The Case of Dr. Eugene Gu and Vanderbilt University Medical Center

BY HANK REICHMAN

In the AAUP report “National Security, the Assault on Science, and Academic Freedom” issued last month readers will find the following:

Dr. Eugene Gu is a surgical resident at Vanderbilt University whose research seeks to transplant healthy fetal organs in utero to fetuses with fatal congenital diseases so they can survive to adulthood with fully functioning hearts and kidneys.  In April 2016 Gu received a congressional subpoena from the House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infants’ Lives, led by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).  Gu’s start-up research company, Ganogen, is one of more than thirty organizations under investigation by House Republicans over the alleged use of fetal tissue from abortion clinics.  A spokesperson for the House panel said the goal of the investigation was to “protect the integrity of research, scientific advancements, and voluntary organ donation in America.”  But Gu said the negative attention from Congress created a “harrowing” ordeal for him.  Fellow surgical residents at Vanderbilt became suspicious of him.  Outside of the university, antiabortion activists began to harass him on social media and send him angry notes.

“I felt under siege,” Gu said.  “I’m just trying to save people’s lives, and now I’m being thrown into this abortion fight as a proxy.  I have nothing to do with abortion, I don’t encourage abortion; I just use tissue that would otherwise be discarded.  And now I’m painted as this ‘baby killer’ just for doing research as a medical student.”  “All this controversy and opposition from the Republicans is stymieing my research in a pretty significant way,” he added, “which is kind of weird because the scientific community is supposed to be immune to political shenanigans and oppression.”  Gu has temporarily suspended his research because of a lack of funds and the toxic political environment.

Dr. Gu, a San Francisco native who was valedictorian of his high school class, graduated from Stanford University in 2008 with a degree in Biology, and earned his M.D. from Duke University School of Medicine in 2015, is under attack again — and this time his tormentor is not a politician, but the university hospital in which he works.

In September Dr. Gu posted this tweet to his personal Twitter account:

Dr. Gu is a prolific poster on Twitter, with over 100,000 followers.  He regularly takes stands on controversial social issues.  In July The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed a complaint in federal court in the Southern District of New York on behalf of Dr. Gu and six other Twitter users blocked by President Trump. The group alleges that preventing citizens from accessing the president’s account, a “public forum,” violates the First Amendment.  The suit will be heard March 8, according to Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight Institute.  Dr. Gu wrote a commentary in Fortune Magazine about the lawsuit.

Dr. Gu’s social media activism — in particular, the kneeling photo — apparently didn’t escape the attention of the mother of one of his patients, who on November 8 of last year complained to hospital authorities about his Twitter posts.  According to a January 9 report in the Duke Chronicle, “That day, Seth Karp, chairman of the department of surgery, requested that someone document the mother’s complaints about Gu and get them to him by the end of the next day, Nov. 9.  One day later, Gu was placed on administrative leave.”

In a communication addressed to Gu November 10 a hospital administrator said that Vanderbilt was investigating “concerns about safety of other employees, complaints that VUMC [Vanderbilt University Medical Center] has received from patients and external sources, and other related concerns.”  The message added that an investigation regarding “concerns that [Gu had] raised regarding situations in the workplace and [Gu’s] personal safety” would also continue.  The patient’s mother had been cyberbullying him, Gu alleged, mentioning online that she was “proud that she kicked [his] ass out of the room.”  As a condition of his leave, Gu was instructed not to be on VUMC property at any time or conduct any business on behalf of VUMC, other than access his email.  Dr. Gu was removed from administrative leave November 22 but remains on probation until March.

According to the Duke Chronicle,

Gu also tweeted that he has been bullied by colleagues at Vanderbilt.  In a series of tweets Nov. 7, he said his chief resident physically assaulted him, elbowing him and knocking him away from his station while assisting a patient.  He explained that he was inputting patient data into a computer and discussing the case with another resident when the senior resident knocked him away and did the work for him.

In a letter to Gu dated Dec. 18, VUMC legal counsel said that Gu made “factually inaccurate and misleading statements regarding his colleagues.”  Although no specifics were put in the letter, Gu contends that VUMC took issue with his labeling of the assaulter as a “chief resident.”  He says though the employee wasn’t technically a chief resident, he was the most senior member on the staff he reported to, so residents colloquially referred to them as a “chief resident.”

Gu says VUMC never denied that he was physically assaulted and that VUMC got a confession from the alleged assaulter.  The Dec. 18 letter stated that VUMC is still “investigating the claims of retaliation raised by Dr. Gu” and “respectfully decline[s] to rescind Dr. Gu’s probationary status.”

“Every opinion I have expressed, whether on Twitter, TV, or traditional print media, are neither controversial nor should be seen as damaging to Vanderbilt’s reputation,” Gu told the Duke Chronicle.  “I have been outspoken about defending women’s rights, fighting white supremacy, supporting free speech and democracy, decrying workplace harassment and bullying, and supporting medical research.  These are values that every major academic center would normally cherish.”

