To say that his loss is irreplaceable is absolutely true in the case of Dr. Henry Han. The outpouring of grief and disbelief in the wake of his horrifying murder and that of his wife, Jennie Yu, and their daughter, Emily, is powerful testimony to the indispensable place that Henry held in Santa Barbara. The steady stream of people walking in silence to and from a small table outside Henry’s Santa Barbara Herb Clinic covered with notes and laden with flowers gives the clinic a shrine-like atmosphere.
Jennie ran the front office for Henry; he was so proud of the way she ran things. She had an entrepreneurial mindset and a talent with numbers. Her dream was to open a little dim sum restaurant, but in the meantime she was the most gracious hostess, treating the front area of the clinic like her home for patients and for Emily. As well as being witty and vivacious — with a hot sense of style — Jennie was a wise old soul despite her youthful 29 years and could shock with her perceptive comments. She had a very sweet relationship with her family in China: her deeply respected mother and father, and her tall, handsome, smart brother, whom she felt responsible to help.
And Emily … for Dr. Han, Emily and Jennie were his everything. Five-year-old Emily was as strong and beautiful as her mother, who made the time to take her to dance lessons, karate classes, and birthday parties. At school, Emily walked a balance between her Chinese culture and her North American culture. She spoke Mandarin primarily when she began kindergarten, but over the course of the year, she worked hard — in her attentive and creative way — to be able to interact with everyone in English. And Emily loved her mom so very much. She would often draw pictures to give Jennie and would talk about how she was going to give her finished projects to her mom. She was dearly loved and an incredible joy to be around.
Next to love, there is nothing more dear to people than their health. For so many of his patients, Henry’s care was the difference between pain and suffering and a manageable, if not fully healthy, life. In every conversation in which Henry’s name came up, someone would say how it was he who found the solution to a health problem that had for so long eluded them.
This time in Henry’s life seemed golden. His medical practice — roughly 30 years in the making — had international dimensions, with patients coming to him from far and wide. He was an accomplished coauthor of a major work, Ancient Herbs, Modern Medicine, and another book was said to be near completion. He was engaged in medical research and product development related to cancer and skin care. He hoped to grow herbs on the seven acres surrounding his home, which would have enabled him to ensure they would be untainted by the pesticides and other pollutants in China where he obtained most of his traditional medicines. And now, rather late in life, his relentless work regime was balanced by Jennie, his wife and colleague, and Emily.
This seemingly golden phase of his life was a great departure from the hardships and disappointments he had experienced during much of his early years through to his thirties.
Born in China on October 6, 1958, Henry and his late sister were the offspring of two prominent physicians who came from a long lineage of doctors. Gifted and precocious, Henry would have undoubtedly had a straight path to a prestigious medical practice in China but for two events: Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square. The Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s to 1970s essentially enslaved them to years of manual labor and mindless Red Guard propaganda. Nonetheless, his parents would sneak at night to administer care to patients by candlelight. This was strictly forbidden by the Red Guard handlers and could have resulted in their execution.
When the Cultural Revolution finally receded like a bad dream, Henry resumed normal studies and was admitted to Beijing University’s medical school (China’s Harvard). Following completion of his MD degree in Western and Oriental medicine, he was granted the rare privilege of receiving government support to pursue post-doctorate work in brain science at UCLA, a field that was his first love. Were it not for signing a petition criticizing the Chinese government’s harsh response to the Tiananmen Square protesters, he might have devoted his life to research. But the Chinese government reacted harshly to finding his name on the petition; officials withdrew support for his studies and forbade him from returning to China. He was now a castaway. His Chinese medical degree meant nothing, and his English-speaking skills were very limited.
For some years he labored in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, applying what medical knowledge he could to the care of older and impaired people, succeeding in easing persistent conditions such as post-stroke effects to speech and walking. He collaborated with other traditional Chinese medical practitioners, such as acupuncturists, until he was able to secure the clinic’s current location, due in part to the generosity of Harold Sumida, a prominent Santa Barbara property owner and nurseryman who was grateful for Henry’s medical treatments.
The Santa Barbara Herb Clinic soon became a community resource for refugees from Western medical procedures — those who were suffering the side effects of chemotherapy, alienated by the overprescription of antibiotics, or simply unwell without relief. Henry believed and wrote in his books that Western medicine had remanded patients to a place he called “the gray zone,” a condition in which one was never truly sick or well but just getting by. He would sometimes joke that hospice was the best place for very sick patients; admission requires that one unplug from all Western medical treatment with the result that patients generally improved.
Henry’s approach to what he saw as Western medicine’s one-sidedness was a holistic one. He emphasized treating all parts of the patient’s personality: physical, psychic, and spiritual. With herbs, acupuncture, and common-sense advice, he put people on a path of more self-conscious living. The goal was to improve overall well-being, not just treat a particular disease.
Many found that Henry’s skills were indispensable but contributed to a dependency that most were glad to sign on to. Henry became the fountain of life, and he implicitly encouraged this relationship by offering way too much of himself. After seeing 15 patients a day, he would spend several hours afterward attending to his on-call list of needy patients. When patients were too ill to come to his office, he made house calls. Patients in his waiting room once saw a German shepherd exit happily from his office after an acupuncture treatment. It seems that if you were a life form, Henry could treat you.
This extraordinary power to heal rested upon Henry’s wide knowledge of science and psychology. He was the most myriad-minded man. He was thoroughly versed in Western medical practices, read new research compulsively, formulated new herbal compounds for specific conditions, and yet was conversant in history, economics, literature, and art. An appointment with Henry could easily go over its allotted time through discussions of Hsiang dynasty bronzes or the Era of the Warring States.
George Orwell once said that saints should be judged as guilty until proven innocent. Many of us say Henry has passed this test. We saw his joy in his bright light Jennie and the sparkling butterfly that was his Emily. We saw him lift the lives of countless people, facilitate adoptions with Chinese babies, author books, arrange conferences, develop new medicines and herbal treatments, and care for dying parents. His single goal in all these endeavors was to increase a sense of well-being, allowing patients to experience the positive joy of having a healthy body. In all these cases, never was a discouraging word heard about him. For him to die with his loved ones the way they did seriously challenges any sense any of us may have had about cosmic justice. But what they gave to the community may be justice in itself, and that may be enough.