The Other Side of the Stethoscope
Robert "S.B." Lee, DMS '01
When Dr. Robert Seung-bok Lee (known to all as "S.B.") talks about his work in rehabilitation medicine, he speaks of the "privilege" of working with spinal-cord injury patients and of the "advantage" he has over many of his colleagues at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. The advantage is that he, himself, is a quadriplegic.
Lee, a 2001 graduate of Dartmouth Medical School, was injured 24 years ago. He was a high school senior, a highly competitive gymnast in Flushing, N.Y., who was determined to raise his skills to the world-class level—even if it meant going against the wishes of his immigrant parents. Much to their dismay, Lee left home to train for a chance to compete with the Korean gymnastics team in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. He thought hard work and determination would earn him a slot and make his parents proud.
And he did make the cut for the Korean team. But then came a devastating injury. It happened during a routine practice of a routine move on a routine day. The diagnosis: injury to the spinal cord from dislocation of his seventh cervical vertebra. The prognosis: he would spend the rest of his life paralyzed from the neck down.
Angry, frightened, and in pain, Lee entered a hospital-based rehabilitation program. One day, a group of physicians came through the ward "with all kinds of tools and gadgets." They were cold, abrupt, and seemingly disinterested in his plight or that of the other patients around him. He had expected more from medical professionals, especially considering his age and situation. But they made no eye contact, he remembers, and, in fact, never even lifted their heads from looking at their clipboards.
"We were their little guinea pigs for research projects, and they were checking on how things were brewing," he says, remembering how belittled he felt. "That's when I decided I was going to take matters into my own hands" and become a doctor.
Frightened and in pain after his spinal-cord injury, Lee recalls a group of physicians who were cold, abrupt, and seemingly disinterested. "That's when I decided to take matters into my own hands," he says, and become a doctor.
At New York's Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, he was fitted with a special glove containing a pen point, making it possible for him to take notes in his own form of shorthand. Somehow he got through his undergraduate studies at New York University.
Medical school was even more challenging for Lee. His memories of Dartmouth range from good to bittersweet. Just getting accepted was hard enough. Dr. James Bell was on the admissions committee that considered his application, and Bell recalls that not everyone believed a quadriplegic could succeed at DMS.
Ultimately, Lee did succeed, but not without "a lot of battles along the way," according to Bell. Some of Lee's battles
were with the difficulty of the courses, some with northern New England weather, and some with his own body. Bell remembers a time when Lee burned his hand on a radiator and required three months of treatment and rehabilitation before he could return to class.
Lee also needed two full hours in the morning just to tend to his personal care. He wishes now that he had built more stamina before entering medical school, because that's what he needed to punch through the pain of sitting in a wheelchair all day or to push himself around campus with one arm. In the winter, of course, his life got even harder, though his classmates helped him to navigate snowy streets and sidewalks.
Studying was a big problem. He could have done it sitting in his wheelchair at night, but he didn't want to "overdo it and get pressure sores." So he'd prop himself up on one side in bed to read. It was hard to concentrate in that position, so he often fell asleep over his books. No matter what the task, everything took longer for Lee than for anyone else. By the end of his first year, he was discouraged; some days, he felt like "the whole world was against" him.
When it came time for his initial clinical experiences, Dr. John Radebaugh, a member of the Department of Community and Family Medicine, took Lee with him on house calls to rural patients. Lee did quite well, Radebaugh recalls, connecting especially well with handicapped patients or those dealing with other hardships. Lee was able to gain their confidence, and on follow-up visits many of these patients would often ask to see the student, not the teacher.
"S.B. was older than most students, and because he'd been through so much he was able to relate to people in a more adult manner," says Radebaugh, who is now retired.
Lee credits Radebaugh with teaching him the art of medicine. The older physician was a mentor, a friend, almost an uncle. When it came time for Radebaugh to retire, even though he and his wife