Bay Area surgeon discusses living with Tourette syndrome, hopes to inspire others

For Dr. Wilson Tsai, the operating room has always been a special place. He is a board certified thoracic surgeon. Dr. Tsai says "my job primarily is to take out people's cancer. The most type of cancer that I operate on are lung cancers and esophageal cancer and I’ve actually developed the robotic thoracic program over at John Muir."

KTVU reporter Claudine Wong first met Dr. Tsai while doing a story on that robotic program and stood for hours watching him operate. She saw the calm, steady hands as she watched him save lives. At the time, she didn't realize there was something else is also happening in that room.

Dr. Tsai finds a stillness in the operating room that is hard for him to find anywhere else. He has Tourette syndrome.   

It is a disorder of the nervous system that causes repetitive involuntary movement or vocalization. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control one out of every 162 children have Tourette's with almost half going undiagnosed. For Dr. Tsai, who is the youngest of three in his family, it started at about age 6.

"It's a type of Tourette's called motor tic syndrome… where you have more simple tics head nodding, eye blinking, finger snapping but also I did have a vocal tics throat clearing or a hut hut sound and stuff like that,” explained Tsai. “I think it bothered my parents more so it was seeing multiple physicians and multiple physicians saying it was a phase and I was going to grow out of it."   

But it never went away and for him, that led to years of frustration and anger.

"I was bullied excessively," says Tsai.  The bullying started in middle school and continued through high school. "It was hard, definitely a lot of low self-esteem because not only would I be bullied at school but I would go home and have my mom and dad constantly trying to alter that behavior through your traditional Chinese techniques of course so it became a cycle when I started feeling a lot of anger towards people especially my parents."

Tsai says he hit a low point when he was about 13 or 14 and tried to commit suicide. He says until the KTVU interview he's told very few people about that low point, which was also a turning point.  

"I tried to poison myself actually and after the first couple of swallows I still remember looking down at my hand and tossing it away and saying it to myself and saying to myself I don't want to be the victim anymore and I do want to try to start figure out how to overcome this." 

So while the bullying continued, his resolve strengthened. He began studying martial arts, which he says gave him confidence and a sense of worth. Then in medical school he is also got a diagnosis. " I was sitting there in my psychiatry class… and I still remember the professor, we were going through these neurological conditions and as they were talking about Tourette's syndrome I said oh my god I think really have this," he recalled. 

He calls the diagnosis a blessing, but it would not stop the many roadblocks he would face, including an ongoing battle for self-acceptance and a surgical mentor who didn't think he could operate.

Tsai says, "It actually inspired me and motivated me to prove him wrong and I think that's why I chose one of the hardest paths in surgery cardio thoracic surgery with a specialty in cancer surgery as well.”

Today he looks at his disorder through the eyes of a father and while there are no indications that his three children could also have Tourette's. "It's constantly in the back of my mind, because I worry about my own kids and I don't want to get emotional or anything but when you think about your own kids I don't want them to go through the same struggles that I went through," he said. 

And so he empowers his children, the way he empowered himself through love, acceptance and martial arts. 

He is a brown belt in jiu-jitsu and trains five mornings a week. "It's not a mark of weakness in fact my closest friends my wife all see it as a mark strength it's something that I have to overcome everyday."

He works through the soreness in his neck and his fingers caused by constant motion and says he doesn't mind answering questions about Tourette's. And in the hours he spends in this operating room, he finds that calm. 

"For me I think that's why I love surgery so much it gives me that moment in time when I am not in constant motion from the Tourette's syndrome." explains Tsai. "I don't feel the tics happening."

It's stillness that he covets. But he has another peace as well, that comes with knowing that while Tourette's is a part of him, it does not define him.