On the upswing: Former law school dean finds way back to good health


In 2004, at the age of 36, Wu became the youngest dean in the history of Wayne State University Law School and the first Asian American at its helm.

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

When we last heard from former Wayne State Law dean Frank Wu some three years ago, he was in the throes of a health crisis, battling a little-known disease that had turned his life upside down.

Wu, at the time, was a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law, where he previously served as dean. It was then and there that he was diagnosed with Pemphigus Vulgaris, a rare autoimmune disease that reportedly kills 75 percent of those affected within two years of diagnosis.

In 2018, in a column appearing in the Daily Journal, a California legal publication, Wu opened up about his health challenges. The column was titled, “Illness Can Make You a Better Person,” and offered a first-hand account of his battle with the disease.

“I was alarmed when I was bleeding through the night, through a T-shirt, pajamas, and the top sheet of the bed,” Wu wrote in the column.

Equally disturbing, he said, was the fact that “my scalp was coated with a slick pus that dried into a hard helmet of crust,” a malady that perplexed his physicians.

“I did not have a proper diagnosis for months,” Wu wrote in the Daily Journal. “I was trying to tough it out and my malady is obscure enough that the specialists explained you cannot blame a general practitioner for failing to recognize it. The initial guess was spider bites.”

But it proved much more serious than that, said Wu.

A biopsy detected a “potentially life-threatening condition” that required Wu to immediately shelve everything on his busy academic schedule.

“The leakage on my scalp, it turns out, was plasma without the blood cells,” he explained.

But, the “best news,” said Wu, was word of a “breakthrough” in treating the disease, a new chemotherapy agent approved only three weeks before he visited with medical experts at the University of California at San Francisco.

“It has a slightly greater than 50 percent success rate,” Wu said.

While Wu was facing an uncertain medical future, his wife, Carol Izumi, a law professor, also was experiencing her own set of health challenges, which began years earlier when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

To add to her medical woes, Izumi needed spinal cord surgery in 2018, an operation that proved to be just “two-thirds successful,” according to Wu.

“The surgery was fine, but the bones haven’t come together properly, so she cannot turn her neck,” Wu related, noting that she has taken early retirement because of her ongoing health issues.

As for himself, Wu said his serious health situation has given him a different perspective on life.

“At the infusion center, I could see how grateful I ought to be,” Wu wrote. “I walked in. I walked out. I went by myself, because my wife was still indisposed from her own issues. Although it is a real chemotherapy, requiring a day in the hospital for each session, my dosage is relatively low.”

While receiving treatment, Wu crossed paths with a friend.

“A colleague from work saw me; she was accompanying a friend,” Wu said. “When I saw her again, I asked about the friend — she had passed away.”

Wu, fortunately, is on a decidedly different path.

“I was in the very first cohort of people to get a monoclonal antibody treatment for Pemphigus Vulgaris,” Wu said in a recent interview. “This is now being used for COVID, a related type of treatment that originally started off as a new form of chemotherapy.”

The treatment, said Wu, has produced some good news.

“I am now considered in remission,” he said.

His improved state of health opened up an opportunity to return to a leadership role in academia, as in July of 2020 Wu assumed office as the president of Queens College in New York. With the appointment, Wu became the first Asian American to serve as president of Queens, a four-year college with 20,000 students from more than 150 countries.

The son of Chinese immigrants from Taiwan, Wu grew up in the metropolitan Detroit area and earned his bachelor’s degree in writing from Johns Hopkins University. He obtained his law degree from the University of Michigan. In 2008, he was the recipient of the Asian Pacific Fund Chang-Lin Tien Award, presented for leadership in higher education.

Wu admits that he misses Detroit and will always consider himself a “Detroiter.”

Said Wu: “There is so much excitement in the city now.”

Such a feeling can be matched by how Wu looks at life now.

“I have realized what others before me have: Illness can make you a better person,” he wrote. “Law — the study, the teaching, the practice and the application — can and should be rational. Those of us trained in it, however, have had our empathy if not eliminated, then decreased.

“We do not notice our privileges. Paramount among them is health. If we lose what we have enjoyed, even taken for granted, we should appreciate what remains, which those around us may always have been and still be denied. I have been inspired. I understand what matters.”


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