HERstory: Dr. Hyunjoo Lee
Dr. Hyunjoo Lee joined our Emergency Medicine faculty in 2018. She graduated Stony Brook University School of Medicine in 2014. From there she completed a residency in Emergency Medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York City in 2017 and completed a fellowship in Medical Education at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Dr. Lee has shown a passion for medical education and teaching and was the recipient of the Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching on June 2020. We were able to have the opportunity to talk with Dr. Lee, who is warmly referred to as Juju, to learn more about her.
Here's a loaded first question - Why did you want to go into medicine?
Haha, that is pretty loaded. Well my interactions with physicians always left a big imprint when I was a kid. My pediatrician was the first early memory of my interaction with physicians and she was the type of person who really cared for her patients. My parents are immigrants, working 6 days a week, 13 hours a day, and we didn’t have a lot of money when I was a kid. My pediatrician knew that and she wouldn’t charge us for the actual visit, only for the cost of medicine. As a kid you don’t think about that, but as I got older, I realized that I wanted to be a doctor like her – someone who really cares for their patients. Also, my dad was sick when I was younger. He had liver cancer and I accompanied him to his doctor’s visits. My dad’s physicians were excellent, so that also left a huge imprint on me. But I was also thinking about becoming a teacher. Even in college I had these thoughts of becoming a teacher and it worked out, now I can do both!
It seems that you really interacted with a lot of physicians when you were younger. Did you notice a strong female physician presence in your childhood?
Wow, I didn’t notice that until you pointed that out, but actually – yeah. My pediatrician was female, and my dad’s oncologist and radiation oncologist were also female. In fact, every Wednesday afternoon my dad would pick me up from school and we would drive to Philly for his radiation therapy. I remember my dad’s radiation oncologist was great – she was kind, gentle, took time to explain things to my dad, and she would acknowledge me during the visit. I did my fellowship at Thomas Jefferson and I’m happy to say that she’s still there.
Who was your role model growing up?
I looked up to my parents. My parents are immigrants and they worked a lot. I’d like to think I inherited their work ethic. My dad instilled in us very early on the importance of education. While all my friends were getting part-time jobs, my dad always told me to pursue something educational. We didn’t have a lot of money, but my parents supported me with anything educational that I wanted to pursue. And my mom is super hard-working, her work ethic is incredible. She should be retired by now, but she refuses to because she can be ‘stubborn’ like that.
[Laughs] I can totally respect that. What does your mom do?
She owns a dry cleaner in the city. My mom and dad started a dry-cleaning business after they got married. They met in America while my dad was a telecommunications engineer and my mom was a watchmaker. They met because they worked in the same building near Columbus Circle. My mom said that she’s going to take it easy, and now she works 5 days a week instead of 6 days a week [laughs]. Honestly, I think part of the reason why she still works is because her sisters and brother are in the same business, so it’s really a way to stay connected with family. My mom and dad started with a small store in Queens. Eventually, they made it into Manhattan – they had the main dry cleaner in Midtown and a smaller drop-off store in another building. Despite losing my dad to cancer in 2001, my mom has managed to continue to build the business and has added multiple drop-off stores which are each run by one of her siblings. She really built up a family-run business. She’s the real superwoman in our family. I have much to live up to.
Your parents had an amazing work ethic, I can't imagine what it must take to have that perserverence. What drives you now?
Every day I am learning. My job isn’t to just teach, but it is also to learn. Along my educational journey I’ve always had people who made education fun. In high school I hated reading but I had a teacher in high school who changed our Catholic high school reading list to things that you would never think that we would ever read, like Rosemary’s Baby. That made me think like “wow, someone can actually make education fun.” I enjoyed being on the receiving end of that and I wanted to be able to create an environment like that for the people I teach. Even in medical school, people like Dr. Wackett and Dr. Cohen really made learning fun. I also learn by teaching too, so there is some selfish motivation to that. And I also love seeing that lightbulb moment go off whenever I’m teaching someone.
