Donor News: Felix Yip Demonstrates the Art of Giving Back
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An old adage says a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single
step, but sometimes the start of something new begins several thousand miles from the starting line. Sometimes, too, the path to a career follows a circuitous route that rises from trying circumstances.
For Felix C. Yip, MD ’80, MBA, the journey to becoming a doctor began nearly 8,000 miles from Wisconsin. His family history and childhood experiences ignited his interest in helping others.
When Yip’s grandfather became ill during the Second Sino-Japanese War between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan - which lasted from 1937 to 1941 - he developed an eye infection that led to his death.
That actuality profoundly affected Yip.
“My grandfather did not receive medical attention, and it was a contributing factor in my interest in medicine,” he shares.
During Yip’s youth, his family of 10 and several other families shared a 500-square-foot apartment in Hong Kong. His home was the balcony portion of the apartment.
His life in a poor neighborhood - where he saw, up close, his family’s and neighbors’ struggles - propelled him to make a difference with his life. Yip became interested in science and biology. The combination of his experiences helped shape his work ethic and led to his relentless efforts to sponsor promising areas of medical research.
Finding Inspiration in Madison
At age 17, Yip left his family in Hong Kong to pursue an undergraduate degree in molecular biology. He was drawn to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s widely recognized biochemistry program.
Many “firsts” greeted him: It was his first visit to the U.S. and the first time he had no family around for guidance. He was also the first in his family to attend college.
During his undergraduate years, Yip worked in the laboratory of Fritz Bach, MD, the first director of the Immunobiology Research Center, who became Yip’s mentor.
Bach, who died in 2011, pioneered the use of bone marrow transplants. He developed a test that allowed doctors to find the relative who would be the closest match in an organ transplant, to avoid rejection.
“I was interested in renal transplant immunology and volunteered in Dr. Bach’s laboratory. His PhD student, Paul Sondel, supervised me. These top-notch, diligent scientists greatly influenced me,” Yip says.
Yip adds that both men inspired him in and outside of the classroom and laboratory. While there were many people who impacted his life, Bach and Sondel led by example, and that impressed Yip. Sondel, who now holds PhD and MD degrees, is the Reed and Carolee Walker Professor in Pediatric Oncology at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH), heads the school’s Division of Pediatric Oncology and is a member of the UW Carbone Cancer Center.
“Whether they were playing volleyball or working on complex scientific endeavors, their attitude was to be the best person they could be,” says Yip. “They inspired me to always do my best - no matter what I was involved in. That has stayed with me.”
Upon earning his bachelor’s degree, with honors, in molecular biology, Yip entered the School of Medicine and Public Health, where he earned his medical degree.
He first considered specializing in obstetrics and gynecology because cervical cancer was not well treated then. However, his decision to enter urology was influenced by his wife, Mildred, whose father, brother and two uncles are physicians.
“She pointed out there was a severe lack of urologists,” says Yip. “At the time, Hong Kong had only one urologist for its entire population of 3 million people.”
Yip completed an internal medicine internship at University of Southern California (USC) Medical Center in Los Angeles. He then completed residencies in general surgery and urology and fellowships in urodynamics, female urology and pediatric urology at Kaiser Foundation Hospitals in Los Angeles.
Following a second pediatric urology fellowship at British Columbia Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, Canada, he served on the faculty of Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California, and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he earned the 1991 Most Valued Clinical Faculty award.
Today, Yip is a board-certified urologist, chief of surgery at Garfield Medical Center and Pacific Alliance Medical Center, and a clinical professor of urology at the Keck School of Medicine at USC.
He and his wife are visionary donors whose impact on American philanthropy has been striking. For more than 20 years, their generous gifts have played pivotal roles in helping diagnose and treat diseases and enabling scholars to pursue medical education and research. They are philanthropic supporters of UCLA, where they have established endowed chair positions.
Recognizing the need for basic research and training to eradicate diseases, they have provided many sponsorships where they felt it would help further the research mission.
“Mildred and I enjoy funding scientific programs that ultimately may make a difference in people’s lives,” Yip says. “We look at it this way: You could use your money to buy an expensive painting, and it would undoubtedly give you pleasure. But you could also choose a different path and support work that enriches the lives of many people. That’s what we really enjoy doing.”
He also points out, “Anyone can contribute to something they believe in. You don’t have to be rich to give back.”
