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Peter Baik

Thoracic Surgeon

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Thoracic Surgeon Found His Path By Following His Curiosity

09/07/2023 06:00AM | 1540 views

Dr. Peter Baik is a surgeon at City of Hope, one of the largest cancer research and treatment organizations in the U.S. and one of the leading research centers for diabetes and other life-threatening illnesses. He specializes in thoracic surgery, which involves operations on organs in the chest, including the heart, lungs and esophagus. He treats lung cancer, esophageal cancers, and tumors in the chest, using minimally invasive thoracic procedures, including robotic-assisted surgery and video-assisted thoracic surgery. 

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Dr. Baik immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 12 years old. His family moved around quite a bit: he went to four different elementary schools, two different junior high schools, and two different high schools.

“My parents were not stereotypical Asian parents. They were not the so-called tiger parents. They didn't push us to do well in school. In Korea, my dad attended one of the best universities and was successfully climbing the corporate ladder. But he gave up his career to come to the United states, as many immigrants have, to give me and my brother better opportunities. My dad had three jobs when I was in junior high school, including cleaning airplanes, and two jobs when I was in high school.”

Things were tough financially. But he said the most important lessons that his dad taught him are: 

  1. There is no work that is beneath you, especially when you have to feed your family.
  2. When you see an opportunity, give it 110%.
  3. You have to surround yourself with the right group of friends. 

His family moved to Houston his sophomore year of high school – as he describes it, the worst time to move when it comes to a social life.  

“I initially didn't have any friends, so I befriended this guy in my gym class. One day he invites me to a party, and I’m thinking I’m finally going to have a social life. But he never picked me up, he didn’t call, nothing. Monday, he doesn’t show up to class. Tuesday, he doesn’t show up to class. A week later, he finally shows up to class with a cast on his leg. There had been a fight, a gunshot rang out, and he said he felt something hot penetrating his leg. A bullet. I realized that maybe I should not involve myself with his group of friends. So, I ended up joining the math and science clubs and being with the students who were in the top 10% academically. Many of the students became and are still my closest friends to this day.”

Dr. Baik didn’t have any role models in medicine, so his interest was in airplanes. He always thought that he would pursue a career in aerospace engineering, designing and developing airplanes. But when his best friend needed to stay after classes to dissect a cat for his anatomy class, he didn’t have a choice but to wait, as his friend was his ride home.  

“I began to help him with the dissection. I became curious about the intricacies of that cat’s anatomy, eventually leading to a career in medicine.” 

Finding a Niche

Dr. Baik earned a Bachelor of Science in Zoology at the University of Texas at Austin. He completed his Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Missouri in 2005.

Originally he thought he would specialize in family medicine, because it can be rewarding to work with people across entire life spans – from kids, to middle age, to the elderly. But he said he also really likes “to look at things and fix things.”

So surgery seemed like the right fit. He trained as a general surgery resident at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, New York, and then at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, California. As he progressed in his training, he kept finding new specialties that sparked his interest – which kept extending his years of study as he followed his curiosity.

After five years of training as a resident in general surgery, he honed his interests further and completed an additional two-year residency in cardiothoracic surgery, or surgery involving the heart and lungs, at the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine/Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida.

After residency Dr. Baik decided to specialize even further by completing a fellowship in minimally invasive esophageal and thoracic surgery at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, Washington. With minimally invasive surgical techniques, surgeons use video and specialized robotic devices, allowing for smaller incisions and shorter recovery time compared to open surgery.

He joined City of Hope in July 2014, and today treats patients at City of Hope Phoenix in Arizona (the 13th U.S. state he has lived in). In addition to his work treating patients, he also serves as the chair of City of Hope’s Cancer Committee.

Know What You Want AND What You Don’t Want

There are so many different career paths in medicine. Dr. Baik discovered his interests in part because he knew what he didn’t want: he half-jokingly says “I didn’t want to deal with poop – so I didn't want to do anything related to large intestines.”

But, more important, he was willing to keep pursuing what he did want.

“I like using new technologies. I like engineering things and new tools and thinking of ways to improve them. Thoracic surgery was a perfect fit.”

He also saw a lot of opportunity to help people with lung cancer.

“When I started learning more about it, there had been significant improvements in treatments. It was one of the deadliest cancers, but it was a type of cancer where I could actually help in the early stages. I could also work with people in preventing it, or work with patients to detect it early with low-dose lung cancer screening. There are all these avenues that I could be involved with.”

Inspiring Kids to Discover Medicine

He knows how influential both mentors and friends can be in helping young people discover what they’re passionate about. Before the pandemic interrupted in-person programs, Dr. Baik gave tours to students so they could learn about the variety of careers in healthcare and what it takes to become a doctor. He enjoyed giving them real-world experience through these tours..

“You could tell some kids were interested, and some kids were not. But the ones who were interested were really interested. We would set up the robot so they could get on the console and see how we do surgeries. Most of my surgeries are done using the robot, and I'm looking through a 3D monitor. So it's like virtual reality, but it's the actual thing. Kids are so used to playing games that it's  natural for them.”

Helping Patients Understand What’s Going On

Introducing people to the tools and possibilities of thoracic surgery is a fun way to inspire the next generation of healthcare providers. But it’s also an urgent priority when it comes to helping his own patients know their options and understand what’s going on.

“You have to understand what’s being considered in terms of treatment. What’s important to you may be different from what I think is important in terms of quality of life. In order to treat something or take care of something, you have to know the reality and be able to tackle it with the support of your family and friends.”

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