Surgeon, NICU nurse say their lifesaving professions have made them better fathers

The patient was 6, a boy – the same age as a pediatric general and thoracic surgeon Dr. Peter Yu’s son, “P.K.”

The patient’s kidney cancer had spread to his lungs.

When Dr. Yu recently performed surgery on the boy, he caught himself thinking of P.K., whose full name is Peter Kai Yu – a ball-sport-loving kid with grown-up tastes in food such as sushi.

“When I looked at him,” Dr. Yu recalls of the patient, “I saw P.K. I thought, ‘What would I do for my son?’ And I would do anything for him.”

With Father’s Day this Sunday, Dr. Yu and Gene Paredes, a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse at CHOC at Mission Hospital, reflected on the challenge of balancing their demanding and often emotionally exhausting work with fatherhood.

Both Gene and Dr. Yu are married with three children.

Both say their professions make them better fathers, and both say having kids makes them better at what they do.

Ample time with children

Gene has been a father almost as long as he’s been a nurse.

His son, Gabriel, is 20. Gene has been a nurse at CHOC for 21 years (23 years overall).

Gabriel is in college, as is his 18-year-old sister, Gillian. Gene’s other daughter, Eliotte, 14, just started high school.

Even though his parents both were nurses, Gene never grew up thinking he wanted to be one, too.

Gene Paredes, a nurse in the NICU at CHOC Mission, and his family

But the Mission Viejo native did just that, joining CHOC in 1999 after completing training for two years in a neonatal intensive care program in Berkeley.

Like his father, who worked three 12-hour shifts per week, Gene has been able to be involved in his kids’ lives because of his work schedule.

“Working three days a week,” Gene says, “I was one of the few dads who were able to be involved in mid-week classroom activities at my kids’ schools. That was kind of rare. You didn’t see a lot of dads there.”

Gene and his wife, Chantelle, who used to teach, decided that the benefits of her being a full-time mom outweighed the challenges of being a single-income family.  

And that decision has paid off.

Over the years, Gene and Chantelle have enjoyed travelling with their children.

They did an RV road trip up the coast to the Pacific Northwest and have been to various national parks and states throughout the U.S. Two years ago, they vacationed in Paris and London.

Gene and his family taking in the sites of England

At CHOC Mission, where for years he was the only male nurse, Gene works throughout the hospital because he has special training in placing PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) lines, which are used to dispense medications and liquid nutrition. At CHOC Mission, he also performs ultrasound-guided IV placements.

For 2 ½ years, Gene also picked up shifts at CHOC’s campus in Orange in the main NICU and Small Baby Unit.

But he spends most of his time caring for sick babies in the NICU at CHOC Mission.

“I think being in healthcare, you realize there are a lot of things that can go wrong in childhood, such as illnesses and accidents,” Gene says. “I definitely had an appreciation for having healthy children. Knock on wood, I’ve never had to bring any of my kids to the hospital.”

Being a nurse has huge benefits when raising kids, Gene says.

“I approached fatherhood with a lot of confidence,” he says. “I taught my wife how to give our babies a bath. And she never worried about the kids getting sick. She was like, ‘Gene’s got this. He knows babies.’” 

Being a male and a father, Gene brings a unique presence to the NICU.

“A lot of the focus tends to be around the moms and the connection they have with their babies,” he says. “I think me being a male allows fathers to have someone to connect with. I change diapers, I feed the babies – I do all the hands-on things. I like to empower fathers to get in there and get very involved — to make them feel they can be as involved as much as the moms.”

Gene is known throughout the hospital for his calm demeanor in stressful situations.

“As a nurse and father, I hope that my calm energy and presence would bring comfort to parents experiencing the stress and unknowns of their child’s hospitalization,” he says.

On Father’s Day, Gene and his family will host a large afternoon feast with relatives at a favorite park in Dana Point.

“Then we’ll take a sunset walk on the beach,” he says.

Off cooking duty this Sunday

Dr. Yu usually relieves his wife, Jean, of cooking duties on weekends, when he’s off his hectic weekly work schedule that often totals 80 hours.

This Sunday will be different.

“I told him I would cook for him,” Jean says, adding: “He’s a very good cook.”

Being a former clinical nurse, Jean totally gets the demands of her husband’s profession.

“I get what the daily grind is like and things that may come up,” Jean says. “As a family, we try to cherish every moment, even just little things like watching a show together at the end of the day. He can’t make every event, but the kids are very understanding and very aware he’s probably helping out a sick baby or a sick kid, and they don’t hold that against them.” 

Dr. Peter Yu, a CHOC pediatric general surgeon and co-medical director of the Fetal Care of Southern California, and his family

The two met in the surgical ICU at the medical center at UC San Diego School of Medicine, where Dr. Yu completed his internship, residency, and research fellowship in general surgery. Jean was a surgical ICU and trauma nurse there, and they met while taking care of a very sick patient.

Married for 11 years, the Yus have three children: Max, 10; Sasha, 8; and P.K. They dated for two years before marrying. Dr. Yu proposed to Jean in Nigeria while both were on a surgical mission. 

Almost every day, Dr. Yu awakes at 4:30 a.m. to hit the pools. He’s an avid swimmer who will compete in the U.S. Masters Swimming National Championships in Greensboro, N.C., on July 26.

Max also loves to swim, and is a voracious reader.

“He’ll read a Harry Potter book in one day,” Dr. Yu says.

Sasha loves to dance and is a huge avocado fan.

Dr. Yu hits the sack around his kids’ bedtime.

“Usually 8:30 – 9 p.m. is really pushing it,” Jean says.

Dr. Yu says once he’s at home, he strives to be present with his children. Things have been even more hectic than usual at work recently, with the just-opened Fetal Care Center of Southern California, of which Dr. Yu is co-medical director.

“Our family works very well,” Dr. Yu says. “The credit really goes to Jean. She’s the chief operating officer of our family. I am so blessed to have her. She really allows me to work. Being a nurse, she knows how important it is for me to take care of these kids (at CHOC). She never gives me grief when I have to work, and that’s huge.”

Dr. Yu has been at CHOC for six years. Jean worked at CHOC for two years in the post anesthesia care unit (PACU).

“Jean was an amazing nurse,” Dr. Yu says. “I think she could have been a high-level nursing leader, but she sacrificed her career to follow me.”

Hospital work lends perspective to mishaps at home, such as a scraped knees, Jean says.

“Things that happen at hospitals can be completely life-changing for families,” she says. “So, when things happen at home, we don’t get too alarmed.” 

Dr. Yu and his son take it to the hoop with authority

Dr. Yu, whose parents emigrated to the United States in the 1960s, was born in America, and spent most of his early years in St. Louis, Mo. He has an older brother, David, also a physician, who adopted a boy from China who now is 10.

Dr. Yu says he became sold on California after attending Stanford University as an undergraduate, majoring in psychology.

It’s a good thing Dr. Yu has a ton of energy. He will need it to continue his balancing act of caring for sick and injured kids at CHOC and tending to his three young kids at home.

Says Dr. Yu: “You have to be present in the operating room, and you have to be present for your family.”