By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
It’s been a tough road during COVID, with his operating room being converted into a COVID intensive care unit during his time at the heart of the pandemic in New York. But now, Dr. Philip Louie is back in his home state of Washington to offer spine care to the local community.
The child of parents that immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong and Macau, Louie developed an interest in orthopedics and spine surgery early.
“I grew up with a family and a community that always emphasized helping those around us…As I grew older, medicine (and specifically, surgery) was exciting because it provided me with opportunities to use my hands to help those around me. I enjoyed fixing broken bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and all the amazing anatomy of the spine…Both my parents had chronic on-going back problems and have undergone successful spine surgery. My grandparents suffered from years of back pain due to arthritis and scoliosis, and I have had the absolute blessing of helping to care for them as well.”
Louie grew up with lessons he received from his parents and grandparents, which he applies to his life.
“Family and community were cornerstones to my family growing up. In fact, these were so important that many of the community members felt like family members!…In a world that is divided and full of tension right now, it is more important than ever to look through what divides us and remember that we can be (and are) one big family.”
Another lesson he learned was to defy disparity.
“We all struggle with something, and many of us struggle with many things. With everything going on in life, it is easy to let these struggles take a stronghold on us…As a spine surgeon, I often face people dealing with their own level of disparity, whether it be from pain, weakness, stress, or shear uncertainty. I feel blessed with the opportunity to face these areas of disparity with my patients, as a team, and provide them with a wide range of support from many caring healthcare team members.”
Louie has seen these struggles at home, and nationally. He was part of the healthcare workers pulled into action due to the overwhelming number of COVID cases hitting New York last year.
“Being in the world’s largest COVID epicenter was certainly interesting. It felt like one day, the city was alive and jumping, and the next day—the lights turned off…People were getting sick and dying left and right…As a spine surgeon, I was far out of my comfort zone. But I learned to understand that my role was to support my healthcare colleagues and society.”
At home, Louie’s parents have been regular activists in the Asian American community.
“My parents were trailblazers of sorts in that they built a Chinese community center and Chinese academy in Tacoma, as well as started a church. My dad started his own medical practice. Every step of the way, we faced forms of open racism and attacks—watching my parents step up and fight it head on was something that was fairly unique. They are incredibly active.”
Rather than bowing down to these challenges, Louie’s parents took it on as a positive opportunity.
“They find a lot of joy in it. I think they love those types of obstacles…In that light, the increase in violent acts that continue to rattle our AAPI community highlight the tension that we currently face.
This is devastating and saddening! But we must learn to stand up as a community to condemn these actions and educate our brothers and sisters.”
Now back home and working with the Virginia Mason Franciscan Health (VMFH) Neuroscience Institute on 9th Avenue in Seattle and a just-opened VMFH spine clinic in Federal Way, Louie finally has the chance he’s been waiting for to make local patients a part of his extended family.
“That means I will walk them through everything I know about their concern and let them know what I’m thinking and why I’m thinking that…I ask myself, what would I recommend if you were my family member?”
Louie has seen a trend, only exacerbated by the insecurities of the pandemic, in getting patients, especially older patients, to come in to see him. This trend is even more evident, he finds, in Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) patients.
“Patients tell me of how they simply lived with the pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness for years because they didn’t know who to turn to with questions, had never been informed as to what common symptoms to keep an eye out for, didn’t have the available resources to seek medical attention, don’t understand why the spine, the spinal cord, and these nerves going down to the arms and legs are so important long-term to preserve, and countless other stories!”
AAPI patients in particular have a desire to seek AAPI caregivers—and to be able to bring family with them to appointments for support, something that has been difficult during COVID due to safety precautions.
“Western Washington boasts a large and diverse AAPI community, however, they represent an incredibly low percentage of the patients that we treat in a large multidisciplinary spine program. I’ve experienced their trepidation and uncertainty in seeking care for their debilitating spine-related problems.”
According to Louie, if caught early enough, many spine problems don’t require surgery, but this is contrary to what a lot of people believe.
“That’s where a lot of people get scared. They don’t know where to start. [At Virginia Mason Franciscan Health], we have several AAPI spine surgeons…and non-surgeons who are spine specialists. They are trained to help you with your spine problems and they’re not surgeons—they want to talk you out of surgery.”
Louie laughs when he acknowledges that, if a patient goes to one of his colleagues initially, “They may never even need to see me if they’re treated earlier.”
In a follow-up article with the Weekly, Dr. Louie will discuss spine issues specific to AAPIs.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.