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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Giffords’ surgeon to speak at graduation

Colin Prenger / Daily Wildcat Dr. Peter Rhee, a trauma doctor at University Medical Center, will be a keynote speaker at this year’s graduating commencement ceremony. Dr. Rhee, an ex-Navy surgeon, was in charge of Representative Gifford’s health and recovery during her stay at UMC.

Dr. Peter Rhee, one of two surgeons who operated on former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the chief of the University of Arizona Medical Center trauma division, will speak at the undergraduate commencement ceremony on Saturday to remind attendees that every day is a good day.

“I think when all our instruments are telling us how bad it is, look outside,” Rhee said. “And what you’ll see is how good it is here.”

Rhee became nationally recognized after the shooting in Tucson on Jan. 8, 2011. Six people were killed and 13 injured, including Giffords. Rhee was one of two surgeons who operated on Giffords and looked over her in the intensive care unit while she was hospitalized. As the incident gained national attention, so did Rhee.

“I’m pretty sure it was a very humbling experience to bring the national spotlight, the world spotlight, here,” said George Hadeed, a medical student and one of Rhee’s students in UAMC’s trauma training program. “He was the guy everyone looked to.”

At the commencement ceremony, Rhee will tell students about his traveling experiences and how much they’ve made him appreciate life in the U.S.

“After all that traveling at my age and experience, what it really shows you is that there’s no place better than home,” he said.

Since Rhee moved to Africa at age 5, traveling has been a big part of his life. After earning an undergraduate degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Rhee went to Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, a military medical school. Once he graduated from medical school, he did his surgical training in Irvine, Calif., where he met his wife.

Twenty-four years of service followed his education. He served as a Navy surgeon in Ramadi, Iraq, where he cared for anyone who was injured, whether they were Iraqi children or U.S. troops.

“You’re a doctor in the war zone where troops are getting shot and killed,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about politics, you don’t have to care whose side is right or wrong. All you have to do is take care of the people that come to you.”

Being at war is “the most fun you could have,” Rhee said, adding that serving is his way of paying the government back, and doing what he’s been trained to do.

“There, life is very simple. You have two pairs of pants, two shirts, you don’t have any possessions — all you have to do is work,” Rhee added.

In Iraq, Rhee built his own surgical suite and worked with two other surgeons.

“We were very far forward in the lines, so we went through a lot of good and some bad times,” Rhee said.

Upon returning to the U.S., Rhee was asked to set up a trauma training center in Los Angeles so that doctors, nurses and medics could learn to take care of those who had been shot and stabbed. Since there was a 20 to 30 year period without war, most doctors who had been in the military for more than 25 years had never seen a gunshot wound.

“We thought it was our obligation and duty to get our military personnel as well-trained as we could before they went to the war,” Rhee said.

Rhee has seen more gunshot wounds working in the states than he has while on military duty. He worked at the Los Angeles Medical Center for 5 years before moving to UAMC.

“Unfortunately we see gunshot wounds all the time, every single day,” he said. “People get shot whether they shoot themselves or shoot each other. We see it every single day here in Tucson.”

Rhee had to leave his family in Los Angeles for a year in 2007, when he moved to Tucson. As the chief of the trauma division and one of only two trauma surgeons at the time, he was working between 120 and 140 hours a week in the UAMC trauma center. It was a tough year without his wife, daughter and son, he said.

In just five years, Rhee has expanded the trauma center at UAMC from two to nine surgeons. It takes about a year to hire just one surgeon, Rhee said. A 10th trauma surgeon, who specializes in burn surgery, will soon join the UAMC staff.

“He came to this division when it was at its lowest point and he pretty much rebuilt the entire program,” said Laura Ballesteros, senior program coordinator for trauma at UAMC. “I have the most respect for that man.”

Sitting on Rhee’s office couch are framed medals as well as a picture of him with President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

Ballesteros, who’s worked closely with Rhee since he moved to UAMC, was cooking dinner and watching CNN when she saw him at the White House on TV.

“It was just like a proud moment to see where he has gone. It was surreal,” Ballesteros said. “It was neat to see for everybody else to see the type of person that he is and what we see every day.”

Rhee teaches trauma surgery to medical students and residents from all over the country. He also does research, which has been featured in more than 200 publications.

“The average person has no idea that a doctor who does surgery actually does a lot of research,” Rhee said. “But we’re constantly doing research to better our field and to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong.”

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