What really makes me happy is seeing that people acknowledge all of the efforts you put forth towards teaching and it makes complete sense that you are deserving of the Teaching Award! How does it make you feel to have received that award?
I was watching the graduation from home and I was eating before my 4pm shift when they broke the news and I think I almost choked on my food. I don’t do the things I do to seek out awards. I have fun doing them. I didn’t expect it at all. I’m still in shock. I’m humbled and honored that I received it, and it definitely gives me an extra boost of confidence.
Ten years ago, did you think you’d be where you are now?
Ten years ago I just started my first year of medical school. I never thought that I would be in this position ten years ago. Five years ago, when I graduated medical school, I half-joked with Dr. Cohen and I told him that I wanted to be him. He probably has no recollection of that. I definitely thought to myself “you know, in five or ten years I think I want to do what Dr. Cohen and Dr. Wackett do.” It’s interesting to me to see that a lot of that is panning out. I love working closely with the medical students and with teaching, simulation, and education. It definitely helps to have a big goal, even though they’re lofty goals.
What do you want the next five to ten years of your life to look like?
My five-year plan last year was to be where I am now, so I think I might have to take a look at what my new professional goals should be. I’m also trying to convince my mom to retire. On a personal level, my husband and I would love to have kids at some point.
[Laughs] Yeah it seems like you need even larger goals now! Do you think that your professional goals ever prevented you from achieving your personal goals?
A lot of my goals have been work-oriented, like being a better doctor and educator. I don’t believe that my personal goal of having children was affected by my professional goals. My husband did his anesthesia residency at Stony Brook and is working around this area. While I was in residency, I lived in the city and he lived out here. We lived apart during my fellowship, too, since he was working out here. Personally, I didn’t want to be pregnant during residency or during my fellowship in Philly since my family lived in New York. My work never prevented me from having kids, it was more of a personal choice and I had the luxury of the choice to wait for what I feel may be the right time.
Have you ever felt like you had a lot of obstacles to get where you are today?
The women in Emergency Medicine are becoming more vocal about their standpoints and having more leadership roles. It’s one of the things that was important to me when I was ranking residency programs because I really wanted a strong, confident residency leadership and that’s why I chose to go to Mount Sinai Beth Israel. It helped to be in that program because my program director, Dr. Saadia Akhtar, showed me what strong leadership looked like, despite the various barriers she might have faced to get to the position she had. I don’t think that I’ve ever had a position turned down because of my gender, but I do struggle with imposter syndrome. My husband always tells me not to put myself down but a part of that is cultural. You don’t see a lot of female leadership in Korean culture, but my dad always told me that females can do anything and to chase the American dream. I’m still trying to balance being vocal and humble, and not letting things prevent me from reaching my goals.
Imposter syndrome is real and it's really hard to battle but I'm glad to see that you're still reaching your goals despite feeling this way. Is there any advice that you would tell yourself 10 years ago?
So many things. Don’t be afraid to say no. The reason why I say this is because, like my parents, I hate saying no to things. My dad was really generous and even with things he didn’t have to do, he would do just because he could. When I was in college, I would drive everyone to the airport all of the time if I was free, even if I wasn’t going in that general direction, just because I could. Now I realize that was silly. And on the flip side, say yes to things, even if you’re scared because they can lead to opportunities. Even now, I’m a relatively brand-new attending but when I was asked to get involved with medical student education I still said yes, even though I felt like I was drowning. But it led me to where I am now.
Any last-minute advice?
Stay humble, be excited, and continue to learn every day. I basically tell myself this every day. Sometimes you get so focused on the minor things but when you look at the big picture that’s when you’ll realize that everything is and will be okay.
Hyunjoo Lee, MD is a Clinical Associate Professor at Stony Brook Emergency Medicine. She can be found on Twitter @EMdocJuju
Elizabeth Dalchand, MD is a PGY-2 Resident at Stony Brook Emergency Medicine. She can be found on Twitter @lizdalchand