Duke medicine alumnus Eugene Gu has been no stranger to controversy.
He is suing President Donald Trump for blocking him on Twitter. He has been subpoenaed by Congress for his research on fetal tissues. Medicine and activism have been intertwined for him—intended or not.
The now-Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) resident was placed on paid administrative leave for nearly two weeks on Nov. 9. He says it might have to do with a patient’s mother complaining that he took a knee on Twitter to protest white supremacy.
She wrote two public Facebook posts identifying herself as the patient’s mother that kicked Gu out of the room and prevented him from caring for her son because of Gu’s actions. She did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Chronicle.
The third-year resident who has found fame—he has more than 100,000 followers on Twitter—for taking a stand on social issues said that he was removed from the patient’s room after his mother complained.
Gu was let off administrative leave Nov. 22 but is still on probation until March 2018, he says.
According to emails obtained by The Chronicle with the name of the patient and their mother redacted to protect patient privacy, VUMC administration officials discussed investigating all the mother’s complaints regarding his social media posts on Nov. 8. That day, Seth Karp, chairman of the department of surgery, requested that someone document the mother's complaints about Gu and get them to him by the end of the next day, Nov. 9.
One day later, Gu was placed on administrative leave.
VUMC did not return more than a dozen requests from the Chronicle for confirmation that Karp is involved in personnel decisions over more than a week, over email and the phone.
In regards to why Gu was placed on leave, VUMC had declined to comment to The Chronicle, per their custom not to comment on personnel matters. In a statement dated Nov. 10 addressed 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.”
VUMC also said, in the Nov. 10 statement, that it was continuing an investigation regarding “concerns that [Gu had] raised regarding situations in the workplace and [Gu’s] personal safety.” As a condition of his leave, Gu was not to be on VUMC property at any time or conduct any business on behalf of VUMC, other than access his email.
The patient’s mother had been cyberbullying him, he said, mentioning online that she was “proud that she kicked [his] ass out of the room.”
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“Who would say that fighting against racism would be unprofessional? It’s literally a part of a doctor’s profession to stand up for patients who are most vulnerable,” Gu said. “I find myself in this bizzaro world. I feel like I’m upside down. I’m trying to be a force of social good, and Vanderbilt punishes me for it.”
Gu’s experience at Vanderbilt ‘degrading’
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 got 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."
“To put it simply, he was treated really preferentially,” said Asad Arshad, a preliminary resident at Vanderbilt who worked alongside Gu. “He was not treated well, as were a few other residents. It was daunting in Vanderbilt, and pediatric surgery to be exact. The nurses were not great and would not listen to our orders or carry them out. The general atmosphere was not supportive at all.”
Arshad said he had an option to stay at VUMC for residency but opted not to because of the unsupportive atmosphere, going to Einstein Medical Center before working as a medical officer in Pakistan.
"Apparently it's acceptable to physically assault me and unacceptable to complain about it," Gu said. “The humiliation of the assault was very degrading. I was trying to do my best and take care of a sick patient, and then to just be treated that way, it’s completely unacceptable."
He also said nurses would put old milk cartons from the trash on his desk.
Gu says VUMC accused him of violating their guidelines against “credo behaviour.”
On VUMC’s website, the "Credo Behaviors" read: "I make those I serve my highest priority, I respect privacy and confidentiality, I communicate effectively, I conduct myself professionally, I have a sense of ownership, I am committed to my colleagues."
“Every opinion I have expressed, whether on Twitter, TV, or traditional print media, are neither controversial nor should be seen as damaging to Vanderbilt's reputation,” Gu wrote in an email to the Chronicle. “I have been outspoken about defending women's rights, fighting white supremacy, supporting free speech and democracy, decrying workplace harassment and bullying, and supporting medical research. These are values that every major academic center would normally cherish.”
“I find it especially disconcerting that Vanderbilt may view my stance fighting against white supremacy and workplace bullying as being against their guidelines,” Gu continued. “Speaking out about important issues such as this should be in line with Vanderbilt's mission, and this misalignment has me gravely concerned about Vanderbilt's priorities.”
Gu says he has received death threats for posting the picture of himself kneeling.
Gu has been very outspoken on various media outlets about racism and bullying in the workplace, while also being a vocal critic of President Trump and Republicans.
And he hasn’t just been all tweet, no action.
The Knight First Amendment Institute filed a complaint on behalf of him and six other Twitter users blocked by President Trump in the Southern District of New York July 11. The group alleged that preventing citizens from accessing his account, a “public forum,” was in violation of the First Amendment.
As of now, the suit is still being litigated and will be heard in a U.S. District Court in New York March 8, according to a from Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute. Gu wrote an editorial in Fortune Magazine about the lawsuit.
