,” Hong recalls. “To this day, I haven’t met a single doctor that has ever worked harder than my dad did.”   

Handling a retail business also honed his ability to connect with people of all different backgrounds. “I do feel like I’ve had to navigate dichotomous worlds all of my life, but I’ve never felt lost or alienated,” Hong says. “I felt like I belonged equally when at the cash register running a liquor store as I did when in the operating room.”

Minding the store, he also discovered the power of a chance meeting. “When I was a med student…my dad always made a point to introduce me to customers who were doctors,” he remembers. One of those customers, a radiation oncologist, invited him to do a rotation in the specialty at his Georgia practice.

“It opened my eyes to radiation oncology,” says Hong, who had struggled to find a specialty in med school. “[Finally] I understood what I was born to do.”

Follow the fast-walking, cherubic-faced doctor through the labyrinth of hallways at Virginia Hospital Center, and you will see enough massive machines and high-definition monitors to make you feel like you’ve stepped into the control center of a spaceship—with Hong and his equally youthful colleagues, such as fellow radiation oncologist Nadim Nasr, deftly in command.

“The evolution of radiation oncology parallels the use of technology in everyday life,” Hong explains, alluding to his generation’s inherent digital fluency. “Dr. Nasr and I are digital-technology natives versus digital-technology immigrants. We’re not scared of technology. We embrace it and want to use it to the fullest extent possible.”

That includes a range of treatments—from robotic “CyberKnife” surgery (an incisionless, high-dose radiation procedure) to other highly targeted methods that attack a tumor while sparing healthy tissue. “Radiation medicine is pretty simple,” he says without a hint of irony. “My goal is how I deliver enough energy to kill the tumor.”

At the same time, Hong is adept at translating what the technology means for patients. When architect Michael Foster discovered in 2010 that he had Stage 4 throat cancer at age 47, his fear was compounded by a series of disheartening consultations with doctors. Seemingly unsure of what they could do to treat his tumor (which lay dangerously close to his spine), they awkwardly suggested counseling and asked if he had anyone to drive him home.

Hong’s response was refreshingly different, says Foster, who lives in Woodmont with his wife and two daughters.

“When I met Dr. Hong, he had done his homework not only on the tumor, but on me,” Foster recalls. “He said, ‘You’re an architect, right? You’re going to love this. I’m going to build a digital model of your tumor, spinal cord, head and neck so we can program the exact beams of radiation and target and kill the tumor without collateral damage.’ ”

Foster, who had researched a range of options, including treatments at the Mayo Clinic and Memorial Sloan-Kettering, was sold.

“His enthusiasm really gave me a lot of confidence,” says Foster, who underwent nine weeks of daily radiation treatments. Now 50, he still sees Hong every four to six months for scans, which so far have shown no recurrence.

Hong tracks his patients and their progress in a database of his own creation. With a few clicks of the mouse, he pulls up a handful of facts, from the number of patients he treated in 2012 (806) to their age range (12 to 92 years). It’s a skill he first cultivated at Harvard Medical School, where, as a research fellow, he built a database from scratch to analyze the human genome and the genetic fingerprints of diseases.

“He’s extremely unusual,” says Steve Gullans, the former Harvard Medical School professor who, in 1999, hired Hong away from a planned summer job at the Sunglass Hut to work in his research lab. Few doctors are so well-versed in the tech world, he explains.

But however enthusiastic Hong may be about the tech tools at his disposal, he never loses sight of their purpose: caring for people. The proof hangs in his office. Behind his desk (and its three 29-inch monitors) hangs a bulletin board covered with handwritten notes and cards from his patients and their families.

“I never throw away a thank-you note,” he says. “This isn’t the type of job you turn off.”

Writer Alison Rice is finally mastering the maze that is Virginia Hospital Center.

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