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From Humble Beginnings to Harvard Med – Meet Your Surgeon: Dagny Zhu, M.D.

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Dr. Zhu is a Harvard-educated, board-certified ophthalmologist who specializes in cornea, cataract, and laser refractive surgery. She was born in Shanghai, China and immigrated to the United States with her working-class parents at the age of three. Dr. Zhu received her M.D. from Harvard Medical School where she discovered her love for ophthalmology and performed innovative research on corneal immunology at Harvard’s Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. As a medical student, she co-founded the Medical Mandarin course for doctors-in-training and embarked on a medical mission with Operation Burns in Mumbai, India where she collaborated with plastic surgeons to treat burn victims with debilitating skin and eyelid contractures. Dr. Zhu then returned to Southern California to complete her ophthalmology residency at the prestigious Doheny Eye Institute/University of Southern California + Los Angeles County Medical Center, where she served a Latino community and cared for the sickest patients at one of the largest public hospitals in the country. Described as a “gifted surgeon” by her mentors, Dr. Zhu elected to complete fellowship training in cornea and refractive surgery at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, the #1 eye hospital in the world.

Dr. Zhu has come full-circle and now practices as Owner and Medical Director of Hyperspeed LASIK (an NVISION company) in her hometown of Rowland Heights, CA. As a key opinion leader in advanced laser vision correction and premium cataract surgery, Dr. Zhu serves as medical advisor to multiple ophthalmic companies and has been featured in over two hundred lectures, presentations, publications, and press features including the Today Show, Huffington Post, InStyle, Yahoo News, NBC News, and CNN.

Dr. Zhu also serves as a volunteer attending physician at the Los Angeles County + USC Department of Ophthalmology and clinical preceptor for the Marshall B. Ketchum University/School of Optometry and Western University College of Osteopathic Medicine where she teaches and supervises students and doctors in training. She also serves as an admissions interviewer for Harvard College. In addition, Dr. Zhu sits on the editorial board of major ophthalmology publications, lectures to peers nationally and worldwide, and leads cutting-edge clinical research studies on the latest intraocular lens technologies. She holds several leadership positions and is a member of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery, Refractive Surgery Alliance, and the Cornea Society. Dr. Zhu was most recently named a 2022 “Rising Star in Ophthalmology” by Super Doctors Magazine, a “Woman of Distinction” by California State Senator Ling Ling Chang, “Top 50 Unsung Hero” by Asian Hustle Network, and Media Mice Top 50 Global Key Opinion Leader Influencer.

APM: Why did you choose your profession?

Unbelievably, I did not grow up wanting to be a doctor. I enjoyed many different subjects growing up including art. My mom was also the opposite of a “tiger mom” and never pushed me into medicine. In fact, during my residency training, I would come home in the middle of the night after another emergency surgical case, and she would ask me why I had to work so hard and how she wished I could just have a regular 9-5 pm job! But in college, I realized that medicine was the only field I found to be truly fulfilling. As physicians, we can use our expertise and a special skill set to help people overcome physically debilitating diseases during the most vulnerable period of their lives. I chose ophthalmology because it is a beautiful surgical specialty that allows me to heal patients with my hands instantly, while utilizing some of the most advanced laser and imaging technologies that exist today. As an eye surgeon, I get to help blind people see every day. How lucky am I?

APM: What is your passion? What would you do even if it were free?

I would perform free eye surgery to restore sight in needy patients everyday if I could. One of the most memorable moments of my life was participating in an Operation Burns mission trip to Mumbai, India when I was a medical student at Harvard. I worked alongside a team of plastic surgeons to correct functionally debilitating skin contractures around the limbs and eyelids in patients who suffered severe third-degree burns, many from kerosene stove explosions or domestic abuse. The look on those patients’ faces before and after surgery is unbelievably rewarding. I chose ophthalmology because it’s one of those special fields where we can have an enormous impact on global health through not only short-term mission trips, but through skills transfer and training programs for local surgeons abroad where we can establish long-term sustainability. I look forward to joining my husband (an orthodontist) on joint dental and cataract missions where we can serve patients across the globe who have limited access to medical and surgical treatment.

APM: How did you meet your spouse?

I was a first-year medical student at Harvard Med and my husband, Brian Luong, was a second-year dental student at Harvard Dental. We met on a “booze cruise” where he and his classmates gave the new incoming class a tour of Boston Harbor. We instantly connected when we discovered we grew up only a few miles away from each other in Southern California and were both Asian American immigrants who came from humble beginnings. We share similar values with an ardent desire to work hard and succeed in both our careers. Because he also obtained a dual degree Harvard DMD MBA, we both enjoy working on entrepreneurial start-ups and side hustles together.

APM: How many kids do you have?

We have one 2-year-old boy named Atlas. I became a new mom in the middle of the pandemic in 2020 when I was juggling motherhood along with my practice. I had to close my practice for 1 month because of COVID restrictions and then took another 5 weeks off after I gave birth and went straight back to a full surgical load as there was a backlog of poorly seen patients waiting for surgery. I was so worried about the financial health of our practice during the pandemic, but it ended up being one of our most productive years in the history of my practice. Pumping milk while working full-time and caring for a newborn at home wasn’t easy, but we are so incredibly lucky and grateful to have family support.

APM: How do you define success?

Success is all relative. I grew up in an immigrant, low-income household with a single mom who learned English on weeknights and waitressed on weekends. When I started at Harvard Medical School, I was surrounded by classmates who were smarter than me, more articulate than me, and in many respects—better than me. In a sea of Ivy League graduates, I was one of only a handful of students from a public state school. I was afraid to speak up in small group discussions. I struggled to stand out in my clinical clerkships. How did I survive? I learned to embrace the brilliant minds around me—the future CEOs, public leaders, and research scientists. I collaborated with them. I innovated with them. And in the end—I improved myself. Thanks to the supportive culture at Harvard (and the pass/fail grading system), there was never a real sense of competition—I was the only one who I had to beat. Most importantly, I focused on myself and ended up matching into my #1 choice for ophthalmology residency. Don’t be afraid of competition. Use it as an opportunity to better yourself. Surround yourself with people who are only going to lift you higher. Success is about more than your test scores and grades. It’s about improving yourself and making an impact in your field.

APM: What is your life philosophy?

Good things come to those who work. Yet, with each obstacle, I decided to push forward, asked for expertise, and trusted my gut. I could have taken the “safer” route. I could have waited for the “perfect” job. But instead, I seized a rare opportunity and poured my blood and sweat into it to make it work. Because good things don’t come to those who wait—only to those who work darn hard.

APM: What do you want your legacy to be?

Doctors today come in all different colors, shapes, and sizes. Our job is not easy. We don’t know everything. We are far from invincible. Underneath the whitecoat, we are a diverse group of living, feeling, complex beings that (hopefully) share one mission in common: To alleviate suffering by holding scientific exploration and patient service to the highest standard. This is the type of doctor, mother, and wife I hope to be remembered as.

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