A few months ago, Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital received a random email through the patient portal from someone named Karen Lin saying that a radiation oncology doctor there was her childhood pen pal. Lin asked if she could get in touch with this doctor, adding that she’d lost touch with her in the early 1980s when the two were in high school.
The email worked its way through the necessary channels and eventually reached Dr. May Lin Tao. Before long, Tao and Lin, both in their 50s, had made an arrangement to meet up, and on Thursday afternoon, after more than 40 years without any contact, the two former pen pals hugged for the first time in front of Tao’s office at Henry Mayo.
“We had never met nor spoken up until about May of this year,” Tao told The Signal in a telephone interview before meeting Lin in person. “She made the connection through the hospital, and marketing sent her email to me, and I was like, ‘Oh my God. Yeah, that’s me. Yeah. I remember Karen, my pen pal.’ But, you know, we were kids. And back in that day, we didn’t have email, certainly, so, we never spoke, even though we did have telephones, but just literally only knew each other through paper and pen.”
Asked how Lin found Tao and why she decided to reach out so many years later, Lin said a simple Google search resulted in her discovery of a hospital page with Tao’s picture. And why now? In a separate conversation with The Signal outside Tao’s office just before the two former pen pals met face to face, Lin said, “Because I’m a weirdo.” She added that it was just an urge she’d occasionally get, and that she finally decided to act on that urge.
“We really don’t know each other anymore,” Lin continued. “Like, I really don’t know her. She’s a completely different person. We only really have our writing experience from about fourth grade to about ninth grade.”
Lin is Chinese American, born and raised in Angola, Indiana. Tao is also Chinese American, born in New York City, but she grew up in a small town called Fort Kent in Maine. When the two were paired up as pen pals in elementary school, it was mere coincidence, they both said, that they happened to be of Chinese descent, living in small American towns. Their unique experiences as Asian Americans in their respective communities might’ve been cause for their close connection, but they agreed that they never really thought about that.
“We were just kids of this age at that time,” Tao said, “and we just talked about things that kids talk about.”
The two girls lost touch the way most people do over the years, they each said. Life just happened. Lin went on to attend Baylor University in Waco, Texas, earning a degree in finance. With no plans of going back to Indiana and with fond memories of visits with aunts and uncles in Southern California, she decided in 1988 to make the move to Downey.
Lin would work what she called “cubicle jobs” in her field of study, but she hated it. After 12 years of that, she became a teacher like both her parents, teaching third graders near the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles. In 2001, she got married. Sometime after, her husband, who was a traveling theater teacher, found a permanent job in Palm Desert, and Lin followed. In 2010, the two of them started a theater company out there called the Green Room Theatre Company. Lin is currently president of the company’s board of directors.
After high school, Tao would go on to attend Yale College where she received her bachelor’s in biology, then she went to New York University’s School of Medicine, where she got her medical degree. She did her post-graduate residency training at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Joint Center for Radiation Therapy, which she completed in 1998. She got her master’s degree from UCLA’s School of Public Health as part of a joint program through Harvard.
That same year, Tao became a California resident because a bicoastal relationship with a longtime Angelino she’d met at a wedding in Boston wasn’t ideal. The couple eventually married and built a home here in the Golden State. Tao’s been on the medical staff at Henry Mayo since 2016, where she’s a clinical associate professor of radiation oncology and the medical director of the Henry Mayo/USC cancer program.
“The weird thing is,” Tao said, “I’m a cancer doctor and I currently work for Keck Medicine of USC, and it turns out that (Lin) had cancer years ago — when she was living in Southern California — and was treated by a Keck OBGYN.”
In her individual discussion with The Signal, Lin also brought up her bout with cancer, which forced her to quit teaching.
“Around 2005,” she said, “I found out — and I’m fine now — I found out that I had cancer. It was some kind of uterine cancer thing. And I actually went to USC hospital, but to the one in L.A. And little did I know that (Tao) could’ve been a reference at that time.”
On Thursday, before Tao came out of her office to finally meet her former pen pal, Lin said she was feeling very nervous. Wearing a green dress — wardrobe she and Tao had discussed before meeting, so that they could both wear a green dress from their closets — she seemed jittery.
“What’s really interesting is that I’m meeting a complete stranger — almost,” she said. Then she brought up what, perhaps, she was most anxious about. “When we were really young, like, all Asian kids have to take piano. We all have to take violin. So, (Tao) would tell me what she was playing, and I’d tell her what I was playing. And whatever I was doing, she was doing it more exceptionally… I just remember she was super well-rounded, even as a kid. I knew this kid was going to be somebody.”
When Tao came out of her office and the two saw each other, they were not the doctor and the teacher/theater company president. They were the two little girls they once were, who shared letters between Indiana and Maine about “things that kids talk about.” They actually screamed and laughed in excitement and in wonder.
“I’m going to cry,” Tao said after they released from their embrace. “I never cry, and I take care of cancer patients.”
Lin gifted Tao with a friendship bracelet, which Tao put on immediately, and the two old friends talked a bit before Tao invited Lin inside for a tour of her office.
Lin, who was actually on vacation with her husband at Leo Carrillo State Beach, had plans of spending the night at Tao’s house in the Windsor Square neighborhood of Los Angeles. The former pen pals had much catching up to do. They wasted no time getting to it.