This article first appeared in UCLA Today.
Cynthia Lee, UCLA Today staff writer
While the White House, Congress, the military and the public vigorously debate how far U.S. interrogators should go to extract information from political detainees, few have looked directly into the faces of victims of political violence.
Psychiatrist Kenneth Chuang has. And he does not mince words about what he has seen and heard from those who have been tortured for their political and religious beliefs.
For several years now, this 38-year-old doctor has listened to the painful retelling of experiences so horrific “they defy description,” he said. “They seemed to have come right out of a movie script, rather than from real life.”
Once a week, this assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences meets clients who come to a highly specialized clinic within the Venice Family Clinic for treatment of their physical and psychological wounds. Working as a volunteer with the Program for Torture Victims and its medical director, Jose Quiroga, Chuang sees people who have been subjected to sexual assault, beatings, attempted drownings and electrocution.
“We've seen people who are defaced, scarred in a way to mark them for life. There's really no end to how devious humans can be in terms of inflicting pain,” he said.
His clients have come from 25 countries. “It's a pretty wide distribution, but right now the bulk of our clients come from Africa.”
By documenting their injuries in photographs and reports, doctors aid victims' desperate efforts to win political asylum. “Asylum court proceedings can last years,” Chuang said. “Most of these people are terrified that they will have to go back. For a lot of them, that's tantamount to a death sentence.”
Torture victims constitute only one segment of Chuang's unusual roster of patients. Since 2002, he has also been working with another nonprofit, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. “The victims are not just young girls brought into this country to serve as prostitutes,” he said, but immigrants who are enslaved to work in L.A. sweatshops or in the agricultural fields.
Chuang, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan, has helped recruit other UCLA physicians to work at the human trafficking clinic at the Venice clinic. And he has established the torture victims' clinic as a medical rotation so that residents and fellows from UCLA and UCLA-affiliated hospitals can work there.
For his work with refugees and nonprofits, Chuang received the Ann C. Rosenfield Distinguished Community Partnership Prize in 2004-05 from UCLA's Center for Community Partnerships.
Chuang's full-time job is seeing patients, mostly poor and uninsured, at the Edmund D. Edelman Westside Mental Health Clinic. But he spends almost as much time doing volunteer work, including teaching classes at UCLA.
“For me, the line between my job and my volunteer work has basically disappeared,” said the psychiatrist who spends up to 30 hours a week as a volunteer, even dipping into his vacation time. “It's all caring for people who are underserved.”
Chuang's belief in the value of learning through community service stems from his own undergraduate years at Rice University, where he amassed a résumé of service projects “that runs about 12 pages long.” He ran a homeless shelter in Birmingham, England, worked in rural health clinics in Appalachia and biked across America to raise money for overseas development projects.
But it was when he found out about Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, a medical humanitarian organization that delivers emergency aid around the world, even under unfavorable political conditions, that Chuang made medical school his goal. He graduated from Harvard Medical School and did his residency at the then-Neuropsychiatric Institute at UCLA.
“Everyone should at some point in their medical training be in a situation where they are serving some form of underserved population ... so that they understand the kind of disparities that exist in health care,” he said.