Vickroy: Dr. Hyoung Lee made life itself better
Hardship and adversity only made Hyoung Lee more compassionate.
The oldest of six children, Lee grew up dirt poor in Wonju, South Korea, during the Korean War. His family often went hungry, and there was even a three-day period during which there was no food at all.
When he was 2, Lee began developing fevers and swollen joints. The one doctor who cared for the town’s population of about 100,000 prescribed ice packs.
Later, when Lee was 12, he was treated with antibiotics. The arthritis was often so painful that he couldn’t walk even to the bathroom. Doctors next tried cauterizing the skin around his joints, which did little more than leave scars on his legs.
Despite these struggles, Lee worked hard, persevered and went on to medical school at Korea University. In 1968, he emigrated to the United States, where he did his residency work and faced new obstacles — speaking very little English, having to moonlight during his internship to support himself and often facing emotionally painful discrimination.
Three years later, he opened a pediatrics practice in Oak Forest and soon moved it to Tinley Park, where he continued to see patients until his death in November.
Though he didn’t talk much about his early challenges, the kindness Lee developed as a result of them was greatly appreciated by his patients, many of whom were second and even third generation and many of whom attended his funeral.
“We were overwhelmed by how many people came to his memorial service,” said his eldest daughter, Grace Lee, an infectious disease doctor at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Many of the mourners, including a 7-year-old girl, stood and spontaneously spoke about him. It was very touching.”
“My father always supported those who didn’t have as much as we did,” said Joyce Lee, his youngest daughter, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Michigan. “He loved his patients, loved to work and loved his family.”
Because they believe their father would cringe at the thought of his office equipment ending up in a landfill, Grace and Joyce have worked with South Suburban Hospital, where Lee was on staff, to re-purpose the vintage materials so Lee’s legacy of giving may continue.
The daughters, both Sandburg High School grads, are donating his exam tables, cabinets, blood pressure cuffs and other items to another Southland physician who recently opened a 350-bed hospital in India.
In 2005, Prasad Neerukonda, an anesthesiologist at South Suburban Hospital, founded Anil Neerukonda Hospital in a poor rural village in eastern India, on the edge of the Bay of Bengal, near where he grew up. There was no hospital within about 25 miles, and people were in desperate need of health care, especially emergency services. He founded the hospital in memory of his son, Anil, a medical student who died in an accident in 1996.
Neerukonda saw the hospital as a way to allow his son to live on, serving the people he was preparing to care for. The Lee sisters feel the same about donating their father’s equipment.
Jim Munz, coordinator of medical technology at South Suburban Hospital, organized the donation.
“Part of what we do is help doctors and their families decide what to do with equipment after retirement or, in this case, death,” said Munz, a lab worker in Oak Forest when he first met Lee.
“Dr. Lee was a delightful man, a rock-solid member of the South Suburban community.”
After Lee’s death, Munz visited both of his daughters, who quickly embraced the idea of passing the equipment on to a colleague trying to make life better for less fortunate people halfway around the world.
“It would mean a lot to him to know he was helping people beyond his patient population,” Joyce said.
Grace said, “We wanted to make sure he could continue to give. We think he’d be happy knowing someone was still able to use the equipment.”
Two days before he died, Lee, 72, was in his office working.
“He loved being a pediatrician so much, he couldn’t bring himself to retire,” Joyce said. “Every year when it came time to renegotiate his lease, he’d consider retiring and then extend the lease for one more year.”
The day before he died, Lee dropped off his wife of 41 years, Hee Ja, at the airport for a planned trip to Boston to visit Grace and her family. Then he checked himself into the hospital.
He forbade the staff to contact his family because he wanted Hee Ja and Grace to enjoy a Nov. 10 performance in which Grace’s daughters, Naomi and Abby, were to sing.
The following morning, he let hospital staff contact his wife. She and Grace took the first flight back to Chicago. But, sadly, Lee died 45 minutes before they arrived.
Naomi and Abby as well as Joyce’s children, Bruno and Stella, wrote letters to their beloved grandfather.
Grace recalled how he took his grandchildren every year to Winter Wonderfest at Navy Pier and bought them the spinning light-up toys they treasured.
“His expressions of love when we were growing up were not through his words, but through his actions,” she said. “When Joyce and I could drive, he would wake up early every morning and brush the snow off our gray Lincoln Continental and warm it up for us before we went off to school.”
Every year, when they came home from college for winter break, he’d be waiting with a flu shot in hand, Grace said.
Lee was the kind of physician who went out of his way to help his patients. He called them back in the middle of the night. It was not unusual for him to answer the office phone.
“He was a very generous and kind man,” Joyce said.
And the throng of people who came out for his memorial service and funeral back that up.
A poem read by two of his grandchildren at the service sums things up for the Lee sisters:
“Not how did he die, but how did he live?
“Not what did he gain, but what did he give?
“These are the units to measure the worth
“Of a man as a man, regardless of birth.
“Not what was his church, nor what was his creed?
“But had he befriended those really in need?
“Was he ever ready, with word of good cheer,
“To bring back a smile, to banish a tear?
“Not what did the sketch in the newspaper say,
“But how many were sorry when he passed away?”