Dr. Thomas Jui-Ting Yeh saved lives and inspired his children
“HE NEVER IDENTIFIED HIMSELF as a surgeon,” says Dr. Jennifer Yeh, an interventional cardiologist at Memorial Health University, about her father. “He never identified himself as a doctor. He’d say, ‘My name is Tom Yeh.’”
He wouldn’t go out of his way to tell you, but Dr. Thomas Jui-Ting Yeh is a renowned Savannah surgeon who, for more than 50 years, laid graceful hands upon thousands of hearts. By performing the first open-heart surgery in Savannah in 1967 at Memorial Health and pioneering in the field of heart care, it’s no surprise the Georgia Medical Society recognized Yeh in 2019 with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the welfare of the community. He was ahead of his time.
Yeh’s history as a Taiwanese citizen coming out of the disorder of World War II shaped his character. As a child, he would climb mango trees, read books, and coming from a family of traditional herbalist physicians, he became interested in how the human body works along the way.
“He loved physiology,” Jennifer recalls. “I think one of the best ways to see it in action is through surgery. You can touch and fix the organs and make the physiology function the way it’s supposed to. I think that’s what attracted him to it. It’s the science; and he is a perfectionist. Meticulous. Incredibly gifted with his hands.”
Yeh’s childhood and education was temporarily interrupted when Japan tightened its grip on Taiwan during the war, and he was conscripted to work at a Japanese prison camp. Food was lacking and the work was grueling, but Yeh was determined, with a strong will to survive.
He more than survived. After graduating first in his class from the National Taiwan University, Yeh traveled to the U.S. to practice medicine in 1952 as the first Taiwanese physician. He secured an internship at St. Benedict’s Hospital in Utah followed by a residency at Louisville General Hospital in Kentucky where he met his wife Doris, an operating room nurse. Together, they moved to Augusta, Georgia, where Yeh studied at the Medical College of Georgia under Dr. Robert Gordon Ellison Sr., a giant of cardiothoracic surgery who performed the first open-heart surgery in the Southeast.
“I don’t think he has any idea of the impact he’s had. This is one of the things I love most about my dad. He has a tremendous skillset, a brain bigger than anything I know of and yet, has more humility and more grace than I’ve ever known anyone to have. He truly touched their hearts.” — Dr. Jennifer Yeh
There, Yeh and his wife had two children. Their third was born after they relocated to Savannah in 1967. All three children also became physicians; Dr. Thomas Yeh Jr. is a pediatric heart surgeon at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, and Dr. Karen Yeh is a surgical oncologist at Piedmont Hospital in Augusta.
At Memorial Health, Yeh established the first open heart surgical program, recruiting Dr. Walker Beeson, an interventional cardiologist, who started the first cardiovascular consultants program in Savannah. During that time, heart cases required a massive pre-planning effort. Because the operational procedures were new and the technology primitive, Yeh frequently spent nights at the ICU to monitor recovering patients. Since then, heart care has advanced tremendously with the improvement of the heart and lung machine, available medical therapies and invasive monitors.
Jennifer reflects on the patients who would stop by the dinner table when she was a child. In the middle of Savannah’s now-closed Johnny Harris Restaurant, they’d open their shirts, proudly present their scars and express their gratitude to her father.
“I don’t think he has any idea of the impact he’s had,” she says. “This is one of the things I love most about my dad. He has a tremendous skillset, a brain bigger than anything I know of and yet, has more humility and more grace than I’ve ever known anyone to have. He truly touched their hearts.”
Despite working long hours in the hospital, Yeh’s relationship with his children remained strong. When Yeh wasn’t at the hospital, he made a point to spend quality time with his family.
“Dad would come in at 10 o’clock at night,” Jennifer recalls. “I’d be sitting there waiting with math and biology books open. He hadn’t even eaten, and he would sit down and help me. Sometimes he would fall asleep while helping, but I would jostle him back up.”
Yeh saved countless lives during his 41-year tenure at Memorial Health while remaining an ever-present force in his family’s life. In his retirement, he spends time with his three grandchildren and, unable to let his steady hands go to waste, paints watercolors of Lowcountry landscapes and architectural buildings.
“He has grace in his hands,” Jennifer says. “He has grace in his affects, he has grace in his smile. Even behind a mask, it can light up a room.”