Dr. Wilson Tsai - The Heart of A Surgeon

By Janine Barrera-Castillo

As tired as the cliché is, there is nevertheless an innate truth to the idea that doctors become doctors to help people. This is what drives Dr. Wilson Tsai to practice medicine. Born into a family of Taiwanese immigrants, he learned at a very early age that cancer is a fatal malady that afflicted several members of his family. This unfortunate set of circumstances can be attributed in no small part to the decision to pursue medicine as a chosen vocation.

In the early years of his youth, he had the opportunity to live with his grandparents in Taiwan who worked the farmland for a living. Dr. Wilson Tsai, in his youth, was no stranger to the rigors and hard physical labor typical of farm life. Unfortunately, like most farmers, his grandparents’ health did not factor in very highly in their list of priorities while in the midst of all that farm activity, and was most likely to be ignored or neglected. There was no available physician nor a healthcare system to speak of, and indeed, there existed such a dichotomy between the simplicity of that life and the sophisticated medical world of Dr. Tsai today. Unsurprisingly, it was the passing away of his Grandmother that truly set him on the direction of becoming a doctor in spite of the fact that his parents originally wanted him to pursue a law degree.

His Grandfather was a significant role model, disciplined and adept in the daily routine of farm living. His day started as early as 4:30 in the morning going about his daily chores while taking care of the family, providing them food, education, and other basic necessities of life. Perhaps, it was this very discipline and strong work ethic, that proved invaluable for Dr. Wilson Tsai as he took on the rigors of medicine and his chosen specialization decades later.

It was at the beginning of his journey towards medicine that Dr. Tsai suffered another loss and this time it would be his beloved Grandfather whose life was taken by Leukemia. The feeling of helplessness and loss served to reinforce the commitment to devoting his life helping others as a doctor. Thus, began a long and grueling journey to medicine, general surgery, and later on, thoracic surgery. Dr. Tsai’s Curriculum Vitae is a formidable accounting of achievements, an embodiment of a life dedicated to the study of the human body and the healing of it.

General surgery was his initial focus of study, where the use of his hands, mapping out a strategy, coming up with good results, were his main concerns. However, while practicing general surgery, there was in the back of his mind this idea of wanting to do more, specifically in the realm of cancer which claimed the lives of one too many in his family. This led him to the pursuit of a cancer surgery fellowship at the National Cancer Institute. This was not an ultimate goal for him however. To him, this was still mainly general surgery and felt he needed to gain a little more extra technical expertise. It was around this time that he met two very influential people who directed him to further specialization. This time the path led him towards Thoracic Oncology which required three more years of training on top of the seven years training that he was already doing. Initially resisting the idea, not wanting to take on anymore training, it was through the excellent mentorship and guidance of these two individuals that he agreed to the challenge. After all, what’s another two to three years of study in the face of a lifetime? And with that resolve, he arrived at his current position as Thoracic Surgeon.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Dr. Tsai’s medical profession would be his use of Robotic Technology. To be exact, the machine is called the Da Vinci Robot, a new and exciting technology in the world of medical surgery. Dr. Tsai is credited with the success of his use of robotic technology in many of his surgeries. Although not to be regarded as standard procedure for all thoracic surgery cases, its advantages are nevertheless a huge leap in the advancement of surgery and post-surgical recovery. There are three types of surgical procedures: traditional surgery, laparoscopic surgery, and robotic surgery. Dr. Tsai stresses the point that, depending on the case of the patient, all three are viable forms of treatment and neither one is necessarily superior over the other. In his own words “you pull the right arrow from your quiver” to treat the specific target that is most responsive to the method. 

In Thoracic Oncology however, the role of robotic technology is most beneficial to lung cancer surgeries due to a very minimal invasion, a finer dissection, plus a remarkable improvement in post-surgery recovery time. The use of this technology is not without its controversies. New technology will always be met with some resistance and a little bit of mistrust. But like everything else, there will always be a learning curve, to understand and to free the mind of all biases.

On top of a very demanding schedule as thoracic surgeon, Dr. Tsai occupies several positions in different departments in different hospitals. He is Co-director of the Thoracic Surgical Program at John Muir Health and Chair of the Thoracic Division at Sutter Eden Medical Center of Castro Valley. In the face of such principal roles, time management is crucial to him. One of the key elements to successful time management is understanding systems. If you manage to grasp the importance of this concept and succeed in implementing an efficient system to your practice, then as a doctor you would have had won half the battle of effective time management. In fact, an efficiently running system actually allows a doctor to focus on what is truly important, and that would be, to practice the art of being a physician. Practicing this art means the patient will always come first. 

As medicine evolves into a business where physicians are forced to spend time in front of the computer, Dr. Tsai emphasizes how it is ever more important to remember to give the patient the time and respect they deserve when confronting a serious malady like cancer. He acknowledges that what’s paramount to the patients is their diagnosis and their understanding of it. With this consideration in mind, he tries to give a patient’s diagnosis in stages to allow for a thorough comprehension, employing the use of a white board to help illustrate the condition, the stages, and the surgery. Like his grandfather before him, Dr. Tsai confronts challenges in a world full of enormous responsibilities on a regular basis that would probably intimidate the average working man. For many of us, Dr. Tsai will always be the doctor, the guy you pin a lot of hope on, possibly a savior to one’s battle with illness, or perhaps even just the guy who helps you deal with your fears and anxieties. It’s easy to forget that he is also a regular guy, a family guy, a Dad, a husband, just like many of his patients.... But Dr. Tsai never forgets what is closest to his heart and that is, being a husband to his wife and father to his three children first, a doctor second. And yes, he gets his weekends off and his goal is to always make it home by 6:00 pm every day.

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Amanda Fischer