photo © Larry Kuzniewski used with permission.

"There is something inherently different in how men and women see the world," Dr. Ling said. "That's why as a gynecologist, handling depression is a lot of what I do."

Winter 1998

Primary Care
Rated one of the country's top doctors for women, Dr. Frank Lng '70 fosters a better notion of a healthy mind and healthy body.

by Hugh Vandivier '91

In this era of cost management in health care, doctors are exploring a better partnership between patient and healthcare provider. At the forefront of this movement is Dr. Frank Wen-Yung Ling '70, Chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Tennessee, Memphis, College of Medicine. He also currently holds a Chair of Excellence as the UT Medical Group Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

"As a psych major at Wabash," Dr. Ling explains, "I was more into the behavioral side of medicine than a purely biological side. As a result, when I was going through my residency, I began to think of how healthcare providers were taking care of women.

"A while ago, the saying in gynecology was 'When in doubt, cut it out.' But that didn't make a whole lot of sense when I saw patients who were no better than before [surgery]."

Dr. Ling recognized that addressing the mental state of the patient had as much to do with bringing her toward a state of well-being as with treating the physical ailment.

"We have to address patients in the context of their own lives," Dr. Ling said. "The old way of doing things was a cookie cutter approach where we treated each patient the same. We're trying a new approach of 'Let me get to know you first and let my expertise wrap around your problem.'"

This newer thinking culminated in Dr. Ling's founding of the Pelvic Pain Clinic in Memphis in 1979. The clinic uses a team approach, employing not just gynecologists, but psychologists, nutritionists, and physical therapists.

"People had talked about doing something like the clinic, but nobody had done anything like that before," Dr. Ling said. Now his clinic is emulated nationwide in its approach to helping women manage pain.

"We're able to cure people when we teach them to manage pain," Dr. Ling said. "Patients learned they could control pain rather than allow pain to control them."

One of the primary aspects of Dr. Ling's practice has become an emphasis on the role of depression in women, which occurs twice as often as in men.

"There is something inherently different in how men and women see the world," Dr. Ling said. "That's why as a gynecologist, handling depression is a lot of what I do."

He acknowledges that differences in cultural roles and changes in societal roles have an impact. "I'm confident, though, there's also something biochemical."

Regardless of jokes made by men and women, "Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) has a very significant impact on women," states Dr. Ling. "We need to understand that it is much more than something psychological or pharmacological. It has as much to do with depression, anxiety, and mood disorders as it does with hormonal changes."

While he focuses on gynecology, Dr. Ling still likes to keep up with the OB side of his profession. In 23 years of practice, the doctor estimates the number of babies he's delivered is in the thousands. His efforts have not gone unnoticed. The 49-year-old doctor was featured in the August 1997 edition of Good Housekeeping magazine as one of the Best Doctors for Women in the United States. He was also recognized as one of the Best Doctors in America in 1996 and one of the Top 200 Physicians in Memphis, where he lives with his wife of 23 years, Janice; a 21-year-old daughter, Amanda; and his 18-year-old son, Trevor.

A tribute to his hard work, Dr. Ling's c.v. is 63 pages long, with its lists of abstracts and papers presented, instructional videos produced, and publications written reading like the bibliography of a doctoral thesis on obstetrics and gynecology.

"I stayed in education because of the joy of teaching that comes out of learning at a smaller college like Wabash," Dr. Ling said. He feels that the smaller liberal arts atmosphere of Wabash developed the strong one-on-one relationships and small group skills essential to the evolution of a strong doctor-patient relationship.

"At Wabash, you have a feeling of community and family that is important in developing relationships between people so that they can deal with pain in their lives," Dr. Ling said. "As a Wabash grad, you understand the importance of language and communication more than a graduate of a big university."

He tells a story to make his point: When he was in a clerkship at his present teaching capacity, Dr. Ling was in charge of administering tests.

"The standard way of administering tests was orally," recalls Dr. Ling. "I said, 'Let's just see how well these students do on written exams.'"

So he pulled out the blue books to see how the students could organize their thoughts and put them in writing in a specified period of time.

"I was appalled at the quality I saw," Dr. Ling remarked. "Bad spelling and grammar and lack of continuity of thought."

The story brings up another question others ask after they find out about the doctor's alma mater.

"I suppose you're wondering how a graduate of an all male school becomes a gynecologist?" Dr. Ling asks. The question had been hanging up there for the course of our interview. "To be very honest, I have no idea. In medicine, as with so many other things, you're just drawn to something."

"I have fun with it," the doctor confesses. "It's a nice icebreaker with my patients. I had a strong maternal role model. I guess that contributed as much as anything."

Dr. Ling's mother, Harriet Wen Ling, tried to enter the male-dominated medical schools in mainland China by cutting her hair but had to settle for being a nurse. She became a nurse in the United States after his parents moved to Evanston, Illinois in 1948 so that his father could go to graduate school. Dr. Ling was born shortly after.

"My mom is a good example of what an individual can do in spite of the odds as a system is set up or despite one's own disabilities," Dr. Ling observed.

The year Dr. Ling graduated from Wabash, his parents moved to San Francisco, so that his dad, a newspaper editor in China, could run a newspaper in Chinatown.

"My mom's dream was to open a rest home for older Chinese people," Dr. Ling said, "because she noticed that people in America didn't look after their elderly as well as in China." Mrs. Ling ended up buying a rest home, managing it, and living among the 25 to 30 residents, some younger than her.

"At 86, she's pretty spry," Dr. Ling laughed.

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