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Isaac Yang honored for breakthrough research

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Posted: Friday, May 15, 2009 10:00 pm

How many neurosurgeons do you know who love In 'N' Out cheeseburgers, golf, karaoke and planned to become the most popular teacher at Lodi High if the whole doctor dream fizzled?

Chances are none, unless you know - and you might - the extra-friendly Dr. Isaac Yang, a neurosurgeon, who truly loves his hometown.

"Lodi is the greatest city on the face of the planet," he said. "Nowhere else can you get Wine and Roses on one side, In 'N' Out on the other and the aroma of cereal at night," said the former Lodi resident.

Yang grew up in Lodi and graduated from Lodi High in 2005. Following in his father's footsteps, he bacame a doctor who is making a deep mark in brain surgery.

Starting in June, he will also become chief resident of University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, where he will continue his research into skull-based tumors.

Earlier this month, Yang was awarded the prestigious Leksell Radiosurgery Award for heading research in a study about radiation treatment of Vestibular Schwannoma, a benign tumor that grows in the center of the brain.

Along with a team of six doctors, Yang researched a surgical process, known as Gamma Knife Radiosurgery, that allows brain tumor patients to have an easier recovery after surgery. Brain surgery used to be a long and grueling process that left many patients with loss of hearing and facial nerves. However, the use of Gamma Knife Radiosurgery, which has been around for about 15 years, provides doctors with an image of the brain and allows them to pinpoint the tumor's specific location.

Lodi High graduate Dr. Isaac Yang is an award-winning neurosurgeon, who will be chief resident at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center starting next month.

"Like GPS, we can localize where tumors are so we can shoot them with radiosurgery," he said.

Yang and his team studied over 6,000 patients who underwent the Gamma Knife Radiosurgery, and found that the procedure was not only safer, but drastically reduced the recovery time for patients who, before the use of the Gamma Knife procedure, would have experienced loss of facial movement and hearing.

"It makes a big impact on a patients' quality of life," he said, explaining that patients can get back to normal. "That's the whole point of what we're trying to do," he said.

Being awarded the Leksell Radiosurgery Award for his team's paper from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons wasn't something he expected.

"It's an honor to be recognized by so many smart people on a national level," he said. "I feel like I'm a nobody. And to recognize my work is a tremendous honor."

Above the award and the fame and job title, neurosurgeon, Yang is a doctor who feels one of the best parts of his job is that, at the end of the day, his work will change a life.

When Yang talks about his patients, it's obvious he genuinely cares. He offers medical help to almost anyone he meets, and even invites people to call him at 2 a.m. It's a characteristic his parents tried to instill in him.

"I want him to be humble before the Lord, before the patient," Isaac Yang's father, Peter Yang, said. "I tell him to pray for the patient and the family and treat the patient like his own family."

That, Yang says, he most definitely does.

A difficult destiny

As a fourth-generation doctor, Yang may have been born with the doctor's life etched in his DNA, but it wasn't something that felt natural all the time.

Dr. Isaac Yang, right, looks at photos of himself receiving the Leksell Radiosurgery Award. His wife, Dr. Nancy Yang, and his parents, Dr. Peter Yang and Sue Yang stand beside him. (Dan Evans/News-Sentinel)

Born in Chicago while his father was doing his residency in Chicago and raised in Lodi, Yang had challenges from the beginning of his educational career.

As an elementary school student at Century Christian School in Lodi, he struggled, and teachers even recommended he repeat kindergarten and first grade. Not only did an early transfer of schools make it hard for him to catch up, but his parents had immigrated from South Korea and spoke little English at home.

"My parents were coming from one culture and I was being raised in another," he said of those first years in Lodi.

Today, Yang has a strong sense of pride for hometown, and says he would be the first to apply if Lodi Memorial ever needs a neurosurgeon - perhaps his passion for the area came from his sense of security as a child.

"I think Lodi is an extremely welcoming and wonderful environment for people of all ethnicities … It gave us a safe, nurturing and accepting environment," Yang said.

Dr. Isaac Yang performs brain surgery in the operating room. (Courtesy photo)

At Lodi High, Yang was an honor student who took advanced placement math, played a bit of junior varsity soccer and spent most of his extra time working with student government and volunteering at Lodi Memorial.

Always the good student, he thought he'd continue his good-grade streak at UC Berkeley, where he earned his undergraduate degrees in social welfare and cell biology. However, he struggled in math classes - and feared that challenge might prevent him from ever making it inside an operating room.

"I never questioned that I was to become a doctor, but I did question whether I could do it," he said.

Though the biology advising office told him to switch career objectives when he was failing calculus, he got through on his personal drive, a good enough grade on the final exam and the support from his parents, whom he says always nurtured him, whether it was through moral support or driving to Berkeley to take their crying, calculus-challenged son out do dinner.

Even though he graduated from UC Berkeley and then graduated from medical school at UCLA, he still doubted whether he would become a doctor. On the day of his MCAT, he walked out of the room feeling defeated. His parents were there waiting for him, and for the first time, he says he felt like he would never become a doctor.

"I thought, I'm going to go back to Lodi and be the most popular science teacher at Lodi High," he said.

Dr. Isaac Yang at a glance

Hometown: Lodi
Now resides: In San Francisco
Family: He is married to Nancy Yang, M.D. His father, Lodi's Dr. Peter Yang, and mother live in Lodi. His brother, Eric, is working toward a Ph.D in philosophy at UC Santa Barbara.
Age: 31
Profession: Neurosurgeon
Award: Leksell Radiosurgery Award from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons
Hobbies: Visiting Lodi, eating, karaoke, golf, SCUBA diving
Something you didn't know: He watches "Grey's Anatomy" because the writing is "outstanding" and they actually do real neurosurgical procedures.

But his life changed on June 15, 2003, the day he found that, to his shock, his MCAT scores were good enough for him to get into medical school.

Just a normal guy

Though he's made medical history, Isaac Yang is a pretty typical 31-year-old. He drives a Honda, jokes around and is the type of guy you'd probably want to barbecue with on a Sunday afternoon. He admits, he finds entertainment in the simple things.

"Outside of brain surgery, the most fun thing I do is golf," he said, adding that he's really, really bad on the golf course.

That doesn't keep him from playing locally at Dry Creek Golf Course, Micke Grove, and at courses in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

He also loves karaoke - but like golf, he says he can't sing.

Just over a year ago, Yang married fellow doctor, Nancy Yang. The San Francisco residents had plans to celebrate their anniversary with a fancy night on the town, until they got a different idea: Cheeseburgers and fries at In 'N' Out.

"That's more our style," said Yang.




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