Although he was born in the Far East, Dan Riew grew up in the Midwest. He lived in Korea until he was 7, when his parents brought their family to the United States because they felt it would be a better place to get an education.
“When we first came, it was difficult because we couldn’t communicate with anybody,” he says. “Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to learn the language when you’re a kid, but when we got off the plane, none of us knew any English.”
Riew’s parents put a great value on education, actually moving the family thousands of miles in pursuit of educational opportunities. He believes American parents and educators place a greater emphasis on creating a well-rounded person, whereas the focus in Korea back then was on getting the best grades and making it into the best colleges.
Riew did well in that department. He got into Harvard University.
The lifestyle at Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., was much different than life in the town of Akron, Ohio, where Riew lived.
“There were lots of people from big cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, and I probably learned as much from other students as I did from my coursework,” he says.
At first, Riew wasn’t sure what he wanted to be. He thought about becoming a trial lawyer and took pre-law courses, but thought the grading was somewhat subjective.
Science, he reasoned, would offer a more objective approach, so he also took pre-med courses. Now as an associate professor of orthopaedic surgery, he says he’s learned that science and medicine aren’t necessarily clear-cut, either. But he’s never regretted his decision to pursue medicine.
And that may have something to do with his family. Although he didn’t decide to study medicine until he was in college, Riew had a positive image of what it meant to be a physician. His maternal grandfather had been a pediatrician and general practitioner in Korea.
“In the late 1950s and early ’60s, there were a lot of very poor people in Korea,” he recalls. “As a kid I can remember people bringing him gifts because they didn’t have money. He was a very kind man, and he taught me that medicine was a great profession.”
From heart to spine
Riew knew he wanted to work in academic medicine, but he didn’t go into orthopaedic surgery right away. Although he liked orthopaedics during medical school at Case Western Reserve University, Riew also enjoyed an elective course that he took with a semi-retired cardiologist, and he spent his days looking at electrocardiograms and learning about the heart. The course convinced him to pursue the field.
After medical school, he did an internship in internal medicine and completed an internal medicine residency and cardiology research fellowship at Cornell Medical Center. He was planning to continue that research at Harvard when he realized he really didn’t want to be a cardiologist.
“I had this epiphany,” Riew recalls. “I suddenly knew I should have gone into orthopaedics and done what I loved first. At first I thought it was too late to change, but then I started thinking that I had another five years of research and training ahead in cardiology, which was about the same length of time as an orthopaedic surgery residency.”
In retrospect, he says his training in both specialties has made him a better doctor. One of his friends, Ken Yamaguchi, M.D., a shoulder and elbow specialist and associate professor of orthopaedic surgery at Washington University, agrees.
“Dan is perhaps the finest physician I have ever met,” says Yamaguchi, who was an orthopaedic surgery resident with Riew at George Washington University. “He has a unique combination of book smarts, inherent clinical judgment, surgical ability and compassion that allow him to excel in caring for patients.”
To complete his training, Riew did a fellowship in spine surgery with renowned spine specialist Henry Bohlman, M.D., at the University Hospitals of Cleveland.
About the same time, Richard H. Gelberman, M.D., the Fred C. Reynolds Professor and head of orthopaedic surgery at Washington University, was trying to recruit a spine surgeon. Because of the reputation of Bohlman-trained spine surgeons, Gelberman was hoping to convince one of those trainees to become part of the new Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University.
“Dan was described by his mentor as the most effective fellow he had ever trained,” Gelberman recalls. “He is an amazing technical surgeon, easily in the top 1 percent of surgeons I’ve ever been associated with.”
Riew is slightly more modest about his skills.
“If a person does the same operations over and over again, hundreds of times a year, he or she is likely to develop some level of proficiency,” he says. “I’ve tried to sub-specialize in as small an area of the body as I can. Rather than being pretty good at 50 different operations, I wanted to be very good at about 10. So I only work with patients who have cervical spine problems.”
A pain in the neck
There’s a reason the phrase “a pain in the neck” is so frequently used. Neck and back problems are among the most common reasons for doctor visits. As chief of cervical spine surgery at the University and Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Riew spends many of those visits talking his patients out of surgery.
“Surgery is the option of last resort,” he says. “I’ll tell people to try physical therapy or medication or cortisone shots. Only in about 5 percent of cases will I tell a person to have surgery on the first office visit. Those are the patients who are at risk for paralysis or already are partially paralyzed by a neck injury.”
Riew’s research involves finding ways to preserve motion in neck surgery patients. In recent years, that pursuit has involved investigating artificial disc replacement rather than fusion surgery. It’s been two years since he implanted an artificial disc into his first patient. That patient is doing very well, as are many who have received artificial discs in the United States and Europe.
Riew says he expects the cervical artificial discs to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration by 2007.
Born: July 28, 1958, in Seoul, South Korea
Education: A.B., General Studies, Harvard University; M.D., Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine
University positions: Associate professor of orthopaedic surgery and chief of cervical spine surgery
Family: Wife, Mary, and children, Bradley, Grant and Julia
Hobbies: Bike rides, enjoying music and traveling with his family
Riew met his wife, Mary, on a blind date. After a friend met her at an engagement party, he told Riew he’d just met the woman Riew was going to marry.
“He told me I had to call her, but I didn’t,” he says. “In fact, I lost the phone number, so my friend went back and begged to get her number again. When he came back to my apartment, he wouldn’t leave until I called to get a date with her.”
They’ve been married since 1992 and have three children: Bradley, 10; Grant, 8; and Julia, 6. When he’s not in the clinic or the operating room working with the more than 2,200 patients he sees each year, Riew cherishes the time he can spend with his wife and kids. As much as possible, weekends are preserved for family time, whether it’s taking walks, riding bikes, enjoying music or just relaxing.
Because Riew frequently travels for work, he tries to take his family along whenever possible for brief vacations. Whether it’s skiing, hiking or sightseeing, they make an effort to do things together. Often, they also get together with Riew’s extended family.
His parents and sisters also live in the Midwest. In fact, that was one of the reasons Riew wanted to work at the University.
“I wanted to settle in Akron or Cleveland or somewhere in the Midwest because I like this part of the country,” he says. “St. Louis actually is a little further west than I would have chosen, but it’s been wonderful. It’s a great place to raise a family.”