Friday, July 1, 2022
I am writing the first chapter of my first book that I will submit for publications. It is fun just to think of my very first book to be published. I always wanted to write a book and I hope that this will be the first of many books that will reflect my philosophy. I hope that I won’t embarrass myself and my family in any way in writing this very first attempt in conveying what I felt and learned and thought in my sixty years.
I was born into a family with a two very dramatic and different history and background. My father is an orphan due to the Korean War, when he lost both of his parents due to the epidemic that began during and after the war. My mother on the other hand came from a very rich family in North Korea. My father was a tutor for my mother and her younger cousins to teach English when they met and fell in love. I was their very first and oldest child of three. I was lucky. I was extremely lucky to be born into a family who cherished the importance of education above all else. My mother always emphasized the education as the single most important aspect of bettering one’s life. She also lamented the fact that she lost the opportunity to study more due to unexpected pregnancy and her early marriage.
Due to the fact that my mother had such an emphatic belief in education as well as influencing my father to pursue the higher education for all of the kids, I was given a rare opportunity to the two very disparate educational systems consisting of that in Seoul, South Korea and the rural Walters, Oklahoma of the U.S.A. I am unique in the sense that I had a rare privilege of experiencing the entire spectrum of kindergarten to eighth grades of three different educational institutions in Seoul, S. Korea and coming to the midwestern farming town of the U.S.A. to attend the free public high school at Walters, Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma on a presidential scholarship, Oklahoma University Health and Science Medical School with several scholarships and University of Kansas in Wichita for my surgical residency on salary.
I feel that it is my duty to share this unique insight into the different educational systems of both countries so that we all can understand the current situation where the Samsung, LG, Hyundai Motors, Kia, SKG and Doosan are major Korean Companies dominating the high tech industries including computing, cellular phone and transportation sectors competing directly with many companies in Germany, Japan, U.S.A.
In 1976 when my parents immigrated to Walters, Oklahoma for better life and better opportunity in education, the Republic of Korea, more popularly known as South Korea had few opportunities in education and subsequent job markets. There were only three top universities unlike now. The job opportunities were very few and highly competitive. Just to make it through the high school, you had to have enough support from your family to attend the after school institution that prepared you for achieving higher scores in the standardized exit exam to qualify the students to attend the top three universities. It was impossible to go to Seoul University unless you are top of your class. There were usually over thousand students competing for the top seed in your class. You had to breathe, eat and sleep about your studies. You devoted almost all of your teenage life in various classes for rote memorization type of studies. It was tedious, endless, boring, expensive and daunting. However, the amount of studies that we did eventually made us incredibly competitive in later days. However, having said that, my parents did not have the money or connections to put me in the top tiered university in Seoul at that time. I was reaching the perfect age of 14 when the decision had to be made to go to the academics to become a physician, scientist, teacher, scholar, professor, accountant, lawyer, etc. vs. vocational route of blue collar worker fixing cars, boats, houses, plumbing, streets, etc. etc.
My father was given a rare opportunity to immigrate to the U.S.A. as a student. He worked in Vietnam as a part of lowly paid professional to work for the U.S.A. companies in Vietnam during the height of American involvement in the affairs of the civil war in Vietnam during the late 1960’s. He served as an accountant making less than 10% of his U.S. counterpart. He made approximately $400 every month while risking his life sleeping in a makeshift work camp tent in Danang, South Vietnam in the sweltering heat and humidity during the height of Vietnam War. The U.S. company called Philco, which was a small accounting subsidiary of Ford Company hired many Korean technocrats like my father, who had a university degree in business management and accounting to apply for a job that was pretty high payment for the average Koreans back then. He saved every dollar and sent it to mother. My mother was an incredible money manager. She increased the money by high risk personal loan business and had it increased to the point that she bought a big house in Seoul. The house was in a nice old neighborhood near the Han River next to a main road. Due to ease of transportation the house kept going up in value. The house was big enough to accommodate my maternal grandmother, maternal aunt, her son, my mother and my two siblings and a two extra rooms to rent. My mother made more money by renting the rooms out. She was an incredible money manager. More importantly she was a visionary. She saw something special in all three of her children. She saw that both myself and my younger brother had potential of becoming a highly educated professionals and my sister with a talent in music to become a pianist. She encouraged my father to get us to move from highly competitive and desperately poor S. Korea in 1970’s to a much better, richer and educationally advanced America. America was portrayed as a land of opportunity for anyone with strong aspiration and ambition.
