To his colleagues at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Yeuliang Chen was a bright, dedicated IT guy who rose through the administrative ranks to become a highly valued software engineer, systems analyst and programmer.
To Fred Hutch epidemiologist Dr. Chu Chen, he was something else: a rebellious teen who grew his hair long and started a band when the Beatles phenomenon hit regimented Taiwan; an honors student who traveled to the U.S. with nothing but a suitcase and a dream of winning a Nobel Prize.
Most of all, he was a brilliant, beloved little brother who bootstrapped his way back from a debilitating stroke in his early 30s only to have his life cut short two decades later by a rare, untreatable cancer.
But the story of Yeuliang is not a tragedy. It is, rather, a celebration — of life, of dreams and of love.
Yeuliang loved his family, loved his supportive colleagues at Fred Hutch and, perhaps most of all, loved learning. So much so that, after his death, his life’s savings were used to launch the Chen Hu Family Endowed Fund, which will help young scientists continue to learn and share their discoveries with others.
“He was always very loyal to the Hutch, just like me,” said Chen who has worked in Fred Hutch’s Public Health Sciences Division since 1983. “But it would not be good to say [this fund is] to honor Yeuliang. That was the last thing he would want. When Yeuliang died, he gave all his money to me and my brother and he said, ‘I hope a portion of it can be used to set up an endowed fund for research to honor our parents.’ Honoring our parents was very important to him.”
Chen said that their parents, for whom the endowment is named (Chen is their father’s last name and Hu, their mother’s) instilled in them “the value of education; independence in thinking and decision making; the true value of money and its impermanence; love and dedication to family; and the importance of sharing one’s fortune with those who are less fortunate.”
The money Yeuliang left is “not huge,” Chen said, but will be enough to send two young researchers a year to scientific meetings “so that they can present their results and they can learn.”
Learning was a way of life for Yeuliang, according to Chen, whose team studies the molecular epidemiology of tobacco- and hormone-related cancers and gene signatures linked to head and neck cancers. Chen is also an affiliate professor of otolaryngology and epidemiology at the University of Washington and a graduate school faculty member for the UW’s School of Public Health.
“He was very bright and graduated with top honors in economics from the best university in Taiwan,” she said. “He really wanted a Nobel Prize.”
The youngest of three children, Yeuliang emigrated to the U.S. in the early '80s, first attending Rice University before transferring to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, to study with top economists. He entered a highly competitive Ph.D. program, teaching classes and studying into the wee hours of the morning.
His secret to staying up: chain smoking.
“At the time, nobody knew that smoking was a risk factor for heart attacks,” said Chen. “When I got a call from one of his friends [in February 1983] that Yeuliang was in the hospital and had had a heart attack, I said, ‘What are you talking about?’”
Chen flew to Providence to be with her brother, but Yeuliang’s health struggles were just beginning. On the night before he was to be released from the hospital, he suffered a massive stroke while taking a shower. Incapacitated and unable to call for help, he wasn’t found for 45 minutes.
When Chen saw him next, her brilliant little brother had gone through a profound change. The stroke left Yeuliang partially paralyzed and wiped out his short-term memory.
“He couldn’t recognize his name in Chinese, he couldn’t speak. It was terrible,” she said. “He lost all of his Cantonese, his first language. The Mandarin was still there.”
There was no interpreter at the hospital so Chen stayed on for several months to help, translating and teaching her brother how to speak and write again. She also made arrangements for her mother to travel from Taiwan to help with Yeuliang’s care.
“She did not speak the language but came all by herself,” said Chen. “I was just amazed at the amount of love a mother has for her child.”
Soon after her mother arrived in Providence, Chen returned to Seattle to begin her postdoctoral fellowship at Fred Hutch. Eventually, her mother and brother joined her and Yeuliang continued his physical, occupational and speech therapy.
“At the beginning, of course, he felt very disappointed that he was not able to get his Ph.D.,” said Chen. Based on the work he'd completed before his heart attack, however, he was awarded a master's degree in economics.
In Seattle, Yeuliang primarily focused on his recovery. He relearned how to speak and walk and eventually recovered enough to drive himself to therapy appointments. But he wanted more; he wanted to work. He began studying computer science, feeling that while communicating with people was still difficult, he could “talk to the computer directly.” He connected with the Washington state Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and landed temporary gigs at the UW helping professors with their research.
