Dr. Michael Muhonen clearly remembers that day in the pediatric intensive care unit 24 years ago.
The neurosurgeon, who had started his pediatric neurological practice at CHOC only a year earlier, recalls talking to the father of the baby born with what essentially was a traumatic brain injury.
The infant boy, born at 23 weeks gestation and weighing 3 pounds, suffered an intraventricular hemorrhage – bleeding inside and around the ventricles, the spaces in the brain containing the cerebrospinal fluid.
It was a grade-four bleed — the worst. Dr. Muhonen gave the boy an 80-percent chance of having some form of serious neurological dysfunction such as cerebral palsy. The newborn also had hydrocephalus, which required a shunt to be implanted in his head to drain excess fluid to his abdominal cavity.
That baby, Eric Rhee, is now 24.
Eric has big plans this year: He’s moving to Bethlehem, Penn., to attend the Temple/St. Luke’s School of Medicine.
A baby once thought of having a very slim chance of growing up without any serious cognitive defects is off to medical school this fall.
“Wow, I would never have predicted this,” Dr. Muhonen says, with a wide smile. “I’ve seen many grade-four bleeds in infants, but I don’t recall any who have succeeded to the degree that Eric has.”
Eric, who since summer 2019 has been working as a medical scribe at CHOC and, with Dr. Muhonen, on a research paper on shunts like the one that will stay in his body for the rest of his life, is a bit surprised himself.
“I didn’t think I was going to get into medical school,” he says. “They had 18,000 applicants for 200 spots this year.”
Of being accepted into medical school, Eric says: “I just want to be consistent, reliable, and efficient at what I do, learning from superiors who spent years upon decades refining their craft.”
Good genetics and neonatal care
Eric was in CHOC’s neonatal intensive care unit for three months as an infant.
Dr. Muhonen attributes his remarkable recovery, in part, to the high-quality neonatal care that Eric received at CHOC and to good genetics.
“To overcome the obstacle as he did speaks to his good genetics,” Dr. Muhonen says. “The odds were extremely stacked against him. He’s unique. It speaks to the kind of person he is that he’s been able to graduate from high school and UC Berkeley with honors and go on to medical school. I’m humbled that I could be a minor part of his journey.”
Eric’s serious brush with developing major cognitive impairments hasn’t left him completely without some quirks.
As a kid who loved to play soccer, he played very aggressively as a right fullback, often going after the opposing players instead of the ball, or charging with the ball to the wrong goal. He got frequent yellow and red cards.
“I played it like American football,” he says with a laugh.
In grade school, he would sometimes write letters backwards.
“Sometimes I wouldn’t follow directions because I thought there was a better way of doing things,” Eric says. “I wanted to pursue things on my own.”
Eric said he’s super perceptive around people.
“I’m able to take in stimuli simultaneously while we are talking,” he says. “The other people here, it’s hard to explain, but I take on and feel their emotions as if they were my own — the weight behind each word. I pick up on small things very easily.”
Young dream was to be a sports analyst
Growing up in La Mirada, the son of a father, Jun, an IT professional, and mother, Cindy, an accounting manager at a real estate company, Eric wanted to become a sports analyst for ESPN. Or, as an alternative, a chef. His main hobby remains cooking. Eric regularly blows away friends and colleagues with a specialty: grilled meats bathed in marinades. A recent major hit was ribs marinated in gochujang (Korean red chili paste).
It wasn’t until the end of Eric’s senior year at UC Berkeley, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in integrative biology, that he decided he wanted to be a doctor.
Shunts like the one Eric has for his hydrocephalus typically get replaced every five years due to corrosion and other issues. Eric had his replaced only once when he was a child, but it wasn’t until December 2016 when he had to have it replaced again.
The timing was bad. It was the first day of finals week. After several days of experiencing bad headaches, Eric called a friend that Monday morning to take him to an emergency department in Oakland. Dr. Muhonen, who has seen Eric regularly over the years, consulted with neurosurgeons at a hospital in Redwood City before the decision was made to replace the entire shunt.
Eric’s professors allowed him to retake the finals, and he graduated from UC Berkeley in 2019.
Eric started working at CHOC while studying for the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test). He took the exam in January 2020 and found out in December that he got accepted into Temple/St. Luke’s School of Medicine.
Eric currently lives with his older brother, Justin, who is studying to take the California Bar Examination. He isn’t sure what specialty he’ll pursue as a doctor. But his experience at CHOC over the years has made a lasting impact on him.
“One of the things I liked about CHOC growing up, I always felt like I was at home,” Eric says. “Even though I felt like I was in a very vulnerable place, I was always at ease.
“They’re kind and really good at what they do,” he says of CHOC clinical and related staff. “I want to be like that, too. Like players on a soccer team, everyone at CHOC is a master of their own craft and essential to accomplishing a bigger objective. Every person is important.
“At the end of the day, I just want to be a good teammate – someone who’s good and reliable at what he does.”
Dr. Muhonen has no doubts Eric will make a great doctor.
“It will be a physician like Eric who will make a great discovery,” he says. “Instead of relying on a shunt to treat hydrocephalus, maybe he’ll make a discovery to obviate the need for a shunt and have the brain internally drain water on its own somehow.”
Says Eric: “I just want to be trustworthy and dependable while making meaningful connections and having an impact on others.”
For more about CHOC’s Neuroscience Institute