Due to the fact the U.S. troops came to help us fight the North Korea and Communist Russians and Communist Chinese during the bloody civil war in Korea during 1950 to 1953, S. Koreans were in daily contact with American troops. The military people always drove their cars in the streets of Seoul, spent money lavishly and were always in good humor. S. Koreans were war torn and battered. We did not know what humor was. The relaxed and easily laughing happy U.S. troops with the nice jeeps, expensive clothes and advanced technology portrayed on the movies and television shows gave my mother and most of others the dream of moving to the new country. We were told that Hollywood Boulevard were lined with glittering gold nuggets. We just had to go and work a little and become very rich. They were right in a sense. The America was a land filled with golden opportunity. The analogy of gold on the streets was pretty much right on. The gold was the money that you get paid for becoming a professional with a license to charge. The license was achieved by education that was free. Therefore, America was really a land filled with golden nuggets. You just have to try hard to achieve the education to unlock the key to success. It’s too bad that the native Americans and their kids rarely see the opportunity. They actually don’t even want to succeed in life. They just want to have fun.
My mother was able to see the truth of the value in education for her children. She also knew that you only get few chances in life to be educated. She was very clever in knowing that if you miss an opportunity to learn during the time of your tender years, you will be behind for the rest of your life. She also sensed that there are many obstacles that will impair the educational opportunities. These are the major obstacles that she sensed and knew to avoid. I will list them as the most relevant for us. The first obstacle is the place where you live. If you live in a bad neighborhood, you only get to see the poverty all around you. The school that you attend will be limited by the people who attend the school. If the parents are poor, most likely your students will be poor in their thinking and lack the high achieving aspiration. Another obstacle is the lack of parental support. She believed that behind any successful scholar there must be both parents who are willing to sacrifice almost everything to help foster the highest educational objectives of the kid. Another one is the distraction of any sort. The distractions are laziness, lack of dream, lack of ambition, lack of vision, lack of defined goals, lack of knowledge, lack of insight, lack of funds, early romantic entanglements, lack of trusted friends, lack of social networking and lack of faithful prayers. She did not tolerate us being lazy in any sort of way. She made us to keep us clean, be on time, plan ahead, never be behind, always finish everything and read constantly. She told us to keep from any distractions. She limited television viewing time and praised us for reading. She took us to the library, attended everything that we did. She saw to it that my sister had a piano lesson by the best teacher. She was the best cheerleader and the most difficult task master. She knew every little thing that happened to us in school and listened to us attentively hours and hours without losing interests. She prayed about our plights and upcoming tests and anything else and told us in very sound advice what should be done. She gave me one lesson that still resonates with me. She told me that in life you will make mistakes. Don’t make the same mistake twice. This lesson was very much appreciated. It worked like this. The very first exam I bombed. I thought I studied a lot but I still made 90%. I missed four questions. She made me go back and found what I made mistakes on. She made sure that I knew the four questions inside and out. Then she told me to study all of the things that I got it right so that I will not forget any of the things that I got right. I never made a second mistake since then. I always learned from my mistakes. That helped me in my life. When I finished my high school career by becoming a valedictorian of my class and the president of the student council, I got a full scholarship to the University of Oklahoma. My mother was happy for me but also sad that I was not going to the Ivy League Schools. She made a monument decision to move all of our family from the rural farming town of Walters with the 3,000 people to the big city of Moore where the high school had more people than the entire town of Walters.
My real education just started to become serious. The high school years in Walters were easy for me. There were essentially no competition. The majority of my high school friends had no aspirations in life. They only knew that they will get married early in life, work in a minimal pay job, play around as much as possible going to a bar, hunting, fishing, motoring, hooking up, smoking dope, attending concerts, drinking beer and watching endless television. They only worked to feed their good time distractions. Their parents had similar jobs and had similar fun activities. Don’t get me wrong. There are few who are very ambitious. They went on to become a military officers, navy pilots, police man, highway patrol, school teachers. However, 90% of my friends had binge drinking during the weekend, romantic partners, enjoyed their lives early on without big dreams of becoming a professional or earn a decent living. I used to envy how much free time they had during the highschool days. Whereas I was involved in all of the educational activities, my friends were all in athletic endeavors. I also worked after the school for four hours in a store in town making below the minimum wage and came home after 7 p.m. to eat and study for the next day. I also worked 8 hour shifts on Saturday. On Saturday afternoon I had a lawn mowing business with two churches that I took care of and many neighbors’ lawns also. My reputation grew as the lawns were cut well and the fee was only five dollars per yard regardless of the sizes. I started making some serious money. However, the most important lesson here was that I had no distractions to my ultimate goal of achieving the highest educational objectives.
