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Handed Gifts, Surgeon Peter Han Explores Empathy

Peter Han demonstrates a procedure to a patient and fellow doctors

Peter Han was in elementary school when he picked up Gifted Hands, the autobiography of neurosurgeon Ben Carson. He read it cover to cover and the idea of using his hands to help others has inspired his life choices since. A graduate of Pacific Union College in 2012, Han earned an MD from Loma Linda University, School of Medicine, and now after 11 years of post-collegiate education, he is a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon.  

This fall, Han is settling into his work as an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Head and Neck Surgery at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine. His professional life also involves serving the largely working-class population of the north San Fernando Valley at Los Angeles County’s Olive View-UCLA Medical Center.


When Han graduated from PUC, he not only had a BA in biology—he also had earned a BS in film and TV production. His passion for the visual medium was born in church, inspired by his computer engineer father and nurtured by classes in film and photography in college. “Early on,” he said, “I decided maybe I could try to do both.”

During his freshman year, he won first place—plus $3,000 and a trip to Washington, DC—in a National Geographic contest. In 2013, Dario, his senior thesis film about a utopian orphan community, won the Audience Choice award at the North American Division’s Sonscreen Film Festival. 


Raised by Seventh-day Adventist parents in San Diego, California, Han didn’t attend denominational schools until college. His mother, a pharmacist, opened doors for him to attend PUC, an experience Han described as “the most freeing thing [he] had ever done” because he no longer had to worry about events, such as academic club meetings, conflicting with the Sabbath.  

Han credits his parents with the priority of his faith. His father, James Han, whom he described as the most genuine and kind man he has ever known, was a reflection of Jesus to his family and everyone he came in contact with. 

During his father’s recent three-year battle with Leukemia, Han felt what it was like to be on the opposite side of a patient-doctor dynamic. “It's just so hard being on the other end of it and feeling like you don't matter, you know?” The learned empathy he had encountered in his medical training took on new meaning as he experienced what it was like to be in the hospital as a family member. “It was the first time in my life where I really felt like something had gone wrong,” Han recalled, “because up to that point, life was very easy and very good.” 

Beginning in 2007, James Han helped develop and direct the Adventist Prayer Coalition, a movement of monthly conference calls that has led to large conventions in the United States, Japan, and South Korea. During his illness, he continued to organize monthly prayer meetings while lying in a hospital bed. Reflecting on his father’s legacy, Han said, “He carried a quiet strength, and his biggest concern was not his condition but that my sister and I knew Jesus. He used his disease as a way to point others to God and his example has significantly guided my Christian walk.”


Han’s father died a few months ago. “It was very easy to see Adventism and Christianity as not so much a rigid structure, but something that could be lived.” Han stated, “I’ve never met anyone as sincere and authentic as my father. Just having him made it easy to be in the church.” 

Through his successes in science and visual art, Han continues to keep his faith central, considering it “inseparable” from the other elements in his life. After relocating to Los Angeles, he struggled to find a church family with a younger demographic and was saddened by the rate at which young people are trickling out of the church. Han said he has since found a home church and feels blessed to have that source of fellowship.


Now that he is moving into a new professional phase of his life, Han is increasingly interested in exploring visual storytelling to highlight health disparities and public health initiatives. As a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon, Han encounters some patients who experience stigmatization and humiliation due to the visibility of their condition. “These cancers are very disfiguring, and so people aren’t able to incorporate back into their normal lives,” Han said. “You hardly see these patients in public because they just feel so ashamed of it. No one really talks about it.”

"So much of head and neck surgery and facial plastic surgery deals with our ability to be human: our faces and our ability to communicate with the outside world,” Han continued. “It was very compelling for me as a medical student to see patients with large jaw cancers be able to be treated and chew again, patients with broken noses and faces be able to look and breathe normally again, and patients with deafness and infected ears be able to hear again.” 

Han explained that many patients, already worried about their cancer diagnosis, have additional layers of difficulty due to the visibility of their symptoms. They face psychosocial challenges as their ability to breathe, speak, and swallow is affected.

“Even after head and neck cancer surgery and reconstruction,” Han said, “many patients face an uphill battle trying to mitigate the effects of their cancer treatments, effects such as difficulty with speech articulation, swallowing, facial movement, which can cause survivors to further withdraw from their communities. It is a difficult disease and one that requires compassion from the treatment team, friends, and family.”

To combat stigma and lack of education, Han is using his background in film production in a new project—a documentary that will follow a patient with head and neck cancer through surgery and post-operative chemotherapy and radiation.

“It would really kind of highlight something that the public doesn't know so much about, something that I think really tells us about what characterizes humanity,” Han said. “The moment your face looks different, or the moment you can't speak, or swallow the normal way or breathe a normal way, the moment you don't look normal, how does that play into your ability to see yourself as a member of society, and how do other members view you? As a filmmaker, I think it's very compelling, the ability to tell that story.”

The correlations between the creativity it takes to produce a film and the skills required to be a plastic surgeon include organization and planning. “I think there’s a lot of applications in art to surgery,” Han said, noting where creativity is helpful and necessary.

“My life has radically changed over the last few years,” Han said. “Even in medicine, we're taught to be empathetic, and things like that never really struck me. It took that lesson of my father to really see that. You don't know what other people are going through. And everyone has gone through some element of pain. Regardless of how small or big, we should do what we can to help alleviate that.”


Alana Crosby is a freelance writer. She will be graduating in December 2023 with an English degree and a minor in journalism from Southern Adventist University.

Title image courtesy of Peter Han. 

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