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 Korea.

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