When COVID-19 hit Las Vegas hard during the first couple of years of this decade, Dr. Kevin Lee, an internal medicine resident at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV, was one of the physicians trying to keep patients alive who were infected with the virus.
The intensive care unit at University Medical Center, he remembers, was packed with patients, frequently those of which had difficulty breathing on their own, and who sometimes even had to be placed on ventilators to get oxygen into their lungs.
In the beginning of the pandemic, what frustrated Lee and other physicians, he says, was how few tools they had to help hospitalized patients with the new coronavirus recover – basically, it was supportive care, including help with breathing and hydration, care not unlike treatment for severe symptoms of the flu.
“There was this terrible feeling of powerlessness,” he says. “I remember having to call families of patients in the middle of the night, telling them to come to the hospital right away, that we were in the middle of (CPR) chest compressions right then in an effort to save their loved one’s life...It was so painful during that time to deal with patients and their families in that situation.”
During that time, it was also painful for Lee – as a child, he immigrated with his parents from South Korea to the United States – to receive calls from frightened family members who were dealing in another way with the outgrowth of the coronavirus outbreak, which was first reported in China: people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent in the U.S. were being blamed, scapegoated, for the new virus, based solely on their race.
By June 2021, less than two years after the pandemic exploded in the U.S., authorities reported there’d been more than 9,000 anti-Asian incidents, from taunts to outright assaults, nationwide.
“My parents (they live in the Chicago area) were afraid to come out of their house,” Lee says. “We talked about ways they could stay safe, and they calmed down. I never had trouble in Las Vegas, but when I visited Chicago, I stayed aware of my surroundings when I took a walk.”
A month away from finishing his three-year residency in Las Vegas – he’s going on to the University of Hawaii for a fellowship in cardiology – Lee shared challenges he’s faced, some thoughts about his future, and how he got to this place and time.
Dr. Aditi Singh, program director for the medical school’s internal medicine residency program, has been 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, Lee says, are largely an outgrowth of being part of an immigrant family, with parents who made large sacrifices to ensure that he had the educational opportunities to choose the career of his choice.
He was six years old when his parents – his father left a well-paying position as regional district manager/director for a clothing company – decided to immigrate to the U.S. from South Korea. His parents worried that the South Korean educational system would steer him into a particular area of study based on examinations and background.
“They’re more strict there when it comes to changing decisions about a career,” Lee says.
Language challenges in the U.S., Dr. Lee says, were more difficult than his parents expected, causing employment difficulties for his father, the family’s breadwinner. While the youngster who became a physician navigated ESL (English as a second language) courses pretty well in elementary school – he says while some students laughed at his pronunciations, others reached out to help him – his father’s struggle with the language was more severe.
Lee remembers how his father would tape classes taught in English that could allow him to become a taxi driver and ask his then 10-year-old son to translate the instruction into Korean so he could understand it. “I’ll never forget the complexity of his emotions as he worked to understand. It was hard for me to translate because I didn’t know either language that well. But he managed to pass the test and get his chauffeur's license.”
When one of his Spanish-speaking patients and his patient’s family were having difficulties understanding what he told them about the possibility of a heart transplant, Lee said he flashed back to his father’s challenges with language. “What my father went through in trying to understand has made me more empathetic to patients having problems understanding. I want my patients to fully appreciate what treatments I might be giving them, so I make sure they get the proper translation.”
Finding science fascinating in middle school, Lee said that by the time he reached the University of Illinois, he saw medicine as a way to use his love for science. After receiving his bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, he went to medical school at the University of Illinois Chicago. Initially, he thought about becoming a surgeon, but changed to cardiology (he had to do a residency in internal medicine first) because of the intellectual challenge of a specialty that helps treat or prevent cardiovascular problems, still the leading cause of death in the U.S.
Because of the sacrifice of his parents that gave 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 physician who never grows complacent, who thinks he knows enough about the pathology of disease from his studies.
“I always want to know more about what I don’t know about,” he says. “With my patients, I always research how best to treat them. I’ve really appreciated the independence I’ve had in my residency here in helping make important decisions on behalf of patients.”