Lifetime of service fules physician/F-16 pilot

June 1, 2005

Dr. Jim Chow kicked off his informal medical career at age 6.

Moving from Taiwan to Africa's Sahara Desert Basin with his Chinese parents - both physicians - Dr. Chow regularly assisted them in their missionary health work.

"I was their little helper," he says. "I dispensed medications, counted pills and threaded needles. When I was 10, someone fell off a camel - they can be 8 to10 feet tall - and my father told me to run and get my mother, a saw and our stainless steel bowl. Then I watched how he improvised. Living there had quite an impact on me."

"I wanted to fly jets one day. I wanted to play rock 'n' roll music," he says. "But I always remembered what my father told me: 'The practice of medicine is a privilege, and don't you ever forget it.' "

Well, the rock 'n' roll is still on the back burner. But as for medicine and flying - he has those down to a science.

Pursing dermatology because "I'm a very visual person and I like jobs that can be completed quickly," Dr. Chow has had success in both the research and clinical arenas. In 1987 he isolated a transforming growth factor alpha from a patient who had melanoma - a huge breakthrough at the time - and later became the first Mohs surgeon in Columbia, S.C. Along the way, he joined the Air Force Reserve - happily flying F-16s - and, now a colonel, is the highest-ranking medical officer in the state. And as a nod to his parents, Dr. Chow has managed to squeeze in many civilian and military humanitarian trips. And he's being recognized for his efforts: The South Carolina Medical Association recently awarded him the 2005 Physician Award for Community Service.

Harsh lifestyle Dr. Chow's father, a general surgeon, ran an open clinic, mostly in Libya, but would often leave to travel around the area for various missions.

"The lifestyle was rather harsh," Dr. Chow recalls about those days. "Only basic needs are met. I had 16 cavities by the time I was 15 years old. Still, at the time you thought it was wonderful because we had a certain amount of freedom. We were homeschooled."

By the time Dr. Chow was sent to South Carolina for high school after an older brother moved there, he had already learned Arabic and Italian, in addition to his native Mandarin. But learning English continued to plague him all the way through college and medical school at the University of South Carolina. "Even simple things like micro vs. macro sounded exactly the same to me," he says.

Dr. Chow took a year off during medical school to do flight training after joining the Air Force Reserve.

"It sounds corny, but there is a sense that as an immigrant you want to put on the uniform and be identified as a true citizen," he tells Dermatology Times.

And then there were those jets.

"The F-16 is like a rocket," he says. "You hit 40,000 feet in one minute. Then you're at the top of the world. You feel like a bird."

Making his mark Although dermatology captured his attention in medical school, after graduating he decided to pursue a year of flexible surgery at Vanderbilt University.

"In the back of my mind, I thought maybe I would be a surgeon like my father," he says.