‘I’m a microsurgeon. I don’t know much about internal medicine or pediatrics.’

Since his frustration at not being allowed to practice in California came to public notice nearly four years ago, things have not improved much for Dr. Joseph Bao, a Chinese microsurgeon who helped make medical history in 1963 when he and two other Shanghai doctors reattached a severed hand.

For two decades, Bao performed or participated in hundreds of such surgeries in China. One involved the reattaching of both hands cut off a 42-day-old baby by a deranged man.

Encouraged by his wife’s family in the United States, Dr. Bao moved to Los Angeles in 1984--but is yet to operate on a patient in this country.

The reason: During the early 1960s, the fanatic Red Guards of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution pushed their way into his home and took his medical education records, including proof of his clinical hospital internship while attending Shanghai’s First Medical College.


His worldwide reputation notwithstanding, he discovered when he came to Southern California that lack of documentation meant he would not be allowed to practice without virtually repeating his medical education.

Matters seemed to be taking a turn for the better in 1985. Dr. Charles Ashworth, American Society for Surgery of the Hand president who regarded Bao as a microsurgeon of “outstanding talent,” and others at Orthopaedic Hospital moved to get Bao a position on the USC School of Medicine teaching staff.

Bao was allowed to take the Federal Licensing Examination (FLEX) even though he did not have the prerequisite certificate from the Education Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates.

However, Bao says now, “things did not happen as expected.” He did get a temporary faculty appointment and a temporary license to practice for a year, but they did not lead to much. And Bao fell slightly short on the licensing examination. Because state law has been tightened, he may not take it again without the education commission certificate.

Formerly, a foreign-trained doctor with 20 years of practice did not have to pass a basic medical sciences test. Now he must--also because of a change in the law. “I’m a microsurgeon,” Bao points out. “I don’t know much about internal medicine or pediatrics.”

Another doctor at Orthopaedic Hospital says, “He is just running into all the problems that a person runs into when he comes from a foreign country--a Third World-type country. Our Board of Medical Quality Assurance is extremely cautious.”

To a disheartened Bao, trying to relearn things he studied 35 years ago, the situation resembles events in China during the Cultural Revolution, when “Chinese professors were forced to clean rest rooms” because they were regarded as ignorant and incompetent if they did not know how to do basic things.

He is a part-time researcher in the Orthopaedic Hospital bone chamber laboratory while teaching hand microsurgery there two days a week. “I am 51,” he says. “I should be getting near retirement.”