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Seattle woman explores the body, beauty and death in one-woman show

One woman is making it her mission to teach people about patient rights and advocacy after her mother died while receiving plastic surgery. She brings her show to Bumbershoot this weekend.
Susan Lieu is making it her mission to teach people about patient rights and advocacy after her mother died while receiving plastic surgery. (Photo: KING)

Seattle resident Susan Lieu received her MBA from Yale University, but she recently quit her job to become an advocate for positive self-image and patient safety. Lieu's mother died while receiving plastic surgery, and the doctor involved continued to practice after the California attorney general suspended his license.

Lieu now works with the non-profit Washington Advocates for Patient Safety to raise awareness about patient advocacy and knowing your rights as a patient.

Lieu is currently performing a one-woman show called "140 LBS" at Bumbershoot, North America's largest contemporary arts festival. She will also be featured in theaters throughout Seattle.

Did you ever feel like there was a time you wanted to give up on your project?

There were times where I was wondering if I was exploiting my mother's story or if it was too sensitive an issue to bring up. However, two things helped me overcome this. The first one is my mother has reassured me in various ways that me telling this story is helping to provide healing to the world. The second one is observing the show's impact on the audience. After the show, I receive stories on how the show has resonated and shifted how they feel about their bodies, families, and relationships with people -- dead and alive. There is something precious happening here and I want to keep following it to see where it will take me.

Would you consider what you're doing to be innovative?

With issues related to the body and beauty, it's easy to say the solution is to "love yourself" and practice "self-love," but it's more complicated than that. How we feel about our body is so deeply ingrained in our subconscious and upbringing, that being rational does very little to make us feel whole, healthy and happy. In my show, I reflect on how even though my mother's pursuit of high beauty standards essentially killed her, I still want to achieve those standards myself. The mind's rejection of our body through judgment creates a never-ending cycle of disappointment which I continue to struggle with. By vulnerably sharing my family's story, I hope to help others reframe their thinking about the three things we avoid talking about on a real level: body, beauty, and death.

How can people help your cause? There are two ways:

If someone you know is receiving medical care, especially if they are going to enter into a dangerous procedure, look up the background of your doctor with the Washington State Department of Health. My mother had walked into a situation where the doctor had 24 lawsuits against him, been on probation for years and did not carry malpractice insurance because no one would insure him in America. Today, we spend more time looking up the food we're going to eat at a restaurant rather than the background of the person that is going to cut us up. Do your due diligence. For more resources, go to Washington Advocates for Patient Safety to learn more.

I'll be putting on a full-length show in February that will be an immersive theater experience. I'd like to make it affordable for people who historically do not go to the theater and have been marginalized to advocate for themselves with medical care, typically low-income people of color. To make this possible, I am looking for corporate and philanthropic sponsors who believe in the power of talking about issues that are commonly stigmatized: body, beauty, and death.

Who inspires you now?

My dad. He lost both of his parents when he was a young child and then later, his wife. As a Vietnamese boat person and nail salon worker, he has had his share of challenges, yet he is so kind and optimistic. He reminds me to persevere and to be light-hearted about any of the obstacles that come my way.

Where do you go for inspiration around here? Cloud Mountain Retreat center in Castle Rock, Washington. Silent meditation retreats are a place I go to get clarity, recharge and return to my path that I'm supposed to take.

Are changes needed to help support what you're doing?

Often times, when we ask what brings about social change, it's easy to point towards service providers. However, arts and culture have had a historically understated and underfunded position in the role of social change. Changing mores and increasing awareness is an essential ingredient to social change and more funding and institutional support should be allocated accordingly from the private and philanthropic sectors.

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