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Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024

What ’s Your Story?

2022-OCHCS-Zhang-Robot-Photoshoot_014_HR-2100x1400

Dr. Andrew Zhang is one of the country’s top spine surgeons under the age of 40.

Dr. Andrew Zhang, Orthopedic Surgeon

Everyone has a story.

Each edition, Tony Taglavore takes to lunch a local person – someone well-known, influential or successful – and asks, “What’s Your Story?”

Dr. Andrew Zhang’s interest in the medical field wasn’t born from reading a book or watching a television show.

It came to life in the middle of a crisis. “My grandfather needed major heart surgery. He needed a triple bypass. I was 5 or 6 years old. It was a big deal – a big deal for our family, because it was a life-changing event. ... I knew my grandfather wasn’t doing well and needed help from someone. I wanted to be that person to care for him. I didn’t want him to rely on anyone else. No one in my family had ever been in the medical field, so everyone was at a loss for what to do. I saw the struggle. At 5 or 6, you don’t really realize that much, but you can read emotions at that age.”

Dr. Zhang’s grandfather survived that operation and is alive today. Meanwhile, his grandson fed that desire to help and is now the chief of adult and pediatric spine surgery at Ochsner LSU Health Shreveport, as well as assistant professor and the associate program director for the orthopedic surgery residency at LSU Health Shreveport.

If you’re not already impressed, Dr. Zhang was recently recognized as one of the country’s 20 top spine surgeons under the age of 40 by the North American Spine Society.

“Hopefully, this is the start of a blossoming career in academics and spine surgery. It’s a tremendous honor to be recognized before the age of 40, but hopefully, my career doesn’t stop at 40. Hopefully, I continue to grow, continue to build the program and contribute to the community and society.”

Dr. Zhang told me his story over the Healthy Grilled Chicken Salad at Julie Anne’s Bakery & Café, not far from where Dr. Zhang works. He was a half hour behind schedule, thanks to a busy morning seeing patients, and had more patients to see after lunch.

While Dr. Zhang, who is single, found time to visit with me, finding time for other things – including relationships – has been more difficult. Dr. Zhang’s motivation to work as hard as possible comes from what he saw growing up – and continues to see – as the oldest of three boys born to immigrants.

“I always think about my parents and everything they’ve given for us. I just think if they’re exhausting themselves, I shouldn’t ease off the gas pedal myself. If they’re working hard enough for, I don’t even know what for at this point. They’re not trying to take care of us. We should be taking care of them.”

Dr. Zhang was raised in New Haven, Conn., an unlikely place for a family who “grew up in a low- to middle-income household.”

“First of all, it’s Connecticut, so it’s pretty upper class to begin with. You see the kids at school with other (clothing) brands that are very high end, even in elementary and middle school. We would ask our parents, and they would try, but it’s hard to afford those kinds of things when you don’t have a lot growing up.”

But thanks to “a lot of financial aid,” Dr. Zhang and his brothers explored interests like music. Dr. Zhang learned to play the Pico violin when he was just 5 years old, while his siblings took up the cello and piano.

“My parents always strived to give us a better life.”

After high school, Dr. Zhang went to George Washington University, where he decided majoring in one subject wasn’t enough. So, he double majored in biology and economics.

“You’re right in the heart of the capital of the entire world. We have institutions like the World Bank and the World Trade Center. I thought it was a great place to learn how the economics of the country work. It’s not something I planned on doing while going to college, but it was something that was interesting to me, and I just decided to pony up and double major when I had the opportunity.”

And Dr. Zhang still had time to play collegiate baseball and be a member of the school’s rowing team.

He graduated in four years. “My parents always instilled that nothing is given to you. Whether that’s money.

Whether that’s knowledge. Whether that’s intelligence. You have to work for everything you get in life. That means you’re spending your afternoons doing math problems when your friends are out playing on the X-Box. I’ve always wanted to be the best at everything. That’s what my parents always wanted – for me to be the best at everything.”

Dr. Zhang’s introduction to Shreveport came in 2015, when he began his five-year residency. Until then, he had spent his entire life in the frigid northeast.

“I was thinking I needed to get a bunch more shorts and get rid of my winter coats. I’m probably going to have to get a couple of sizes larger in my pants, too.”

Maybe our warm weather and good food had something to do with Dr. Zhang returning to Shreveport after doing his fellowship at Brown University. But the main reason was much serious.

“My chairman had recruited me to come back while I was away for training. He said, ‘We would really like you to come back and teach the residents and start a spine department. ... He gave me the opportunity to build that how I saw fit and be able to teach the residents. I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a department from the ground up and to teach the residents.”

We were already deep into the day, and who am I to keep one of the country’s top young spine surgeons from giving people a better quality of life? So, I asked my final question. As always, “What is it about your story that can make a difference in someone else’s life?”

“I attribute a lot of my success to finding great mentors. Surrounding myself with people who are good role models. A lot of my success is not self-made. I rely on the examples of others to see how to navigate this. No one in my family had come into medicine or college. I was navigating that all on my own.

“To become where I am now would not have been possible without tremendous mentors in the field of orthopedics. I would urge anyone to find people who are there to help you and to make you a better person. Express thanks and be grateful for what they have done for you. And pay it forward, too.”

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