When COVID-19 hit Las Vegas hard in the early years of this decade, Dr. Kevin Lee, an internist at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV, one of the doctors trying to keep patients alive who were infected with the virus.
The university hospital’s intensive care unit, he recalls, was crammed with patients who often had trouble breathing on their own, and who sometimes even had to be put on ventilators to get oxygen into their lungs.
What frustrated Lee and other doctors early in the pandemic, he says, was how few resources they had to help hospitalized patients with the new coronavirus recover — basically, it was supportive care, including help with breathing and hydration , a care not dissimilar to treating severe flu symptoms.
“There was this horrible feeling of powerlessness,” he says. “I remember having to call patients’ families in the middle of the night to tell them to get to the hospital immediately, that we were in the middle of chest compressions (CPR) to save their loved one’s life . ..It was so painful to deal with patients and their families in this situation during this time.”
During this time, it was also painful for Lee – who had immigrated to the United States from South Korea with his parents as a child – to receive calls from frightened family members who were otherwise dealing with the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak when it was first first in China reported: Asian and Pacific Islander people in the US have been blamed and scapegoated for the new virus simply because of their race.
As of June 2021, less than two years after the pandemic broke out in the US, authorities reported that there had been more than 9,000 anti-Asian incidents across the country, ranging from taunts to outright attacks.
“My parents (they live in the Chicago area) were afraid to leave their house,” says Lee. “We talked about how to stay safe and they calmed down. I never had any problems in Las Vegas, but when I visited Chicago I was aware of my surroundings when I walked.”
A month before completing his three-year residency in Las Vegas — he’s going to the University of Hawaii on a cardiology fellowship — Lee shared challenges he’s facing, some thoughts on his future and how he’s coming to this place and time has come.
dr Aditi Singh, program director of the medical school’s internist residency program, was impressed with Lee.
“He has a proactive nature, determination and a ‘can-do’ attitude,” she says.
Those traits, coupled with a heightened sense of empathy, are largely a result of belonging to an immigrant family, Lee says, with parents who made great sacrifices to ensure he had the educational opportunities to choose the career of his choice.
He was six years old when his parents – his father leaving a well-paying position as a regional district manager/director of a clothing company – decided to immigrate to the United States from South Korea. His parents feared that the South Korean education system would steer him towards a specific field of study based on exams and background.
“They’re stricter there about changing decisions about a career,” says Lee.
Language problems in the US, says Dr. Lee, were more difficult than his parents expected, leading to employment problems for his father, the family breadwinner. While the boy-turned-doctor did fairly well on ESL (English as a second language) courses in elementary school — he says while some students laughed at his pronunciation, others wanted to help him — his father struggled with the language to fight.
Lee recalls how his father took up courses in English that could enable him to become a taxi driver and asked his then 10-year-old son to translate the instructions into Korean so he could understand them. “I will never forget the complexity of his feelings as he worked to understand them. It was difficult for me to translate because I didn’t know either language that well. But he managed to pass the test and get his driver’s license.”
When one of his Spanish-speaking patients and his patient’s family struggled to understand what he was telling them about the possibility of a heart transplant, Lee said he looked back at his father’s language challenges. “What my father went through trying to understand strengthened my empathy for patients with understanding problems. I want my patients to fully understand what treatments I am giving them, so I make sure they get the right translation.”
Lee found science fascinating in middle school and said by the time he reached the University of Illinois he saw medicine as a way to capitalize on his love of science. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, he attended medical school at the University of Illinois Chicago. He originally considered becoming a surgeon, but then switched to cardiology (first he had to do a residency in internal medicine) because the intellectual challenge of a specialty that helps treat or prevent cardiovascular problems is still there the leading cause of death in the US, is challenging
Because of the sacrifice made by his parents in giving him the opportunity to choose his own career path – Lee says they could have lived a less challenging financial life in South Korea – he says he is determined to be a doctor who never becomes complacent, he thinks he knows enough about the pathology of the disease from his studies.
“I always want to know more about what I don’t know,” he says. “I always research with my patients how I can best treat them. I have appreciated the independence I have had during my residency here, helping to make important decisions on behalf of patients.”