Written by Audrey Cheng, Carole Chen
Translated by Evan Wang
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Always early to work at Tzu Chi Medical Center, Dr. Stephen Denq invariably leaves a steaming pot of tea in the break room for his coworkers as they arrive. Tea, however, is only one of the many ways he expresses his humility and compassion.
In January of 2021, Dr. Stephen Denq, the Director of the Tzu Chi Health Center in the United States, took over as the Chief Executive Officer for the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation (TCMF), becoming the youngest-ever Chief Executive Officer of the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation in the United States. Dr. Denq has practiced medicine for more than twenty years, and in the eyes of his colleagues at Tzu Chi Health Center, he is an incredible director who immerses himself fully in his duties and sees them to completion. Kind and respectful, he is always willing to answer questions patiently no matter how difficult they may be. As a physician, he always uses language that the patient can understand, clearly explaining the condition and treatment plan so the patient feels at ease.
Dr. Denq returned to Taiwan for the first time in 2010 to attend Tzu Chi International Medical Association’s (TIMA) annual meeting. When he was interviewed on behalf of TIMA USA, he shed tears filled with genuine emotion. Those in attendance were impressed by his dedication. He observed the medical practices of various countries in the group, and through the sharing of reports and stories from multiple areas, he began to gain a better understanding of Tzu Chi. However, he still had a lot of questions, and decided to take part in the trainee program upon his return to the United States.
Wearing Tzu Chi’s signature blue shirt and white uniform, Dr. Denq gradually got his answers from participating in the program. After taking a brief hiatus to further understand Tzu Chi’s operations, Dr. Denq returned to Taiwan for a third time in 2012 to attend TIMA’s annual meeting once again. The theme of this meeting was “Tradition and Modernity, Change and Unchange.” Coincidentally, at that time the U.S. medical team made many changes to better adapt to the Affordable Care Act, and Dr. Denq affirmed that “The Tzu Chi International Medical Association of the United States will never change its love!”
“In order to care for disenfranchised residents in the community with little access to medical resources, the U.S. medical community has set up a variety of free clinics to protect the health of the community, including free clinics, quarterly targeted community consultations, mobile clinics, and large-scale medical outreach in collaboration with other charities,” said Dr. Denq in a report on behalf of TIMA USA. At this moment, Dr. Denq realized that Tzu Chi had guided him toward his true goals as a doctor. He understood that his aim should not be to see as many patients as possible, but to treat his patients to the greatest extent. Furthermore, he realized that he wanted to see more of Tzu Chi’s humanistic principles within U.S. health care. Dr. Denq began to further explore Tzu Chi’s medical humanities, and at the end of each patient visit, he introduced Tzu Chi as well by telling his patients about Tzu Chi’s humanitarian efforts. Dr. Denq found that because the humanities presented by Tzu Chi doctors and nurses were so compelling, he felt that more people should take a more active role in expanding knowledge of these humanities.
Dr. Denq made two wishes at this point. The first was that there would be more medical charts, representing more patients who were switching to Tzu Chi’s patient-focused clinics. The second was that the medical charts would get thicker, indicating that patients who came to Tzu Chi were willing to return and that Tzu Chi’s compassionate medical services were becoming more mainstream.
In 2012, Dr. Denq, who had been certified as a commissioner, was invited to attend a book club hosted by volunteers in Northridge. The first time he attended, he immediately fell in love with the club and was never absent from a meeting. Although his ability to read Chinese was not perfect, he quickly became an active listener and regular contributor in the reading club. Upon joining Tzu Chi and learning the Dharma teachings, Dr. Denq’s perceptions, practices, and even his eating habits had shifted, inspired by the words of profound wisdom.
At the end of 2012, Dr. Denq discovered that Tzu Chi outpatient clinics were understaffed. Knowing this, he readily accepted the invitation of Debra Boudreaux — the former CEO of Tzu Chi Medical Foundation in the USA — to transfer to the Tzu Chi Clinic full-time. Becoming a doctor was Dr. Denq’s grandfather’s wish for him. His hope for his grandson was that he would grow to become compassionate, large-hearted, and indisputably competent. Dr. Denq has, indeed, lived up to his grandfather’s wishes in every capacity. He regularly sacrifices his vacation time to provide care, and uses the Monday health center rest day to visit low-income patients with several medical volunteers to better serve vulnerable groups. On another occasion, Dr. Denq found time to visit an inpatient solely because it was the patient’s birthday.
