The ICAS Lectures
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
Peter M. Rhee.
ICAS 2011 Annual Liberty Award Dinner
December 2, 2011
Cannon Caucus Room
United States House Cannon Office Building
Capitol Hill, Washington, DC
Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.
965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422
Biographic sketch & Links: Peter M. Rhee
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
Peter M. Rhee, M.D., M.P.H.
Thank you, Dr. Kim and voting members, for this honor. I am humbled and filled with
gratitude. I feel very fortunate, or in an Asian term, 'lucky'. I also want to thank my son for
missing a couple of days of high school to be here with me today as my guest.
When I spoke with Dr. Kim, he asked that I talk on the topic of 'life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness'. Now I will tell you that as an academic trauma surgeon, I have given many
thousands of talks, but this is not the typical assignment that I would get for a talk since
graduating high school.
'Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness'; let's take the first term, 'life'. When I thought
about 'life,' well, it is a little too broad of a topic, and don't think I will be able to sum up 'life' in
the allotted time today, so let me skip this for the time being, and let me start with the last phrase,
'the pursuit of happiness'.
Thomas Jefferson penned the term, 'the pursuit of happiness,' in the Declaration of
Independence in 1776; he actually replaced the terms, 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of property'.
'Property' is concrete and definable, but 'happiness' is more elusive of a term. I am a
surgeon, not a psychiatrist or philosopher. My world is very concrete. This makes this
assignment even more difficult for me.
The Pursuit of Happiness
I will have to first define 'happiness'. What makes one 'happy'? What is 'happiness' to
me? I am sure that what makes me 'happy' is not the same as what makes my son 'happy' or
someone else 'happy'.
Does a vacation make me 'happy'? Is it money, a delicious, tasty meal, good times with
my friends, or even a healthy family?
Very broad question indeed, so let me tell you what makes a trauma surgeon 'happy'.
More specifically, what makes an academic trauma surgeon 'happy'? As you can imagine, I too
enjoy a cool, tasty beverage at the poolside in a picturesque Caribbean location. I would
probably be 'happy' for about an hour. Then, I am done and bored. However, I find that
accomplishment in my profession. Now that makes me 'happy,' and I 'pursue' that, so that is my
'pursuit of happiness'.
Since I spend a vast majority of my awake hours working, I have learned to find
'happiness' in my work. If I were to be home 24/7 with my family, which may be the politically
correct answer in a public format, but the truth is that that would not make me nor my family
very 'happy'. As a doctor, I am first and foremost a public servant. I am fortunate or 'lucky' to
have stumbled onto this profession. I am 'happy' that my profession allows me the privilege of
serving humanity. I am 'lucky' that I live in a country and world that allow me to 'pursue' my
'happiness'. Academic trauma surgery allows me to try and be significant in my profession. As I
become significant, I am doing the most amounts of good to humanity. Success in my profession
allows me to serve society and humanity better.
Let me tell you about a few instances when I have been 'happy' that might give you a
glimpse of my world and perspective.
It was ten years ago, December 2001, when I was deployed to Camp Rhino in the middle
of Afghanistan with the U.S. Marines to set up the first land base as our country's first response
to the 9/11 event. I was 'happy' to have been a part of that. We had researched for years on how
to build a forward surgical unit that could set up a surgical treatment facility within an hour to be
able to treat those who were injured. I was the only surgeon on that base, and to be a part of that
effort was rewarding. To implement what we had conceptually created over the years was
rewarding. We made it work.
Later, I was also provided with the opportunity to again, set up another forward surgical
team in Ramadi, Iraq as the war was escalating in that city. At the time, for me, I was in the right
place at the right time. Creature comforts were less than optimal, but they were enough to
sustain. I remember that a very good friend and professional colleague of many years emailed me
from his home in the U.S. and said, "Peter, you sound like you are very 'happy' and in your
element." Yes, I was 'happy' to be in a combat zone. I would probably assume that about now
most are wondering why I would be saying that I was 'happy' to be in a war zone.
Let me explain. I am neither pro- nor anti-military or war or death and destruction. I was
'happy' because I afforded the opportunity to serve. I had trained my entire adult 'life' for this
occasion, to be in a war zone, forward in the field, and working in a place with dirt roads and
gear that would frighten anyone. It took me 15 years of schooling and training to be a trauma
surgeon, and with 22 years in the Navy, I was a high-ranking medical officer; thus had the
'liberty' of setting up a surgical unit to do the best as possible in a war zone that made no sense
to the most rational, civilized person. I was, at the time, at the top of my game, physically and
professionally. I had minimal gear and help. There was no standard of care issues; it was merely
doing the best you could with what you had, day and night. I was fortunate to be a part of a team
of dedicated people, doing their jobs and making a difference. You see, I was not there to win a
war, but to treat humanity. Marines, Army soldiers, enemy soldiers, or civilians; it didn't matter. I
had the fortune of being on the side that gave me 'liberty' to treat all that I could for anyone hurt.
