I Was Not Born a Doctor: A Portrait of Stephen Denq

Written by Pheel Wang
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto

Dr. Stephen Denq participates in Tzu Chi free clinic events held in Central and South America. Photo/Shuli Lo

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When it was time for the interview scheduled at noon, Stephen Denq, the current Chief Executive Officer of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation, hadn’t yet arrived.

“I’m really sorry. We went to the clinic to look for Dr. Denq just now,” the Foundation’s administrative secretary courteously explained. “He has a lot of patients and had just finished with the last patient in the morning. He was supposed to come out for the interview, but the patient had questions and came back, so Dr. Denq returned to the clinic.”

This is Dr. Denq, a warm and gentle person who readily responds to patients’ needs; never too busy to address inquiries and assuage concerns despite his dynamic schedule. With medical appointments and the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation’s routine operation, he still manages to arrange for visits to patients’ homes, where people who have difficulty with mobility or are medically uninsured always look forward to his arrival.

“Usually, other doctors simply ask me if I’m okay and then leave and I receive a $200 bill, but Dr. Denq is not like that. He spends a lot of time carefully checking my wounds and changing my medication every time,” said Eugine, who is bedridden and one of Dr. Denq’s long-term patients. With just a few words, the doctor’s impression is reliably solidified in a patient’s mind as a cool-headed captain amid rough waters, and an ever-mindful confidant. However, that doesn’t describe all that Dr. Denq is.

One Foot Outside

“I remember when I was a kid, my teacher’s comment to me was that I was mischievous because I loved to ask questions,” Dr. Denq mused. This inquisitiveness was not lost as he exited childhood, however. Those who are familiar with him know that asking questions is one of Dr. Denq’s personal trademarks. 

“When I was young, my grandfather said that there were many experts in the family, including cooks and accountants, but never a doctor,” Denq shared, adding, “My grandpa said he could buy land and build a hospital for me to help people and make a better living. My grandpa was a businessman, and I agreed with him, so I went for that direction.” Dr. Denq immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan at the age of 13. He was very strong in mathematics and science and went on to major in chemical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. However, in order to apply for medical school, he also had to take a course in biology, which he presumed would be relatively straightforward. Yet, he struggled a bit in this field.

“I struggled so hard in Biology that I only got a C on my first exam. How could I apply to medical school with such a score? I prepared very hard for the second exam, but I was still 20 points below average, and it wasn’t until the final exam that I got a B+, which made me lose a lot of confidence.” But Stephen Denq didn’t give up. He kept asking himself why this was happening, devised a strategy, and took action. He took a course on genetics first, which was more manageable for him. “This course entailed a lot of calculations, which were very simple for me, although hard for others. I built up my confidence through this course and then took other related courses,” he shared.

Denq is not ashamed to disclose that he chose which field of study to prioritize because of practical considerations. He asked himself, “Which course is easier? Which can facilitate a faster graduation? Which is more prosperous?” After deliberating, he chose family medicine, explaining, “After graduation, I only needed to study for another three years. My grandpa had passed away, and I thought I would stop practicing medicine after five years. At least I could give back to the community a little bit, and then I’d go back to take over my family’s business. My father was in the construction business, and he hoped I would be able to take over.”

At the time, Denq did not yet have the determination he has now in following the medical care path, one foot inside and one foot outside. The same seemed to be true regarding Tzu Chi. When Dr. Denq began taking part in Tzu Chi’s free clinic services at the recommendation of Tzu Chi volunteer Tzulun Wang in 1999, his only involvement was patient consultation. That was, until he attended an appreciation tea gathering organized by the Buddhist Tzu Chi Free Clinic.

Finding the Answer

“I have to be very careful about what I say because it still makes me emotional.” Dr. Denq, who had been talking about this past, suddenly paused for a few seconds. “I broke down at that tea gathering, and my mindset was very much altered,” he said. “I was invited to speak on stage there, which was for volunteer medical workers. From a distance, there was a volunteer who was a patient of mine, and I knew he was not in the best of health. He stood in the kitchen and listened to me speaking. I thought to myself, ‘Why am I standing in the spotlight?’ I just participated in the free clinic and spoke briefly with the patients. But that person, who was not in the best of health, prepared the ingredients for this tea gathering until midnight and then got up early in the morning to prepare lunch for everyone. Why wasn’t he the one who got up on stage to take the microphone? I thought, ‘How can there be such a person?’ I burst into tears at the scene. It was this question that made me want to learn more about Tzu Chi.”