Since Dr. Denq began working full-time with Tzu Chi Medical in 2012, Tzu Chi’s Health Center has undergone a gradual transformation from a small free clinic in 1993 to serving large numbers of low-income patients, providing free medical visits and medications, and subsidizing fees for procedures such as blood tests and electrocardiograms.
At present, the outpatient center’s income is still insufficient, with most of the funding coming from charitable donations. After three years of hard work, however, Tzu Chi Medical Center was able to achieve Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) status on October 26th, 2020. With this status, Tzu Chi can provide more services to the public. The significance of this certification not only represents the larger community’s recognition of Tzu Chi’s patient-centered philosophy but also serves as an important milestone in Tzu Chi’s medical mission. In honor of his contributions, in January 2021, Dr. Denq was promoted to the CEO of Tzu Chi Medical Foundation in the USA.
As an FQHC committed to caring for residents regardless of patient status or financial capacity requires equal access to federally standardized medical services, this leaves the newly accredited Tzu Chi Health Center with a lot of work to do. With this, Dr. Denq began to think about how to integrate Tzu Chi’s humanistic principles with FQHC principles, which were already in line with Tzu Chi’s medical philosophy.
Dr. Denq takes the responsibility of being CEO very seriously. However, he strives to maintain a light-hearted outlook, saying, “Being CEO is a burden, but for me, everything is normal. The work that I did before continues to be done, and now I’m just taking over a little more work than before. So I’m going to do a little more, sleep less, squeeze out one or two hours a day, and focus on Tzu Chi Medical.”
In going from Dr. Denq to CEO Denq, he plans to promote the vision of Tzu Chi Medical in two parts. First, the basic focus of FQHC certification is mainly aimed at the operation of clinics, and the government requires health centers to uphold excellent outpatient home care — such providing care to pregnant women, the elderly, and the very young. Dr. Denq also intends to provide further medical services. Tzu Chi Health Centers have a large number of patients with diabetes and hypertension who need to have their eyes examined every year, for example. General practitioners may choose to refer them out, but Dr. Denq hopes Tzu Chi Health Centers can provide their own ophthalmology services. Similarly, diabetics often have problems with foot ulcers, so Tzu Chi needs a podiatrist. Through this, Tzu Chi Health Centers will develop into a multi-department clinic. Although Tzu Chi does not yet have a full hospital in the USA, it can still provide a wide range of care in an outpatient setting, provide preventive medicine, and reduce the risk of hospitalization. The first step towards achieving this goal is inviting more family physicians to participate. When the number of patients in the clinic increases, specialist outpatient clinics can be set up one by one.
The second order of business for Tzu Chi Medical Foundation involves charitable healthcare. Activities such as charity consultations, the ‘Love of Medicine’ work, and the promotion of healthy communities, are common ways of delivering Tzu Chi’s medical services to the underserved and remote communities. Although these activities are normally not in the scope of an FQHC clinic, they are a fundamental part of Tzu Chi’s medical mission. Dr. Denq hopes that with the support of volunteers, especially those in TIMA, Tzu Chi can care for even more people in need of medical services. With Tzu Chi being FQHC certified, Tzu Chi Health Centers will be able to hire more medical staff, and hopefully, these new colleagues will join the medical staff in the future as members of TIMA.
Since achieving FQHC status, there is much room for development in Tzu Chi Health Center’s outpatient section, both in the patient capacity and the number of medical personnel. Dr. Denq believes the medical team is the heart of Tzu Chi Medical’s mission in the United States, and that only with strong roots can the tree of Tzu Chi Medical thrive.
Since Tzu Chi’s free clinic was established in 1993, the Tzu Chi Health Center in Alhambra has outgrown both its available space and equipment. On March 20th, 2021, Tzu Chi USA will host a virtual gala to launch its nationwide fundraising campaign to expand the health center’s capabilities and space. Dr. Deng urged everyone to invite their friends and families to participate in the event. Everyone’s selfless support will go toward improving Tzu Chi Health Centers disinfection, equipment, infrastructure, and raise their safety profile.
No matter whether he is called CEO Denq or Dr. Denq, he is an ever-present source of kindness in Tzu Chi, indeed. Whenever someone needs help, his response is always clear, easy to understand, and steeped in Tzu Chi’s humanistic approach to service. Drinking the tea that he personally brews every morning is more than just a hot drink; it is an affirmation of his kind and gentle spirit. With his warm words and compassionate nature, CEO Denq inspires those around him to keep walking the path of the Bodhisattva.