“I find it especially disconcerting that Vanderbilt may view my stance fighting against white supremacy and workplace bullying as being against their guidelines,” he continued.  “Speaking out about important issues such as this should be in line with Vanderbilt’s mission, and this misalignment has me gravely concerned about Vanderbilt’s priorities.”

In an initial statement responding to the Duke Chronicle story, Vanderbilt did not dispute that Dr. Gu was put on leave due to his social media statements.  But on January 15, after a wave of social media criticism and reports from major news outlets covering the story, the medical center denied that he was placed on leave due to his kneeling.  “The assertion that Dr. Gu was disciplined because of his expression of political or social views in social media is untrue,” the new statement read. “All of VUMC’s actions relating to Dr. Gu’s progress as a surgery resident have been and will continue to be based on his performance and his adherence to VUMC policies.”

The January 15 statement added:

Dr. Gu is not presently on a leave of any kind, and has never been told that he must change his political views or the substantive content of his personal participation on social media platforms.  He has been advised of the need to adhere to VUMC’s social media policy, which requires that persons who are identified as representatives of VUMC clearly state that their views are their own.  He has also been advised that resident physicians should be professional and respectful in their interactions and communications with and about one another.

Dr. Gu did mention Vanderbilt on his Twitter account before his leave became public seven times.  Of those seven, he twice emphasized that views expressed on his account do not represent VUMC.  He also tweeted twice about an alleged physical assault in Vanderbilt’s parking garage and once about the number of death threats that he receives in which he mentioned that Vanderbilt police had “opened an Intimidation Report.”  Finally, he tweeted two times about how he was physically assaulted by his chief resident and bullied by nurses on the trauma unit at Vanderbilt.

VUMC had pinned its previous statement at the top of its Twitter page and received nearly 600 replies as of Monday, with the overwhelming majority of them supporting Gu.  It did the same with its new statement, and received more than 300 replies, again mostly in support of Gu.

“I’m beyond horrified and shocked that an academic medical center can repeatedly put up statements and even pinned tweets about one of their surgical residents.  Their first tweet even tagged my personal Twitter account as if intending to send their own nearly 40 thousand followers to flood my notifications with harassing messages,” Gu responded.  “The power dynamic here is just incredible.  I am a surgical resident and they are this gigantic institution.  The fact that they feel the need to target me on social media just goes to show the lengths they are willing to travel to punish me.  I am truly fearful of what they can do to residents who don’t have a voice on social media.  Their actions can be very devastating.”

When Rep. Blackburn, now running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Bob Corker, subpoenaed Gu and other fetal tissue researchers, Dr. Gu, along with StemExpress CEO Cate Dyer, called it a “witch-hunt” in a joint op-ed in Nature. The Association of American Medical Colleges issued a statement supporting the sort of research Gu was doing, signed by dozens of top medical schools, including Duke and Stanford.  Dr. Gu was also quoted in the Huffington Post about his experiences in the wake of the subpoena.

A current chief resident told him after the articles were published that he had “scorched his own backyard” and made things “so much harder for himself,” Gu said.  Gu said he has tried to transfer to any residency program that would take him so he could get away from the environment at VUMC.  But even though he attended Stanford and Duke medical school and co-founded his own research company, he hasn’t been accepted anywhere.  Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) has come to Dr. Gu’s assistance, writing in support that he had “been pulled into the on-going Congressional political theater orchestrated by Republicans against Planned Parenthood and fetal tissue research.”

“As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished–it is also this research that has made Eugene a target of discrimination at Vanderbilt due to a witch-hunt in Congress,” Speier wrote.

“It’s been my dream to become a surgeon and help babies with congenital disease, and that goal goes beyond myself.  I’m trying to do this to make a difference,” he said.  “And even if that takes me going into the office everyone giving me the stink eye and shitting on my evaluations to the point where Jackie Speier needs to step in and continuing to paint me as this bad person and resident that needs to be eliminated, not even taking into account all the other stressors that I have to deal with on a national level because it involves Congress, [it’s worth it].”

“I don’t know how many residents would be able to withstand that and continue on with their day.  The thing that keeps me going is that I really believe that the research I want to do and the type of surgeries I want to perform goes beyond me as an individual,” Gu continued.  “This is my burden I have to shoulder in order to make a difference.  It’s worth it, but it’s really hard.”

The AAUP’s 1999 statement on “Academic Freedom in the Medical School” noted that “basic principles of academic freedom, in the medical school as elsewhere in an institution of higher learning, must be observed.”  Among those principles is the right not only of faculty members but of other university employees such as hospital residents to speak as citizens on matters of public affairs.  Dr. Gu’s recent treatment is therefore as much about his academic freedom as was the unconscionable Congressional assault on his pathbreaking fetal tissue research.


One thought on “The Case of Dr. Eugene Gu and Vanderbilt University Medical Center

  1. Pingback: Knight First Amendment Institute v. Trump | ACADEME BLOG

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