In 2010, Dr. Denq returned to Taiwan to participate in the Tzu Chi International Medical Association Annual Conference for the first time. Here, he exerted his talent for asking questions: “I gave them a hard time. There were questions that the Tzu Chi volunteers didn’t know how to answer, such as, ‘Why are the men walking in the front, and not the women?’ Questions like that. When the conference concluded, I was moved by what I saw but had more questions. After I returned to the U.S., I signed up for the Tzu Chi volunteer training. I’m a bit picky; I want to find the answers on my own.”

Insisting on getting to the very bottom of the question was part of Dr. Denq’s innate drive to go deeper in all matters.

Stephen Denq (second right) visits Taiwan on September 20, 2010, to participate in his first Tzu Chi International Medical Association activity. Photo/Wenxiu Tsai

“For example, 108 days of a vegetarian diet is required for entering into the Sutra Scripture,” Dr. Denq recalled. “But why 108 days? Do I continue to keep to the diet after the 108th day? Or can I stop? I was looking for answers. A brother said that vegetarianism is a way to cultivate compassion, and a sister said, ‘Why do you ask so many questions? Just eat what [Dharma Master Cheng Yen] tells you to eat.’ If I can find the answer independently, I will stick with the diet. What I felt later was that vegetarianism is about simplicity, not being preoccupied with whether you eat eggs or not, whether it’s more nutritious or not, whether it’s good or not, but it’s about learning to live simply, and that’s the answer for me.”

The answer may not be the same for everyone, because each person will gain different enlightenment through doing, according to their own experience and feelings. This is what the Master said: ‘Learn through working and awaken through learning.’

Another point when Dr. Denq’s curiosity became the impetus for sacrificing his extra sleeping time revolved around scripture. In the past, Dr. Denq used to sleep for 12 hours a day and studied scripture every morning.

“When I was still in training, Jean Hsu invited me to practice scripture at Tzu Chi USA’s Headquarters in San Dimas, which I had never done before. I remember it was the Preface to the Lotus Sutra. I still had some weight in my belly at that time,” he laughed. “It was difficult to bend over at an angle. The worship mat in our Headquarters was high in the back and low in the front. It was not easy for me to breathe when I was worshipping; I would be very short of breath, and then, some of the verses were to be chanted very slowly, so slowly that I thought, ‘Can the chanting go faster?’ I couldn’t breathe! I just wanted to get up quickly. But from behind me came the chanting of an unknown brother who was so strong in voice that I was very impressed. I wondered, ‘How can he do that?’ And then, I came to the conclusion that he must have gained such strength through practice. With this, I spontaneously went to Headquarters to worship once a week, but felt that it was not enough. I borrowed a DVD of the Preface to the Lotus Sutra and brought it to the Tzu Chi Free Clinic in Alhambra, where there’s a small Buddha Hall. I went there early in the morning, and took a few minutes every day before the clinic. I did that for a year, and it became a habit of scripture chanting in the morning, which has lasted until now.”

Dr. Stephen Denq (front row, middle) gradually delves deeper into the Dharma, diligently studying the scriptures, and performs at the 2019 TIMA Global Forum. Photo/Victor Rocha

Over the years, Stephen Denq found that no matter what question he asks, compassionate action must follow, as Master Cheng Yen teaches. When he took on the role of CEO of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation in 2021, he remembered these teachings of putting compassion into action and not letting an opportunity to do good deeds pass him by. “In the past, I intended to figure everything out and find out answers to my questions before I did anything, just to make sure that it would work out. Master Cheng Yen has shown me the path, and I believe in her wholeheartedly. As long as it’s a Tzu Chi thing, just do it!”

I am not always a smart person, so I must be diligent. Although I may not always gain enlightenment from doing it, if I do it, I will have a chance to make a difference.

Dr. Denq, who loved to ask questions, has transformed and now provides answers to life’s questions through his continued efforts with Tzu Chi.

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