I didn't have to be faced with the decision to shoot or not; I didn't have to pull a trigger; I was
afforded the luxury of treating everyone who was injured during a time of chaos. I was there to
help people or 'life'.
Six years ago, on December 7th of 2005, we had just celebrated Pearl Harbor Day when a
mass casualty of 22 Marines came to us. In many ways, it was a sad day for many. Of the first six
Marines that we treated, we lost 11 legs and only saved one; not a good ratio. However, I felt
comfort in knowing that we did the absolute best that anyone could with what we had. I was
'happy' to be able to serve 'life'. A month later, we had 200 people injured when a suicide
bomber detonated himself in a crowd. Although we were treating a mass of shredded people that
were scattered all over the dirt ground on army stretchers, I had to make decisions on who was
going to be 'lucky' enough to get any treatment or will die without even an attempt to save their
lives because of limited resources. This was a fortunate experience. Fortunate in that during
those crazy times, I was privileged to be able to serve in times of need. You see for a combat
surgeon, it is a privilege and honor to serve in times of war; to serve those who serve; to be able
to do good during a time that may not make any sense. This made me 'happy'.
In comparison, on January 8, 2011, I was faced with a mass casualty where 19 people
were shot in a quiet suburb of Tucson, Arizona. Again, I was 'happy' on that day; 'happy' to be
able to serve. That was because I was working that day with seemingly unlimited resources and
probably the best of circumstances. I was able to work with a team of professionals, and I had the
'liberty' to build a team and program that were effective. Why 'happy' in the midst of such
tragedy? Because I did not have anything to do with the crazy madman with the gun, shooting 19
innocent people, but I was able to utilize all that we had implemented and trained for.
I am also fortunate or 'lucky' that I have had the 'liberty' of doing things my way. I was
trained to think on my feet and to urgently make sense out of chaos with what resources that is
readily available around you at that particular moment. Not having the most or best of resources
makes one think, and be inventive, and try and improve everything, so that you and others will
be more capable in the future.
The 'liberty' to serve in a meaningful way to society is probably the crucial ingredient to
my 'pursuit of happiness' and as a trauma surgeon. I again feel so extremely fortunate and view
my career as a gift that has been bestowed on me. The duty of an academic trauma surgeon is to
perfect my craft and share those lessons learned with others. That is quintessentially what
academic surgery is; to perfect our profession and to promulgate one's ideas to my colleagues, so
that we as a profession can be more effective and thus benefit society. Research is what perfects
my profession and allows one to be significant because of when and where I existed, I have been
fortunate to have the 'liberty' to 'pursue' advancement by performing research and 'pursue' my
'happiness,' which ultimately impacts 'life'.
No need to expand on what this country has allowed an immigrant from South Korea to
achieve. My family, who started with nothing, was allowed the 'liberty' to make a 'life' out of a
dismal future. I believe all that are in this room has the same 'liberty' as I did and fully
appreciate that we are living in some unparallel, fortunate times in the history of man. In general,
even with the ups and downs of 'life', our current civilization has outdone all in the past. Those,
who live these current times, are experiencing the fortunes of the American empire. We are better
off than those in history. Those in the future may envy our era as they read about the American
empire that succeeded the British empire and will eventually be succeeded by another empire.
Technology has grown exponentially with the 'liberty' to 'pursue' dreams and imagination. Now
we can correct vision with lasers and transplant hearts and other organs from a dead person to a
dying person. We even have devices that can track us when we move ten feet to the left by
measuring the speed of light from three satellites. These advancements were made possible by
the 'liberty' that we have to 'pursue' our dreams, and we have made tremendous strides.
South Korean surgeons seem, however, lacking the full 'liberty' to 'pursue' a robust
trauma system at this time that is anywhere near the quality or effectiveness of the system that
has been built in the United States. I am hopeful that as a Korean-American I can one day be able
to help develop an effective trauma system in South Korea.
As I was consulting with my son how to write a talk about 'life liberty and the pursuit of
happiness,' my son advised me to just say those words in a sentence, and I would then fulfill my
requirement. Okay, so here it goes. My summary statement is: 'Life' in South Korea will be
saved with the 'liberty' to 'pursue happiness' by developing an effective trauma system in South
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