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No shortage of stature for UC Davis physician

Colleagues admire tiny physician's talent, charisma

By Blair Anthony Robertson - Bee Staff Writer

Last Updated 10:26 am PDT Thursday, October 4, 2007
Story appeared in METRO section, Page B3

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Dr. Sonia Liu examines patient Leslie Wilkins at UC Davis Medical Center last month. Asked her reaction when she first met the diminutive Liu, Wilkins smiled and said, "I was surprised and then impressed how she got around to things. With her now, you don't really notice it." Lezlie Sterling / Sacramento Bee

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Some people watch Sonia Liu because they can't help it.

Some do double takes. Others flat-out stare because they don't know any better, so taken aback are they by what they see.

But Liu, who is in the second year of a three-year medical residency at UC Davis Medical Center, is oblivious to most of the extra attention.

"I really don't think about what other people see because I'm just doing my thing," said Liu, 28. "You're given what you have and you don't know what it's like to live any other way. I always forget what I look like because my friends don't treat me any differently."

"When I see myself in pictures with my friends next to me, I'll say to myself, 'Oh yeah, I am 2 feet shorter."

Liu was born with achondroplasia, the most common medical condition that causes dwarfism. Her head and torso are normal size, but her limbs are much shorter.

"Basically, it's a genetic condition where the long bones don't grow as fast," she said. "Over 80 percent of the time, it's a spontaneous mutation, so that most people you meet, like me, don't have a family history of it."

Because she is so active, Liu turns heads in all kinds of places: when she rides 2 1/2 miles to work on a child-size bike with the sparkly purple paint and the "Star Wars" insignia; when she sees her patients, hustling through the clinic in the white lab coats she alters herself; and, when she goes out to eat or hits the gym.

While on her bike, which she bought for $20 on craigslist, she has seen motorists hold cameras out their windows and snap her picture. Such reactions make her bristle -- but they don't make her change her ways.

"That is the remarkable thing about her," said Paul Dellemonche, a close friend. "Where the rest of us would say, 'I don't want to draw any more attention to myself,' for Sonia, the bike was cheap, she liked it and she could give a crap about what people think."

Liu agreed to be interviewed for this story with the idea it could clear up misconceptions about little people and, perhaps, inspire people of all shapes and sizes to get beyond whatever limitations they may have.

But she had concerns about being featured in a newspaper. "I don't want to feel like a circus show. I don't want to be put on display," she said.

Her friends say that while her short stature may be the first thing people notice, it's also something they soon forget, practically bowled over by her intelligence and a charisma that lights up every room.

"Sonia is like a personality. When she walks into a room, you know she's there -- and it's not because of her size," said Sonny Bains, a fellow medical resident and friend. "Her glow comes from knowing herself really well. She knows what she wants with her life, she's doing it and she's happy doing it."

"She's very disarming and she has a great sarcastic sense of humor," said Dellemonche, a psychiatry resident in Providence, R.I., who met Liu when the two attended medical school at the University of Michigan. "Many people in my class thought she would be an excellent psychiatrist because she has a knack for putting people at ease and getting them to open up. It's a great quality to have as a doctor in any field of medicine."

Outside of her medical pursuits, Liu is a devoted traveler, opting to take a year off before medical school to see the world. She's musical and artistic. She cooks and sews her clothes and makes crafts.

She also confronts her fears. To get over her stage fright, for instance, she used to take her guitar to dive bars and perform on open mic nights.

Liu exudes confidence and is secure enough to ask for help, according to Kay Nelsen, a family medicine physician who supervises Liu and other residents.

"She rose to the top of her class because of that," Nelsen said. "She's a very positive person and that radiates to her colleagues and her patients."

By the time she finishes her residency, Liu will have seen about 1,600 patients. Many of them will have a lasting impression.

"She's very thorough. She listens to you and she wants what's best for you," said patient Leslie Wilkins, 48, who suffers from chronic back pain, arthritis and asthma.

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About the writer:

Dr. Sonia Liu brings in a neighbor's recycling bin at her Sacramento home. When not practicing medicine, Liu is a devoted traveler, musician and artist. Lezlie Sterling / Sacramento Bee

Dr. Sonia Liu, in her second year of a three-year residency, rushes off to see a patient at UC Davis Medical Center last month after medical school at the University of Michigan. Lezlie Sterling / Sacramento Bee

Liu's cat keeps her company as as Liu works on the computer at her Sacramento home. When she finishes her residency, Liu hopes to start a family practice in San Francisco or Italy. Lezlie Sterling / Sacramento Bee

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