Ask Diane Han, a member of the UNLV School of Medicine charter class, how long she’s been interested in medicine and she remembers how, as a little girl, she awakened her parents by using a real hammer on their knees to test their patellar reflex.
It turns out that an episode of Dexter’s Laboratory, an animated TV series about a boy genius with a lab in his bedroom, had delved into how a sharp tap there results in a sudden kick.
“I was curious after seeing the cartoon,” said Han, laughing as she recalls that her hammer tapping certainly surprised her sleeping parents.
The first time Han says she genuinely considered a career in medicine was in the face of tragedy. “I was finishing up middle school. My aunt was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer and she passed away tragically in just one month," she said. "This is when I realized I wanted to be a physician because of how much it affected our family. I never wanted others to feel so hopeless without any treatment options.”
One of two children born to immigrant parents from South Korea, this first-generation Korean-American says her motivation for doing well early in school — she became valedictorian of Silverado High School — came from seeing her parents work so hard as a dealer and housekeeper in the casino industry.
“As a child, I would not see my parents for more than an hour or two a day because they would be working two jobs to pay the bills. My parents always told me that the best way to help out around the house was to excel in things that I had control over, so I channeled all my energy on my academics. When I realized how much joy it brought my parents to excel in my academic career, it became an addicting positive reinforcement.”
Young adulthood, she says, meant more than pleasing her parents. It’s also about fulfilling personal goals. One goal, to work for a Silicon Valley biotechnology startup, seemed close to reality when she was accepted at the nearby University of California Berkeley for undergraduate work. She learned, however, fulfilling that goal wouldn’t come easy.
“I struggled to keep up with my peers as a pre-med major at UC Berkeley. I put in more hours than my classmates just to keep up and stayed up long nights to understand concepts that my peers seemed to understand in half the time. But my dedication and discipline gave me the realization I truly wanted a future in medicine because of my unwavering effort to continue even when I was presented with frustrating challenges throughout my undergraduate career.”
On her way to becoming a physician, Han’s Silicon Valley dream did come true. Her work as a biochemist would soon morph into a return to Las Vegas, where the taekwondo black belt worked as a scribe at hospitals prior to beginning medical school.
“I knew I wanted to come back to serve the community that I grew up in. I understand all the things that our health care lacked through being my parents’ caretaker. I knew I would be proud to help the initial efforts to build a better health care system.”
At the end of her second year of medical school — Han received a full-tuition scholarship from the Engelstad Foundation — she decided she’d be best suited to emergency medicine.
“My father began losing weight, and I noticed blood coming from his gums," she said. "Our family physician had a three-month wait for an appointment so I took him to the emergency room where he was diagnosed with leukemia and admitted to the oncology unit the same day. I remember feeling overwhelmed but was put to ease immediately by the compassionate care of his emergency department physician. He calmly answered all of our questions and assured us that although my father was very sick, they would take good care of him. In retrospect, that experience ignited my passion for emergency medicine. Without the emergency department, we would not have made the diagnosis in such a timely manner.”
A long-distance runner who has participated in half marathons throughout medical school, Han is clear about the kind of emergency physician she plans to be.
“Like the ER physician who diagnosed my father (he’s in remission), I strive to listen and connect with each of my patient’s stories and experiences in the brief time I have with them. The urgency of mortality does not discriminate based on one’s status or ability to pay, and I aim to represent comforting open arms for those in their most vulnerable moments.”