One of the Yips’ visionary funding endeavors involved the fight against cancer. They contributed $1 million, which was a major infusion for the creation of the UCLA Yip Center for Oral/Head and Neck Oncology Research in the School of Dentistry.
He proudly notes, “Since then, the center was awarded $5 million from the National Institutes of Health, with the goal of UCLA being the premier center for head, neck and oral oncology research in the U.S.”
In conjunction with his 30th School of Medicine and Public Health class anniversary in 2010, Yip returned to Madison.
“It was the first time I had been back since graduation,” he says. “As a student, I often walked between the Memorial Union and Helen C. White Library and remember it as a beautiful setting overlooking the water. Today, it’s as beautiful as ever!”
Soon after that reunion, Yip established the Class of 1980 Great People Scholarship Fund, with a gift of $100,000. He challenged his classmates to raise $1 million for the scholarship and promised to contribute another $100,000 as a matching donation.
“I feel this is the least I can do to thank the people of Wisconsin who helped me during my seven years in Madison and Black River Falls, Wisconsin,” says Yip, who adds that he hopes the Class of 1980 sets an example for other classes to help advance the mission of the school by raising funds.
“It is remarkable to see the generosity of alumni and classmates like Dr. Yip and his wife. We are so inspired by his gift,” says Pat McBride, MD ’80, MPH, the SMPH associate dean for students and president of the Wisconsin Medical Alumni Association (WMAA).
He adds, “The Class of 1980 is very generous and supportive of our school. We’ve often received the WMAA Brown Derby Award. We have started scholarships and awards and encourage other classes to do the same.”
Philanthropy Without Borders
Yip has come a long way from his youthful longing to make a difference to his February 2013 appointment to the Medical Board of California by Governor Jerry Brown. Yip is one of seven California physicians on the board, which is charged with licensing and disciplining medical doctors. The state has about 120,000 licensed physicians.
Yip maintains memberships in several local and national professional organizations.
Almost 12 years ago, serendipity played a part in Yip’s life when he was listening to an Asian community radio program.
“I heard about the high numbers of Asian people born with cleft palates. One in 600 live births in China is born with a craniofacial defect,” he says. “In the past, these patients grew up as outcasts of society, unable to live a normal life. This is no longer the case.”
Yip’s interest in craniofacial defects led to his sponsorship of the Craniofacial Scholarship Program, UCLA School of Dentistry and Shanghai (China) First Hospital.
He points out, “The scholarship brought over a number of dentists, plastic surgeons, ENTs, surgeons and others to UCLA for training to build multispecialty craniofacial clinics in different hospitals in China.”
The idea was to help many centers of excellence at schools in various parts of the country, so they can further train doctors.
“A success story involved two scholars who were able to obtain funding of 10 million RMB (Chinese Yuan) to build clinics in Southern China to care for patients with cleft palates,” Yip shares.
As fate would have it, the Yips’ grandson, now 3 years old, was born with a cleft palate, years after Yip got involved with a scholarship to train doctors about the defect.
Family remains the core of Yip’s life. His daughter Lea, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, is the mother of Yip’s grandson.
The Yips’ oldest son, Kyle, started college at age 13, younger than Yip had done. Kyle earned bachelor and master of science and doctor of dental surgery degrees from UCLA. In 2013, he earned his MD degree from USC during his maxilofacial oral surgery residency.
Their youngest son, Wesley, earned his undergraduate degree at Columbia University. He is a first-year medical student at USC and is interested in urology.
Winnie Yip, PhD, Yip’s sister, also has a project being supported by Yip and his wife. Winnie Yip is a professor of health policy and economics at Oxford University in England. She and William Hsiao, PhD, of Harvard University, Boston, have collaborated on a number of international health studies.
“We supported her large-scale health care reform study in Quizuo, China,” says Yip.
When asked what interests him the most, Yip quickly responds, “My passion is medicine. But there’s only so much surgery I can do, so I thoroughly enjoy being able to help others train to do work that is needed.”
Still, he’s never far from work, and most Sundays, he can be found doing surgery.
Starting out with nothing more than a keen interest in learning when he arrived at UW-Madison, with the passing of each year, Yip’s enthusiasm for his work and dedication to serving others continues to grow.
By Sharyn Alden
This article appears in the spring 2013 issue of Quarterly.
Date Published: 07/08/2013