Gu said the tweet that got him blocked by the 45th President of the United States poked fun at his infamous “covfefe” typo:
“Trump often announces changes in national policy exclusively from his personal Twitter account,” Gu said. “It has become a de facto town hall in the modern era of social media. Not being able to participate in the conversations underneath his tweets is like being silenced from the public sphere.”
Gu subpoenaed by Congress for fetal tissue research
Gu’s research certainly has also not been without controversy.
As a third-year student at Duke Medical School in 2012, Gu earned a Howard Hughes Medical Institute fellowship, allowing him to perform fully-funded research at Stanford Medical School. There, he worked with stem cells.
When contemplating what stem cell research project to pursue, he remembered a World War II veteran he had as a patient at Duke. He says the veteran told many stories about fighting in Europe at the Battle of the Bulge, the “costliest action ever fought by the U.S. Army.”
But after he died suddenly due to congestive heart failure, a “heartbroken” Gu decided to study cardiac stem cells. These are normally derived from fetal tissue, he said. He successfully petitioned for two additional years of fellowship research and co-founded Ganogen Research Institute alongside Duke medical student Nick Chang.
“The faculty at Duke have been especially supportive of my passion with fetal tissue research and with the successful kidney and heart transplants,” Gu said. “I feel like the love of pioneering research and the culture of discovery is so much more welcomed at Duke because of the fact that our curriculum incorporates a third year devoted to research.”
At Ganogen, he performed the first successful fetal kidney and fetal heart transplants in immunocompromised rats—a project funded by family, friends and small angel investors, he said. The ultimate goal was to help babies with congenital heart and kidney diseases. It would give them a chance to get an organ transplant when there are no available organs for a baby of that size, he said.
As did Duke and Stanford, Gu obtained the tissue from third-party StemExpress, not directly from patients.
But in March of 2016, Gu was subpoenaed by Congress for his work.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) put the subpoena into motion after manipulated videos tried to "make it as though Planned Parenthood employees were selling fetal tissue in violation of federal law.”
Congress it subpoenaed him and other researchers at this time to "get the facts about medical practices of abortion service providers and the business practices of the procurement organizations who sell baby body parts."
Gu called it a "witch-hunt" along with StemExpress CEO Cate Dyer in a joint op-ed in Nature.
The Association of American Medical Colleges issued a statement supporting the sort of research Gu was doing, signed by dozens of top medical schools, including Duke and Stanford.
"We consider this to be a callous disregard of the threat posed by activists to medical researchers who are in fact engaged in saving young lives," Gu wrote.
"It's like climate change where all the scientists agree but the vocal right wing dominates the narrative," Gu told the Chronicle.
In Nov. 2016, the Huffington Post published a piece regarding his subpoena which detailed alleged abuse from colleagues.
A current chief resident told him after the article was published that he had "scorched his own backyard" and make things "so much harder for himself," he said.
Since then, Gu said he has tried to transfer to any program that would take him so he could get away from the environment at VUMC. But even though he attended Stanford and Duke medical school and co-founded Ganogen, he hasn't been able to be accepted anywhere because when schools call his fellow residents, their reviews aren't too rosy.
"Just like how Colin Kaepernick was blacklisted from NFL, these residency programs are very tight knit," Gu said. "I’m like damaged goods now. It’s almost impossible for me to transfer anywhere. I wasn’t even asking to transfer to a prestigious institution."
In a letter dated Sept. 14, 2016, Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) voiced her support for Gu to transfer to a "more supportive residency environment." She wrote that Gu had "been pulled into the on-going Congressional political theatre orchestrated by Republicans against Planned Parenthood and fetal tissue research."
"As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished--it is also this research that has made Eugene a target of discrimination at Vanderbilt due to a witch-hunt in Congress," Speier wrote.
In light of the current political climate, Gu said his research has been put on hold, but hopes to continue the work down the road.
"It's been my dream to become a surgeon and help babies with congenital disease, and that goal goes beyond myself. I'm trying to do this to make a difference," he said. "And even if that takes me going into the office everyone giving me the stink eye and sh*tting on my evaluations to the point where Jackie Speier needs to step in and continuing to paint me as this bad person and resident that needs to be eliminated, not even taking into account all the other stressors that I have to deal with on a national level because it involves Congress, [it's worth it]."
"I don’t know how many residents would be able to withstand that and continue on with their day. The thing that keeps me going is that I really believe that the research I want to do and the type of surgeries I want to perform goes beyond me as an individual," Gu continued. "This is my burden I have to shoulder in order to make a difference. It’s worth it, but it’s really hard."
Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor
A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks.