A real-life “Doogie Howser, M.D.” who grew up in Utah is helping to shape a reboot of that series, “Doogie Kameāloha, M.D.”
Like both TV Doogies — the 1989-93 original and the reboot, which starts streaming its second season Friday on Disney+ — Teresa Tuan attended medical school while she was still a teenager. Like the character in the Disney+ reboot, Lahela Kameāloha (Peyton Elizabeth Lee), Tuan is Asian, and she was tagged with the name “Doogie” when she was just a kid.
“The original ‘Doogie’ and the current ‘Doogie’ — in some ways, they’re kind of like bookends to major periods of my life,” Tuan said. “And, hopefully, the start of another period of my life.”
What the young Dr. Tuan really wants to do at this point in her life is be a television writer/producer. And she’s making progress in that direction. Not only is she a consultant on “Doogie Kameāloha, M.D.,” but she’s also participating in a prestigious TV industry mentorship program.
The only child of Taiwanese immigrants, Tuan was born in San Francisco but grew up in Salt Lake City. “It’s someplace that I’m very fond of,” she said. Her parents moved to Utah because they had a brine shrimp harvesting operation.
As a 12-year-old seventh grader, she took part in the Extended Learning Program at West High School. That summer, her mother had her take a college placement test at Salt Lake Community College “because I was getting some complaints from teachers at West that I, perhaps, was not the best at listening or following directions. And being fairly cheeky ..., I apparently said something along the lines of, ‘Well, I know everything.’ And my mom was, like, ‘Ah-ha, no, you don’t.’ So she convinced them to let me just try this placement test, thinking that it would get me to act like a proper teenager — one that actually follows commands.”
To everyone’s surprise, Tuan did extremely well on the test. She started taking classes at SLCC and transferred credit back to West. She actually graduated with a two-year college degree about a month before she graduated from high school.
When she was 16, Tuan finished her undergraduate degree in chemistry at the University of Utah and enrolled in medical school there. At 20, she started her residency at the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center, and became the youngest female board-certified pediatrician in U.S. history at 23.
“When I think about it, just the fact that it happened is incredible,” Tuan said.
Growing up Doogie
Did people call her Doogie when she was in medical school?
“Oh, sure,” she said, matter of factly — even though the original “Doogie Howser, M.D.” ended in 1993, 13 years before she started med school. “It was still in the zeitgeist. Even when I was a 12-year-old, people called me Doogie.”
And “everyone kept bringing it up” when she was a teenager in college. Sometimes the reaction was, “That’s cute. You’re like Doogie Howser.” But she wasn’t happy when comparisons were made to the awkwardness of that fictional teen doctor, who was played by a young Neil Patrick Harris. “Some people were, like, ‘She’s young. How is she going to talk to patients? She’s going to be super-awkward. She’s not going to be very cool,’” Tuan said.
And she wasn’t crazy about the fact that Doogie didn’t need to study hard “and just kind of magically knew the answer all the time. There was a bit of that expectation of me as well,” she said.
Tuan said people weren’t unkind, “but it definitely made me feel very, very lonely, I wanted to make friends. I was very keen on trying to fit in. And yet here was this thing that was very much a part of popular culture that was, in some ways, used to both congratulate me” and “made me feel like I was really distant and unable to form emotional connections with people because they had this idea of who I’m supposed to be.”
Everything she experienced growing up, she now considers “fuel for why I’m a writer now.” And it feels “really special” to see the characters on “Doogie Kameāloha, M.D.” — which is set in Hawaii — talking about “emotional vulnerability, about feeling helpless, about all of these things that you don’t normally see in medical dramas. … Had I seen that as a teenager, I think my perception of myself would have been different. I think the way people interacted with me would have been different. I would have felt less like a circus sideshow.”
In addition to working as a doctor, writing music and performing, Tuan took a TV writing class “just for fun,” and the instructor advised her to read the Hollywood trades for industry news. And one night at about 2 a.m., while she was working at the hospital, she was scrolling through her phone when she saw a story about how the “Doogie” reboot had been ordered to series.
The new Doogie would be an Asian-American girl (played by Lee, who was previously the star of the made-in-Utah series “Andi Mack”). And one of the executive producers is Kourtney Kang, “who I have admired since she wrote my favorite episode of ‘How I Met Your Mother.’” Kang was also a writer/producer on the ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat.”
A friend encouraged her to submit her name as a consultant — something she didn’t even know was possible. She found contact information for Kang’s lawyer and sent off an email and left a voicemail pitching herself as a consultant “not thinking it was going to work, but that at least I tried,” she said.
Five months later, “after I’d kind of half-forgotten, half given up and was doing other stuff, I got this email” from the producers. Shortly thereafter, she was on a Zoom call with Kang, executive producer Melvin Mar and writer Matt Kuhn. Despite being “very unprepared,” a month later she was hired as a consultant.
“That was one of the luckiest breaks I think I’ll ever have in my life,” Tuan said.
Bringing Doogie to life
Tuan works with the writers on the new “Doogie” — sharing less about her “experience as a teenager in medical school and more, like, what are the emotional things you go through as a resident trying to figure out how to be a doctor?”
She helped the writers as they worked to make the medical cases fit the emotional beats of the episode. It is a TV show, not a documentary, so “I get to bend whatever rules of medicine as long as we’re reasonably accurate, which we are.”
Season One was a “huge education” for Tuan, who came to “understand that it’s not a show about medicine, it’s a show about … this exceptional teenage girl who’s trying to grow up as a person while also growing up as a doctor.”
No spoilers here, but Tuan contributed story ideas for Season Two episodes.
She’s also psyched about working on a show that features multiple Asian characters. For example, Lahela’s father (played by Jason Scott Lee) is Asian; her mother (Kathleen Rose Perkins) is white.
When Tuan was growing up, there weren’t a lot of Asian actors on TV. “For a while, you were just hoping to see that Lucy Liu got a guest-star role,” Tuan said. “She’s an amazing actress, don’t get me wrong, but she was it. The fact that we did not exist on television and now I get to be a part of that is very meaningful to me.”
Tuan is one of seven writers selected for the Paramount Writers Mentoring Program, an eight-month program that provides “career development, support and personal access to executives and the decision-making processes for new, diverse writers in television … to prepare them for a career in television and positively impact their experience in the industry.”
The mentors are 13 high-ranking executives at CBS and Paramount Television Studios, and Tuan is working closely with one CBS and one Paramount exec. (Paramount Television Studios and CBS are both part of Paramount Global.)
“This is a platform where, if you put in the work and you foster relationships over time, you actually have a chance at saying it in this very large-scale way,” Tuan said.
She’s still sort of surprised she was chosen from more than a thousand applicants. “I knew there was a theoretical chance, but never in a million years did I think I was going to get in,” Tuan said.
Burning out on medicine
Tuan, who will turn 33 in April, acknowledges that it wasn’t easy being a teenage med student and a doctor in her early 20s, when a lot of people her age were still college undergrads.
“I love Primary [Children’s Hospital]. It’s such a beautiful hospital and amazing place,” she said. “But, I mean, some of the things I saw there as basically a child, I didn’t know how to process,” she said. “A lot of things didn’t feel like they made sense. I didn’t anticipate skipping high school. That was just like this crazy thing that happened. And then burning out of medicine fairly early.”
When she was 23 and had just finished her residency, she “felt like I was running this marathon for as long as I could remember, as fast as I could, just hoping that I would get to the finish line. … I’d just been going non-stop. And really hanging on for dear life at more than one point,” Tuan said, laughing. “I remember being, like, ‘Well, I’m just going to do what I want to do. And I don’t care if it makes sense. So I formed a band and we played Pride.”
She came out to her friends when she was 18, and to her parents when she was 20.
Tuan started composing music when she was a child, and she still writes music today.
“I’m also a doctor, I guess that’s how I’m making money. And I do enjoy taking care of children,” she said. “I’ve always loved being a pediatrician,” although there have been “many times when I’ve doubted being a doctor.”
Her goals now are in TV. “Ideally,” she said, she would like to be a staff writer on a TV series. She can see herself writing for “probably a medical procedural.” Beyond that, her “true goal is to be a showrunner and get to create work that speaks to my experience.”
“This is a wonderful, kind of full-circle moment for me,” she said.
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