“Every time you go into the operating room, you try to control as much as you can to achieve a successful outcome,” says Tueng Shen, M.D., Ph.D., a UW professor in the Department of Ophthalmology. There are checklists. Equipment is readied. And the night before the surgery, Shen reviews the patient’s needs and her surgical plan.
Shen is the director of the refractive surgery center at the UW Medicine Eye Institute and the newly appointed Endowed Professor for Cornea Research. She has performed thousands of eye surgeries, restoring sight to many grateful patients. Even so, some factors that contribute to a successful outcome are outside of her control — like a patient’s mood on the day of surgery. To feel better about these uncertainties, Dr. Shen confesses to a superstition: she wears red socks in the OR.
“In Chinese culture, red is good luck. Even my name means red,” says Shen. “And I can wear red socks in surgery without being too obvious.”
The Engineer and the Artist
Shen calls her road to medicine accidental. When she and her family came to the U.S., she was 18 and spoke no English. Medical school seemed out of reach, and language and cultural barriers made connecting with patients seem impossible. While completing a clinical rotation as part of a degree in medical engineering from MIT, however, Shen discovered something surprising about herself.
“I realized I could talk with people,” she says. Shen decided to pursue an M.D., too, finding that she loved surgery and was very well-suited for ophthalmology.
“Ophthalmic surgery requires you to not only be very precise with your hands, but, more importantly, to have a calm mind so you can react and think quickly, often within a fraction of a second,” says Shen. “And I enjoy listening to patients and trying to understand their needs. It helps me choose the best approach and give them a good experience.”
Her chosen field is also quick to adopt the latest technology, and Shen often collaborates with colleagues in the UW School of Engineering to develop solutions to diagnosing and treating corneal blindness. One example is a new artificial cornea, one that may help monitor the health of patients who live in remote areas.
You could argue, though, that research requires creativity as well as acumen. Shen has that, too: she minored in studio arts and briefly considered a career as an artist. She still practices Chinese calligraphy, watercolor, photography and sculpture, and she often donates her work to raise funds for vision research.
“Making art is not that much different from surgery in terms of using your hands and your mind,” says Shen.
The first patient Shen told about her red-sock-wearing habit was Ruth Gerberding, spouse of former University of Washington President Dr. William P. Gerberding.
“Her surgery went very well, and she had a good experience. At Christmas, she sent me a package of red socks. I was so surprised,” says Shen.
Mrs. Gerberding started a tradition. Shen now has an entire drawer stuffed full of red socks from grateful patients. She knows it’s a way for patients to say “thank you,” but she suspects it’s more than that. “They’re also passing along their own good luck to future patients,” she says.
Although she enjoys the socks, Shen is most moved by sharing patients’ concerns: their sorrows and their joys.
“It is truly a privilege to be able to get up every day and meet interesting patients, to understand their challenges, and try to make their lives better,” she says.