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Won W. Choi, MD: In Memoriam

The Department of Anesthesia lost one of its valued emeriti when Won W. Choi, MD, passed away Feb. 1. The news prompted an outpouring of tributes and fond memories of working with him over the nearly four decades of his career at Iowa.

Won Choi Won Choi, MD

“Dr. Choi was one of the best anesthesiologists and educators I’ve ever known,” says Chris Spofford, MD, PhD, associate professor of anesthesiology at Medical College of Wisconsin who completed her residency and fellowship training at Iowa and served on the faculty here for several years. “He had a way of ‘knowing’ things before they happened, so we called him ‘Obi Won’ after the Star Wars character.”

Michael Todd, MD, former Chair of the Department, now professor of anesthesiology at University of Minnesota, recalls Choi as “perhaps the most respected person I met during my tenure at Iowa – quiet, always dignified, doing his job and doing it well, and putting the Department first.”

Once, when Choi had arranged a sabbatical to study obstetric anesthesia care in Asia, the Department was hit with a staffing shortage.

“Won came to my office and said, ‘I’m not going to take the sabbatical,’” Todd says. “I tried to talk him out of it; he’d earned it by years of hard work. But he was insistent on staying to help us out. His recurrent statement to me was always, ‘How can I help?’”

David Chestnut, MD, former faculty member at Iowa and professor of obstetric anesthesiology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, remembers Choi’s unwavering support for his professional success.

“Won did not seek the limelight, and he never missed an opportunity to encourage me in my career development,” Chestnut says. “He never demonstrated any resentment for the recognition that I received for the clinical research we performed together. He demonstrated true humility and servant leadership.”

As long as he wasn’t on the golf course or the tennis court, that is: “Won was fiercely competitive on the tennis court, and I do not think I ever beat him in tennis!” Chestnut says.

Robert From, DO, says when he was a resident, Choi advised him to “be a willow, not an oak, because willows bend in the wind; oaks break.”

“He never argued with anybody, but he would negotiate, and in the end he always got his way,” From says. “That was his philosophy of being a willow in action.”

From and other colleagues entrusted Choi with the care of their families, and that trust was never misplaced.

“When difficult clinical situations arose, obstetricians, nurses, and patients all breathed a sigh of relief when they saw Won walk into the room,” Chestnut says.

"Dr. Choi was a wonderful teacher and mentor in my early years as a CRNA at Iowa," says Mary O'Brien, MSN, EJD, CRNA, ARNP. "I will always remember him as a kind and thoughtful anesthesiologist and colleague as he taught me to 'spread my wings.'" 

“He was kind, compassionate, careful, and very smart,” Spofford says. “His legacy resides within my head and hands as I still do things each day that he taught me.”

Wednesday, February 24, 2021