The independent news organization of Duke University

After criticism, VUMC issues new statement denying doctor was placed on leave for kneeling against white supremacy

Amid public backlash for its decision to put a prominent Duke Medicine alum on leave after a complaint that he kneeled to protest white supremacy, Vanderbilt University Medical Center has changed its tone.

On Jan. 9, The Chronicle broke that VUMC resident Eugene Gu, who has found fame for taking a stand on social issues, was placed on administrative leave Nov. 9 for nearly two weeks after a patient’s mother complained that he kneeled on Twitter to protest white supremacy. He remains on probation until March.

In its initial statement, VUMC did not deny that Gu was put on leave due to his social media statements. But on Monday, VUMC denied that he was placed on leave due to his kneeling after a wave of social media criticism and reports from major news outlets covering The Chronicle’s story. 

“The assertion that Dr. Gu was disciplined because of his expression of political or social views in social media is untrue,” the new statement read. “All of VUMC’s actions relating to Dr. Gu’s progress as a surgery resident have been and will continue to be based on his performance and his adherence to VUMC policies.”

In emails obtained by the Chronicle with the patient’s name redacted to protect privacy, Seth Karp, chairman of the department of surgery, requested on Nov. 8 that someone document the mother’s complaints about Gu and get them to him by Nov. 9. 

That day, Gu was placed on administrative leave. 

In a Nov. 10 letter to Gu from Kyla Terhune, general surgery residency program director, VUMC said that it was investigating “concerns about safety of other employees, complaints that VUMC has received from patients and external sources and other related concerns.”

Before The Chronicle broke the story, VUMC did not return more than a dozen requests from The Chronicle over email and the phone for confirmation that Karp is involved in personnel decisions.

VUMC never denied in its statement that Gu was placed on leave, but noted that he is not currently on leave. 

“Dr. Gu is not presently on a leave of any kind, and has never been told that he must change his political views or the substantive content of his personal participation on social media platforms.  He has been advised of the need to adhere to VUMC’s social media policy, which requires that persons who are identified as representatives of VUMC clearly state that their views are their own. He has also been advised that resident physicians should be professional and respectful in their interactions and communications with and about one another,” the statement noted.

As it did in its previous statement, VUMC said it was committed to diversity. 

“VUMC is an Equal Opportunity Employer that values its commitment to diversity and inclusion,” the statement noted. “We welcome those who are interested in ongoing career development in a caring, professional and culturally sensitive atmosphere. Discrimination and harassment, in any form, are not tolerated in our workplace, nor is retaliation for raising such concerns.”

Gu disputes VUMC’s commitment to upholding a safe and inclusive work environment. 

"Vanderbilt talks the big talk about diversity and inclusion but when it comes to actual instances of racial discrimination and bullying they keep everything internal with internal investigations and lawyers that only tell you that they did nothing wrong," Gu said. 

As was reported in The Chronicle's initial story, Gu also tweeted that he has been bullied by colleagues at Vanderbilt. In a series of tweets Nov. 7, he said his chief resident physically assaulted him, elbowing him and knocking him away from his station while assisting a patient. He explained that he was inputting patient data into a computer and discussing the case with another resident when the senior resident knocked him away and did the work for him. 

In a letter to Gu dated Dec. 18, VUMC legal counsel said that Gu made "factually inaccurate and misleading statements regarding his colleagues." Although no specifics were put in the letter, Gu contends that VUMC took issue with his labeling of the assaulter as a "chief resident." He says though the employee wasn't technically a chief resident, he was the most senior member on the staff he reported to, so residents colloquially referred to them as a "chief resident." 

Gu says VUMC never denied that he was physically assaulted and that VUMC received a confession from the alleged assaulter. The Dec. 18 letter stated that VUMC is still "investigating the claims of retaliation raised by Dr. Gu" and "respectfully decline[s] to rescind Dr. Gu's probationary status."

VUMC had pinned its previous statement at the top of its Twitter and received nearly 600 replies as of Monday, with the overwhelming majority of them supporting Gu. It did the same with its new statement, and has received more than 300 replies, again mostly in support of Gu.

“I'm beyond horrified and shocked that an academic medical center can repeatedly put up statements and even pinned tweets about one of their surgical residents. Their first tweet even tagged my personal Twitter account as if intending to send their own nearly 40 thousand followers to flood my notifications with harassing messages,” Gu said. “The power dynamic here is just incredible. I am a surgical resident and they are this gigantic institution. The fact that they feel the need to target me on social media just goes to show the lengths they are willing to travel to punish me. I am truly fearful of what they can do to residents who don't have a voice on social media. Their actions can be very devastating.”