Doctor devotes career to fighting disease that claimed his father

November 28, 2003|HERB BROCK

Newcomers to Danville often give "chamber of commerce" accounts about why they were drawn here, and the sterling stories often include the wide Main Street, the stately old houses on Lexington and Maple avenues, the presence of nationally-renowned Centre College, the diversified business and industry and the impressive history and culture.

Some of those things appeared on the checklist of Yinong Liu, but not at the top. What attracted Liu to town was that the Central Kentucky city put him in mind of the Central China village where he grew up.

Danville and Liolinhang are nothing alike in many ways. Liolinhang is much smaller, poorer and older than Danville. But Liu says the two towns share a "peace" and "slower pace" and "friendliness" - qualities of life that he was looking for during his search for an American city to call home.

Liu's selection of Danville as a hometown and medical oncology as a career were inspired by his late father. Liu became a cancer doctor because he wanted to fight the disease that claimed his father. He came to Danville because it was a town that not only resembled his hometown but also offered a highly-acclaimed place where he could practice oncology and hematology.


Liu, a partner with Dr. Thomas R. Baeker, a fellow oncologist and hematologist, in Commonwealth Cancer Center, is on a medical mission as much as he's in a medical career.

Liu was in medical school at the time his father became ill. "My father was a traditional Chinese man. He worked very hard to provide food and shelter for his family. He was healthy most of his life, but he also was a heavy smoker and that finally took his life. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1982. He received treatment but died after five months. He was young, only 50.

"The way he died and the way he lived inspired me to become an oncologist. He inspired me not just to treat cancer patients but also to help in the effort to find a cure," he said. "His disease gave me an area of medicine I wanted to concentrate in. His work ethic gave me a model to follow in the way I go about my job and my efforts to fight cancer.

"He is my inspiration."

Liu, 40, was one of five children of Weiju Liu and Mingjun Fu. Chinese law dictated that a family be allotted one acre for each member; thus, the Liu-Fu family lived on a five-acre farm in Liolinhang, a literally dirt poor, agricultural village of 100 people.

In addition to raising Liu and his two brothers and two sisters, his mother worked the farm, where she grew the staples of poor Chinese farm families - sweet potatoes, rice and wheat.

"Meat was a luxury. We may have had it three times a year," said Liu. "And such things as bananas were exotic to us. Only wealthy people could have meat and bananas. I ate my first banana well into my adulthood."

While his mother toiled day and night tilling the soil and harvesting usually thin crops, his father put in long hours as a school teacher and working part-time jobs.

"He would leave the house at 5 or 6 in the morning and wouldn't return until 9 or 10 at night. What he earned was all the money we had," Liu said. "And before he had us to take care of, he had spent years being the sole provider for a dozen or so of his own brothers and sisters and other family members.

"My father was a well-educated man, but where we lived and what kind of restrictions we were under provided few opportunities for him to pursue a career that he both liked and compensated him well."

Very high marks allowed him to go to college

Liu was determined to pursue such an opportunity. He scored very high marks on his college entrance exam and, in China, that opened the door for him to enter college at age 16.

"If you make one of the top scores on the exam, you can go to college in China," he said. "But if you don't score high, you cannot go. You must do a job that does not require college."

Also in China, students wanting to pursue a profession go directly to the college where that profession is taught; there is no undergraduate school as is known in the United States. Liu decided he wanted to become a medical doctor, and so he immediately was placed at the prestigious Shanghai Medical College not long after graduating from high school, in 1979. He was just 16 and was moving 800 miles away from Liolinhang, but he was bolstered by his father's advice.

"My father told me that the economy and political structure of China were so uncertain that you could lose a job you had had for many years in a day," Liu said. "But that would not apply to a doctor, he told me. He said, 'No matter what happens elsewhere in the economy, there always will be a need for doctors.'"

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