Anyone who is in medicine is an obsessive-compulsive,” declared Elaine Choy Lee ’71 back when she was a pediatrics intern. As a young doctor feeling the weight of life-or-death responsibility, she was describing the intensity of “a person with high standards who wants to be the best.”
Yet Lee is anything but a single-minded slave to routine; in fact her life story is full of unexpected, maverick, mold-breaking choices. Her father, a Chinese sailor, jumped ship in America; he was deported twice, but after serving in World War II he was granted citizenship and brought his Chinese wife and children to the US. The couple settled, and had three more children, in New York City’s Chinatown, where he worked in restaurants and she made clothes in a sweatshop. He’d had basic education and later learned English; she’d been denied any schooling as a child and remained illiterate. Young Elaine did so well at the local public school that she earned a transfer to prestigious Bronx Science (traveling an hour by subway each morning and afternoon), and then used a Regents Scholarship to attend Skidmore, a safe-sounding all-women’s college not too far from home.
“Skidmore encouraged me to explore,” she says, “so right away I took philosophy. It was very different from the science focus I’d had in high school.” She adds, thanks to “Warren Hockenos—probably my favorite professor in the whole world—I was totally fascinated.” Graduating with an atypical BA in philosophy and biology, she still faced all-too-typical limitations on careers for women at that time, so she pursued a master’s in education at New York University. She went back to Chinatown as a science teacher in an alternative high school but recalls, “I couldn’t get to teaching any real science, because the kids had so much trouble with basic English and basic math. I burned out really fast.”
Barely missing a beat, she decided out of the blue to become a doctor. “I was a really good teacher,” she says, and perhaps that talent melded with her scientific skills to lead her into pediatrics. She earned her MD at Dartmouth and completed an internship at Columbia (where she and a colleague were the subjects of the 1981 book The Interns). Again she returned to her home neighborhood, where she has kept the same offices for some twenty years. “I’m beginning now to see the babies of patients I first met when they were newborns,” she says. “Getting to watch babies grow up, being part of that long-term development, is so rewarding.” Another draw is “the amazing ability of children to heal, even from life-threatening illness or injury. And that’s especially great because they can have another seventy or eighty years ahead of them.”
The assistants are certainly poised, polite, and competent. That may be the result of the Lees’ training. But there is one prerequisite they must arrive with: fluency in both English and Chinese. “A lot of my patients speak perfect English but really like it that we speak Chinese too,” says Lee. “They feel more comfortable, we understand some of the traditions, and we can communicate with the grandmas. I’ve always been proud of my heritage, so I love getting to speak Cantonese, my first language.”
Having a bilingual practice—and clearly a touch of the driven intensity she cited as an intern—means that Lee’s single examining room contains row upon row of shelves labeled alphabetically by topic and stacked with informational handouts in both English and Chinese.“I send patients home with millions of papers,” she admits with a smile. The references and reminders “can save them time and phone calls later.” Other educational material is posted all over the walls, including a lovely display, hand-drawn by the quietly multitalented Chuck, of infants as they learn to smile, grasp, sit up, and crawl.
Lee says, “I focus a lot on well-child care and development.” For example, “I’m on a crusade to vaccinate newborns against hepatitis B. Liver cancer later in life can often be traced back to hepatitis B, and there’s a high incidence of liver cancer in the Cantonese population I see.” Concerned about obesity and poor nutrition, she warns patients about “sitting at the computer and eating chips. But I know it’s hard: parents are often away at work for long hours, and kids around here don’t exactly have backyards to play in.” And she watches for emotional trouble, perhaps from the lingering trauma of the 9/11 attacks at the nearby World Trade Center, where “some of my patients lost a parent, and some had to run for their lives,” or perhaps from adjustment problems when “children raised by grandparents in China are plucked from that home and brought to the US to join parents they hardly know.”
When not doctoring (Saturday is the only day the office is closed), Lee and her husband, the parents of two college boys, go out running and walking, and not just for fun. After running half the 2002 New York City marathon as a guide to a disabled entrant, she promptly signed up for the full 2003 marathon herselfand began serious training. I'm pretty old. she laughs, so I won't be breaking any records; my goal is to finish. (In fact, she didin just under six hours.)
Even the family dog is a bit unconventional: it's a shiba inu, a sleek, foxy breed from Aisa. It's our first and last dog, Lee quips, because this one is so wonderful that no other dog could ever compare. She might well stand firm on that ... or she might not. Either way, don't be suprised if she adopts a pet tarantula, iguana, or a miniature horse.
Rosenberg visited Elaine Lee's Office in November.