Physician, pilot, average Joe?
By Erica Naone
Juk “J” Ting, D.O. (B.S.’90/H&S), 49, insists he’s an “average Joe.” Coming from a Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus who’s both a practicing physician and an airline pilot, the claim is a bit hard to swallow.
Ting worked as a stadium doctor at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles for 11 years. His passion for flying became a career in 2016. He flew the Boeing 777 for Southern Air, which offers air freighter services, and is now flying the Boeing 747 for Kalitta Air, an American cargo airline. He didn’t trade medicine in for flying, though. Ting is Board certified in emergency medicine and is licensed to practice medicine in 22 states, which he does between flights through the telemedicine company Teledoc.
Behind the adventure and accomplishment, however, is a story of a person who struggled in school. An immigrant from Taiwan, Ting came to the U.S. in 1983 at age 14, speaking hardly any English. He applied to go to undergrad at VCU but didn’t get in. Instead, he attended Germanna Community College for two years, where his grades paved his way for VCU acceptance on his second try. After graduating with a B.S. in Chemistry, Ting was again disappointed when he wasn’t accepted into VCU’s School of Medicine. He carried on, attending the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
“It’s OK if you’re not the brightest guy in your class,” Ting says. “If it takes you two years to do what people can do in one year, just try.”
To hear Ting tell it, he owes all his success to luck and the people around him. He has high praise for Audrey Jordan, Ph.D. (M.S.W.’90/SW; Ph.D.’99/SW), a counselor when Ting attended Germanna Community College, whose advice Ting continues to cherish. He credits his graduation from VCU to housemate Maulik Shah, M.D., Ph.D. (B.S.’91/H&S; Ph.D.’97/M), who he says “carried me along.” He either “got lucky” or opportunities “dropped in his lap” when he describes his medical career with the Los Angeles Dodgers or flying a Boeing 777 and 747 or the way telemedicine allows him to travel all over the country while practicing both his careers.
Listen to him long enough, and a suspicion grows that Ting’s story isn’t just about luck. “You will not believe the rejection letters I got,” he says, describing how he applied to more than 20 medical schools. Ting’s ability to speak fluent Chinese opened the door to his job with the Dodgers because, at the time, four Taiwanese players played on the team. Where Ting sees luck, others might see a key skill.
Ting began flying planes as a hobby but that interest blossomed into a career as a flight instructor and then as a professional airline transport pilot, and what Ting calls luck might be another man’s reward for experience and persistence.
Listen to his friends tell the story, and an even clearer picture emerges. Shah recalls making bets about academic achievements with his friend Nick Vahanian, M.D. (B.S.’91/H&S), in an attempt to motivate each other to do well at VCU. For example, whoever got the lowest score on the next test would have to buy Chinese food for the group. He says they invited others to join but “very few people would take us up on this other than J Ting.” Shah recalls Ting as shy, reserved, not confident in his English, but very much able to hold his own.
He also remembers unexpected generosity from Ting. Before they were close friends, Shah, who is color blind, was struggling in his histology class because some of the readings he needed to take required him to distinguish between red and green. Ting spent long hours helping Shah.
Soon, Ting became an integral part of the friend group. The group found keys to the roof of the biology building and dragged lawn chairs up to an old greenhouse there, which they turned into a clubhouse of sorts.
In the course of the friendship, Shah says, Ting began to influence him. “J Ting might be the only one of us who had an inkling of possibly going into medicine,” Shah says. “I think he helped us see medicine as a potential career.” Today, Shah, Vahanian and Ting are all licensed physiciansM.D..
Shah recalls another key influence from Ting: Though he hasn’t kept it valid, Shah also got his pilot’s license. “I’m sure that the birth of this started at a bar with the three of us talking about the joys of flying,” he says.
As Ting travels the world on the Boeing 777 and 747 planes that he flies for work, he is looking to reconnect with the people he credits with bringing him to where he is today. Shah hopes they can meet up in California, where Ting lives. Jordan, who has moved to Ting’s area, says they’ve talked about him taking her for a plane ride.
Ting isn’t sure of what to hope for next. He describes his story as “just a little immigrant guy from Taiwan, not very good in school, but before 50 years of age achieved all his dreams.” When pressed on what dreams the future may hold, Ting laughs and says, “I’m dreaming of flying just the L.A.-Honolulu route.”