Professional football players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid found themselves out of jobs after kneeling in protest. Now, so has Duke Medicine alumnus Eugene Gu.
Less than a year after Vanderbilt University Medical Center placed Gu—School of Medicine '15—on administrative leave, he no longer works there. He was placed on leave after a patient's mother complained about a photo on Twitter depicting Gu kneeling to protest white supremacy.
On Feb. 23, VUMC declined to renew his contract, which was set to expire July 1 after his third year of general surgical residency, Gu said. He was previously on probation until March.
In January, The Chronicle first reported that Gu was placed on paid administrative leave for nearly two weeks in November 2017, which he said was a result of the complaint from a patient's mother. He was taken off administrative leave Nov. 22, 2017.
VUMC cited “performance issues” in opting not to renew his contract—as it did when he was placed on leave.
After an appeal, a May 17 letter to Gu from VUMC General Counsel Michael Regier—delivered at the request of Jeffrey Balser, president and CEO of VUMC—cited a "lack of sufficient improvement in performance and conduct in key areas” after the probation. The letter, which was obtained by The Chronicle, indicated that the most "significant areas of concern" were "patient care, communication, and medical knowledge."
John Howser, chief communications officer at VUMC, declined to comment on Gu’s contract not being renewed, citing a policy against discussing “specific performance issues of our employees.”
Gu gained prominence after being subpoenaed by Congress for fetal tissue research and winning a lawsuit May 23 against President Donald Trump that ruled Trump violated the First Amendment by blocking Gu and six co-plaintiffs on Twitter.
Gu said he faced a hostile work environment after VUMC pinned a tweet with its response to The Chronicle’s investigation—which eventually caused him to take a now-permanent leave of absence March 12.
‘Intolerable’: Gu felt targeted at work
Ever since his leave received news coverage and VUMC publicly responded, Gu said his work environment became “intolerable.”
After VUMC’s tweeted statement said that actions against Gu will always be based on “performance,” he said that his peers would look with a prying eye—in order to advance their own interests.
“If there’s an agenda against me clearly outlined in Vanderbilt’s social media posts, they knew the best way to advance their own selves was to denigrate me,” Gu said.
Gu cited one specific example when he was serving on consult call, meaning he would respond to any surgical needs throughout the night. There was a patient for whom he was supposed to identify the course of treatment—which he did, correctly, as he did with the imaging and other relevant details. His colleagues, nevertheless, “nit-picked” Gu about “every little detail on the case”—claiming he didn’t “dot all of his i’s and t’s” by not providing the patient’s height and weight—which Gu said were irrelevant.
“I was punished for not presenting info that wasn’t even relevant to the case, just because they wanted to find something that could be construed as a mistake, to the point to where it was outlandish,” Gu said. “It wasn’t about most effectively treating the patient—it was about trying to read their mind.”
These sorts of “minor” infractions—or “perceived infractions”—persisted and added up for Gu, but at a certain point, he said he couldn’t continue to work at VUMC.
“It almost became impossible for me to do my job,” Gu said.
Howser declined to comment on any specific instances Gu noted, citing the same policy.
“I would ask that you please consider these as allegations and nothing more,” Howser wrote.
Gu said Kyla Terhune, the residency program director for general surgery, was two-faced in her interactions with him. A text message obtained by The Chronicle showed that Terhune wrote “Nice presentations” to Gu after he spoke at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center Tumor Board. He said she complimented him for his performance after going through two surgeries for him.
But when it came time for performance review, Terhune said his performance was “terrible” in those same instances, Gu noted.
"Even if I do a good job and they admit it, then they later have to change their mind about it retroactively to pursue a certain agenda against me,” Gu said.
Terhune declined to comment on any specifics.
“I hope you understand that I would never elaborate on a resident's performance in this setting as that would simply not be appropriate or fair to any resident, Dr. Gu included,” Terhune wrote in an email. “I will say that I care very much for each one of the residents and want them to achieve their full potential professionally and personally--that also includes Dr. Gu.”
Kneeling got the ball rolling, Gu says
Gu alleged that this sort of treatment has occurred ever since a patient’s mother complained about his tweet kneeling in protest of white supremacy.
The mother wrote two public Facebook posts identifying herself as the patient's mother that kicked Gu out of the room to prevent him from caring for her son because of Gu's actions.
VUMC administration officials discussed investigating all the mother’s complaints regarding his social media posts Nov. 8, according to emails obtained by The Chronicle with the name of the patient and mother redacted to protect patient privacy. The same day, Seth Karp, professor and chairman of the department of surgery, asked that someone document the mother's complaints about Gu and get them to him by the end of the next day, which was Nov. 9.
One day later, Gu was placed on leave.
In a letter dated Nov. 10 to Gu from Terhune, VUMC wrote 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 story broke, VUMC declined to comment more than a dozen times, saying that it does not comment on personnel matters. After it was published, Howser wrote in a statement that Gu did not need to change his political views.
“Dr. Gu has never been told that he must change his political views or the substantive content of his personal participation on social media platforms,” the statement read. “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.”
In the kneeling photo, one cannot make out that his badge says Vanderbilt Medical Center on it, even when zoomed in on. Gu's Twitter bio had no reference to Vanderbilt, though he had tweeted about Vanderbilt seven times prior. Twice, he tweeted that his views communicated on Twitter do not represent VUMC.
VUMC released the statement on Twitter in January and subsequently received heavy backlash from users. The tweet had received nearly 600 replies—compared to just 33 retweets and 44 likes—as of June 1. After major news outlets reported on the story, VUMC denied that Gu’s administrative leave had anything to do with his tweets.
“The assertion that Dr. Gu was disciplined because of his expression of political or social views on social media is untrue,” a second 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."
‘Very uphill battle’: Finding a program to finish his residency
Without the support of VUMC, Gu says he is unlikely to receive another residency post. VUMC is unlikely to speak positively about him to other residency programs—whose directors are nearly all close to each other—that might be interested in hiring him, leaving him essentially blacklisted with two years of residency left to complete, Gu added.
“It’s just not done. Just how all the NFL owners are all buddy-buddy with each other, it’s the same with general surgery programs directors,” Gu said. “If one program director is saying bad things about you to the whole room of other program directors, there’s no way you can have an opportunity to go [to] another program because they all know each other.”
In spite of the adversity, Gu remains optimistic he will get a position.
“It’s a very uphill battle that I fight, but I’m not giving up,” Gu said. “I think the truth will always prevail, and the more I speak out about the situation and the injustice of it, it might finally make, against the odds, one other program director decide to give me a chance.”
However, Gu thinks his best chance at continuing his residency would be to go somewhere he believes he is really needed, such as Puerto Rico, which is still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Maria.
“It would be really nice because we don’t have very many chances in life to try and make a huge difference with our jobs,” Gu said. “They really need more medical personnel there. I’m sure they can go beyond any blacklist and say that people are suffering. Here’s a doctor that wants to help. Why should they stop that?”
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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.