In late 1984, Yeuliang began working nights at Fred Hutch, backing up administrative tapes for the research center.
“He never lost his analytic skills,” said Chen. “The stroke had affected his speech and he had a little weakness in his fingers. But he was just as bright as ever.”
Longtime Chief Financial Officer Randy Main discovered Yeuliang’s gift for analysis shortly after he began working at the Hutch, when Yeuliang asked if he could look at some Price Waterhouse-generated financial modeling printouts that Main had commissioned related to campus expansion.
“He came back the next day with about 20 pages of typed comments and suggestions,” said Main. “It was very obvious that he was underemployed. I met with my Price Waterhouse consultant and they offered Yeuliang a job on the spot.”
Main hired him as a software engineer for the Hutch’s nascent IT department instead, and the two went on to work together for 15 years.
“He had a great sense of humor, a positive take on life,” said Main. “And he was an inspiration. He was to everybody. He was a success story, in my view. Somebody that overcame adversity and pursued what he wanted to do and succeeded at it.”
Yeuliang served in several different capacities within Hutch IT and Human Resources, helping with payroll, programming and the implementation of Y2K-compliant software. He also became a staunch advocate for the disabled and, in 1995, was appointed by then-Gov. Mike Lowry to the state Rehabilitation Advisory Council. He looked at it as an opportunity to “pay something back to society.”
“The road to recovery can be long and difficult so I would like to extend a helping hand to anyone in need,” Yeuliang said in an interview in March 1996. “I’ve been lucky since I received so much help. A lot of people give up. I had a big goal before, and then it was all gone. Right now, I have more realistic goals. Every day, I say ‘What next?’ and take it one step at a time.”
Yeuliang left Fred Hutch in early 2000 when he and his mother — newly diagnosed with lung cancer — moved to California so she could pursue treatment at Stanford University. Yeuliang went to work for PeopleSoft, a local software company.
“That’s the reason he accepted their offer,” said Chen. “So he could be close to her and care for our mother.”
The Chens lost their mother to cancer in 2000. Then in 2004, the disease struck again. This time, Yeuliang was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare and often fatal cancer of the liver’s bile ducts.
“When he was diagnosed I was doing research, trying to find out if there were clinical trials, if I could take Yeuliang somewhere, but there was nothing,” said Chen. “There was only one article, a trial done in Germany. There was no drug, nothing. And then he just died.”
Yeuliang died in May 2004, just seven weeks after his diagnosis. He was 53. To honor him, colleagues at Fred Hutch purchased an engraved slate which rests in Mundie Courtyard on the Hutch campus. “In memory of Yeuliang Chen,” it reads, “who lives on in our hearts and in our memories.”
While treatments were limited at the time of Yeuliang’s death, one of the country’s leading experts on cholangiocarcinoma said a new therapy may soon be available, thanks to advances in genetics.
“The standard of care remains chemotherapy,” said Dr. Supriya Saha, who joined the Hutch’s Human Biology Division in 2016. “But many studies are taking advantage of what we now know of the genetics of the disease. Fortunately, cholangiocarcinoma has a very high rate of targetable mutations and that’s led to a number of clinical trials.”
Chu Chen, who recently returned from a trip to pay respects to her parents and her brother, said she very much looks forward to progress in this rare cancer, which she termed “a death sentence.” She also looks forward to seeing her brother’s love of learning — and the parents who instilled that love in him — carried on through the endowed fund.
“My mother and father and Yeuliang — their ashes are all kept in a niche in the Bay area,” she said. “I went there and read the thank you note from [Fred Hutch] right in front of the niche, telling Yeuliang that we were fulfilling his wish. We now have something to honor our parents.”
Yeuliang’s gift will provide travel awards to two young PHS fellows, postdocs or students per year, allowing them to pursue an educational dream fate denied to him.
“It’s a big deal for junior people to have access to these meetings,” said Chen. “They can learn a lot and chart their next grant and decide what interests them and network with others. They can present their results and make a future for themselves.”
Dr. Garnet Anderson, director of the Hutch’s Public Health Sciences Division, agreed.
“This extremely generous gift will enable many young investigators to join their peers at large national and international conferences where they’ll continue to learn and connect and grow as scientists,” she said. “We are so honored by this gift and by the enduring legacy of Yeuliang Chen and his wonderful family.”
Read more about the power of endowment at Fred Hutch.
Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at email@example.com.