Diversity Story Slam: Emma Wong

Emma Wong portrait
Emma Wong DPT ’21

Last Moments With My Grandfather


HELLO MY NAME IS EMMA WONG, and I am a first-year DPT student at USC. Tonight, I’d like to share with you the story of my grandfather(s). As some of you may know, my grandfather battled lung cancer for more than 10 years and passed last December. So, I’m sorry if I get a little emotional, since this was very recent. However, before he passed, I had the fortune of spending the whole year before becoming closer to him and gaining the unique perspective of being the patient, concerned family member and healthcare giver, all at the same time.

Throughout my childhood, I thought my grandparents were very old-fashioned. I remember my cousins and I would often talk about their racist, close-minded views. They would make off-handed comments about how I shouldn’t marry outside of my ethnicity, and that certain races were dangerous and I should never associate with them. I couldn’t fathom why, as an immigrant himself, my grandfather would be so opposed to those crossing the border today. I never knew what to say back to then, so I stayed silent. Even when I tried to argue with them, they would angrily dismiss me. But I never knew why. It wasn’t until I began listening to my grandparents’ stories that I truly understood why they had such jaded views.

I was applying to physical therapy school at the time my grandparents asked me to be an in-home caregiver just to help around the house- clean the floors, do the dishes, be their personal chauffeur and so on. My grandfather would ask me to help vacuum up the spiders in the corners of his house and sit down after to tell me stories. He was a very funny guy, but the seriousness in his voice as he described his fear, surviving long nights on the streets of China when it was taken by Japan and the nervousness during his long immigration journey to the United States, kept my mind present.

He told stories of his hard work to get into the U.S. Army, meeting my grandmother while stationed in Hawaii, starting his many business ventures and surviving in the states as a father and eventually grandfather. His stories were filled with the injustices he experienced and how he rose above them, but with a bitter taste in his mouth. Although I never fully understood or agreed, his stories gave me a degree of understanding of his thoughts. And despite my responses of “not everyone is like that” or “it’s a different time now,” I learned that I cannot discount the experiences that led him to his conclusions today.

This story helps remind me of where I came from and to be humbled and learn from my family’s past to be empathetic and understanding of the patients I will ultimately serve.

—Emma Wong DPT ’21

And I carried that thought with me as my grandfather went into his final days. My grandfather had the fortune to receive care from Keck medical facilities. As his body steadily declined, he was admitted into Keck hospital twice for weeks at a time. Every day, I would run across the street for lunch or after school to check in on him. It was stressful, but worth it because I collected more stories while keeping him company. Eventually, his mind started to let go with his body as well. He was still very sound of mind, but our conversations slowly went from stories to just about how the Lakers were doing this season.

As a PT student, I knew that movement and mobility were important, so I tried to see if we could walk when I visited, but he became tired and irritable instead. I could tell his motivation was waning. Curious to gain a patient’s perspective, I decided to sleep over one night, and I gained a deeper understanding of what it was like to be in the hospital. To be constantly awakened, frustrated with your low functioning body with no expected end in sight.

There eventually were days where he stopped speaking English to me, forgetting that I haven’t learned to speak Chinese. He would ask me what the doctors were saying but I didn’t know how to communicate that to him that I couldn’t tell him either. It was this culmination of frustrations that led my mild-tempered grandfather to his angry outbursts. I can recall one time an OT visited him to see if she could convince him to do any exercise. This was the first time I heard my grandfather yell at anyone (besides my grandmother). He was livid and told her to “get out.”

She took it well, laughed it off and told him she would come back another time. It was at this moment where I realized this was my reality as a healthcare professional, and this is the reality for some patients. With the same empathy I applied to my grandfather’s “racist” comments, I applied to his raging outburst as well. I had this unique experience of seeing the situation from the perspective of a healthcare provider, a family member and as the patient.

This story helps remind me of where I came from and to be humbled and learn from my family’s past to be empathetic and understanding of the patients I will ultimately serve.

It wasn’t until I was older that I really took an appreciation towards his stories and recorded them. He insisted that I continue telling his story so people understand the trials and tribulations of immigrants, part of the reason I stand here today.

—Emma Wong