February 16, 2023
When his grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, Yonghun Kim was not prepared. He turned his despair into a new path — to study medicine at Mayo Clinic.
Yonghun Kim grew up in North Carolina, half a world away from his grandfather in South Korea. They didn't see each other often but built a special relationship through cheering on a hometown baseball team and taking peaceful walks on local trails together on Yonghun's rare visits to South Korea.
When his grandfather was diagnosed with terminal gallbladder cancer, Yonghun felt helpless. Even as a hospice volunteer, he was not prepared to have a close family member go through a serious illness and pass away. "I felt frozen," he says. "There was really nothing I could do."
Yonghun overcame his despair — and began following a new path. He had always had an interest in medicine, even taking pre-med courses while pursuing a degree in computer science at Stanford University. The death of his grandfather confirmed that he wanted to become a physician.
Inspired by passion, propelled by scholarship
Yonghun is now a student at Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine. A first-generation immigrant from a low-income household, Yonghun acknowledges that scholarships made it possible for him to pursue this direction in his career. "I feel truly fortunate to be progressing through my education without the weight of debt influencing my career decisions," he says.
With his scholarship giving him the freedom to follow his passions, he has focused on providing health care to people sleeping in parks and living in their vehicles. Yonghun says that as a child of immigrants, he relates to many of the struggles of people facing homelessness. As a child, he often interpreted at his parents' medical appointments, rarely received dental care because of the cost, and witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of addiction and the stigma surrounding mental illness in his community.
Today, Yonghun volunteers at The Landing day center, a nonprofit helping those facing homelessness in Rochester. He works alongside Casey Caldwell, M.D., a retired Mayo Clinic physician, to bandage wounds, listen to patients' concerns about symptoms, and deliver other basic care.
"Those facing homelessness deserve the same kind of care and concern that any other patient would receive," Yonghun says. "Their value should not be tied to if they can afford a home."
Reaching the unseen and underserved
Yonghun feels compelled to not just care for unseen populations but also to be a voice for them in the broader medical community. As a student, Yonghun is achieving this by helping create opportunities for his classmates to care for those who are often underserved in the community and health care.
When Jim Withers, M.D., the founder of the Street Medicine Institute, spoke at Mayo Clinic, he inspired Yonghun's classmate Jeffrey Woods to start a similar program in Rochester.
Knowing about Yonghun's connection to The Landing day center, Woods reached out to him, and Yonghun eagerly agreed to get involved.
First, they created a selective course focused on street medicine that attracted 28 medical students in its first year. They learned from community experts and participated in outreach efforts, such as creating warming kits and connecting with individuals to learn more about their needs.
"We went under bridges and into the woods," says Yonghun. "I think it's important for us to experience the unconventional environments where people who don't have reliable shelter live."
The students are hoping to return to those unconventional spaces soon. They are creating a volunteer opportunity for students to provide basic medical care to people experiencing homelessness and to help connect them to resources for more complex care.
A catalyst for innovation
Serving people is one of Yonghun's passions. Technology is another. When he arrived at Mayo Clinic amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Yonghun felt isolated and was searching for a way to connect with others.
A "hackathon" was his answer. In these events, teams fueled by caffeine and a love of technology spend 48 hours designing novel solutions for a problem. Yonghun had participated in hackathons while earning his computer science degree in Silicon Valley.
Often, the three to five members of each team have never met prior to the event. "I thought a hackathon would be a way to bring people from lots of different departments and backgrounds together," Yonghun says. "Plus, they're a lot of fun."
Yonghun recruited a classmate and solicited support from Mark Wehde, chair of the Division of Engineering, and Timothy Nelson, M.D., Ph.D., a physician, researcher and the regional director of Research and Innovation, to help launch the first hackathon.
It was a success, garnering the attention of Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine leaders. They now provide funding and support for this regular event, which continues to spur medical innovation. For example, one hackathon group created a mobile app that uses artificial intelligence to guide patients through surgical recovery. The team is now attracting funding to refine the app and prepare it for launch.
Fueling the next generation of change-makers
By making it possible for committed, values-driven students like Yonghun to attend medical school, scholarships help drive big changes in health care for decades to come. What Yonghun is doing today for underserved communities is just a start.
"I have this wish to create change on a large scale," Yonghun says. "I don't want to sit idle. I want to be an active part in driving changes that solve problems and make health care better for everyone, especially those who are often unheard and unseen."
This story originally appeared in Mayo Clinic Magazine.