When Susan Hee Kyung Ryu Gaynon, M.D. ’96, left Korea in 1963 to join her mother in Boston, she was fourteen, spoke little English, and hadn’t seen her mother in a decade. Then came high school. It was “sink or swim,” she recalls. “You survive, you learn the language, and move on.”
But Ryu did more than survive; she thrived, and she’s giving back. As she winds up a successful ophthalmology career in Palo Alto, Calif., she is being honored at her 40th class reunion with a Distinguished Alumni Service Award.
Her first few years in the United States were dominated by a struggle to learn English, a series of moves, and a succession of high schools as her mother changed jobs. But learn it she did. As an economics major at Smith College, Ryu minored in literature and relished the novelists Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse.
Having learned about poverty in Korea, Ryu considered doing developmental economics. Then, after her junior year in college, she did a summer stint at a bank and changed her mind. During her senior year, she polished off premed requirements.
Medicine was a family tradition: Ryu’s mother had been a physician in Korea, caring for injured soldiers on a remote island during the Korean War. After the war she immigrated to the United States, where she trained in and practiced anesthesiology.
Of medical school, Ryu recalls mostly hard work. She feared that her economics background might put her behind her science-trained classmates, and she felt motivated, too, by the self-reliance granted by the Yale system. In her Second-Year Show, she played a corpse, but that frivolity was a departures. “I studied all the time. … I was not going to be distracted by anything.”
During her ophthalmology residency at Harvard’s Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, she met fellow eye doctor Michael Gaynon, M.D., himself the child of a physician. The couple moved to California’s Bay Area, where they taught at Stanford and worked for 35 years in private practice.
In the mid-2000s, Ryu began to volunteer for the university and medical school, including a Yale Assembly position that required trips to New Haven. That worked out nicely while her younger daughter Laura Gaynon was a Yale undergraduate. (Gaynon, who graduated from Yale College in 2007, is now a cellist in San Francisco.) Ultimately, she served two years as president of the Association of Yale Alumni in Medicine; today she is part of the AYAM Student Engagement Committee. Ryu has also volunteered as a surgeon in Guatemala, Mexico, and India. Her elder daughter, Lisa, also traveled to India. Lisa is now an internal medicine intern in San Francisco.
As she prepares to retire, Ryu is returning to her early fondness for words and literature. She is studying Italian and reading good books, including the memoir of cancer-stricken surgeon Paul Kalanithi, M.D. ’07, When Breath Becomes Air, and internist Abraham Verghese’s novel Cutting for Stone. She and her husband plan to return to part time work, teaching ophthalmology residents at Stanford. Will she keep volunteering with AYAM? Yes, she says: “The people are so wonderful. That’s what keeps me going.”