After I finished four years of undergraduate studies in Chemistry and Political Science, I attended the OU Health Sciences Center for my medical school education. I was fortunate. I was one of the few who had a full scholarship, which included cash for all of my books, supplies and living expenses. I commuted from home and saved my scholarship money. The medical school was harder than anything that I had studied so far. First two years of fast paced school works went by quickly. My last two years of clerkship and actual clinical and hospital work were so much fun. I loved working with the doctors and nurses. I learned a great deal. I kept my humble attitude to learn from anyone. I became a straight A student. I was asked by multiple residents to apply to their program. I only had my eyesight set on becoming the coolest guys in the hospital. That was the General Surgeons. These residents always had a very nicely pressed white gowns. They rounded on their patients with ties and pressed white lab coats that came down to knees. They always rounded in group early in the morning. There was humor, candor and coolness about the entire surgical residents. They were always confident and almost all of their patients did well. Unlike the other medical patients with multiple co-morbidities and chronic illnesses, almost all of the surgical patients stayed in the hospital for a just few days and left in better condition than before. I did not like internal medicine, pulmonology, infectious disease, cardiology, oncology, pathology, radiation medicine, orthopedics, neurosurgery, physical medicine, rehab medicine, OB/GYN and pediatrics. I only liked General Surgery. I applied and got my first choice in my residency in University of Kansas School of Medicine in Wichita, Kansas. The program was set up in line with the best and supportive environment to groom and educate the best surgeon. The surgical residency was known to have many surgical cases. There was a kidney, pancrease transplant program. There were children heart program. There was a cardiac and lung transplant program. There was a dynamic trauma program. I had some of the most innovative surgeons who were an early pioneer in advanced laparoscopy surgery. I was taught by the best of the best in their fields. I had attended over 3,000 supervised surgeries that I was able to perform for the five years of my training. Toward my end of fifth year as a chief resident, I was recommended to go on to study the cardiac and thoracic fellowship in adults and pediatrics. However, I was determined to be the best general surgeon with all around experience. My mentors from vascular surgery, colo-rectal surgery, oncology surgery, head and neck surgery and orthopedic surgery as well as neurosurgery all wanted me to apply for their fellowship program. However, I turned it all down to pursue my surgical career. I joined a surgical corporation in Sioux City, IA. The trauma and vascular surgical volumes were plentiful in Sioux City, IA. I loved my seven years of initial independent surgical career with two other busy surgeons. We did everything. All of trauma, head and neck, breast, chest, abdomen, pelvis and extremity surgery. I was one of the very few to do everything. I did my endoscopy, colo-rectal, vascular and advanced laparoscopic surgery. I performed pancreatectomy, many vascular surgeries. I performed laparoscopic Nissen Fundoplication surgery. I did some major trauma surgery and limb saving surgery. I did many variety of surgeries and became confident that I can set up my own private practice. After seven fantastic years, I moved to California and set up my own private practice.
I sent a letter out to five major hospitals. I gave them my resume and intent to move to Orange County, California. The five hospitals were some of the biggest and busiest hospitals. Some of them sent back a letter stating that they had too many competing surgeons. They discouraged me from moving. However, one particular hospital, Garden Grove Hospital, wanted to sponsor my move. They paid for my moving truck, movers, office space, first year of salary and introduction to the medical society. I got a running start. I only had one nurse for my office. I had three small exam rooms and began advertising my practice. I slowly built my reputation in Orange County. I became one of the very first surgeon to perform laparoscopic appendectomy in one of the major hospital. It became a norm after I began the advanced laparoscopic surgeries. I began to learn more about wounds, hyperbaric system, advanced laparoscopic surgeries and da Vinci Robotic platforms. One of the two largest non-profit hospitals was acquiring the very first Robotic machine. They wanted to have five general surgeons to learn the Robotic. I volunteered to learn the da Vinci Robotic machine and started implementing in my practice in 2015. My Robotic practice grew quickly and I became one of the most prolific Robotic surgeon in Orange County. I was nominated as the Best Doctors in Orange County every year from 2001 until 2019.
After exactly twenty years of my private practice, 2019 I quit working in the busy private practice in Orange County and moved my practice into the Hospital Based Salary Position in Crescent City, California. I am the only surgeon for the two weeks that I work here in Crescent City, California. Our small rural hospital has 48 beds and 10 of which are emergency room beds. The services that we provide for over 30,000 people in surrounding towns and cities are invaluable. I treat everyone. Regardless of insurance status, I treat everyone. Our hospital is a non-profit Sutter Health System. The entire system treats everyone equally. We are the only hospital in 80 miles. We service all of the inmates in Pelican Bay State Prison that incarcerates the maximum security prisoners. The occasional stabbing victims come to me for trauma evaluation and treatment. I see lots of cancer patients. I also do many endoscopic work. I see over 25 patients per day and do seven or eight surgeries daily. I stay very busy. I feel that it is my mission to help the community as best as I can.
For the past few years that I have been spending time here in Crescent City, I get to commute from Orange County by flying into Oakland Airport and taking the only one flight into Crescent City, Del Norte County Regional Airport. Since my layover time is over five hours, I get to visit San Francisco riding on a Bart train. As I visit more and more streets of San Francisco over the past three years, I have noticed substantial increase in poverty, homeless populations, trash in the streets, drug users, and mentally ill people in these streets. One cannot ignore the decline of America in general reflected by the numbers of homeless people, dirty streets, graffiti filled downtown, drug users with needles everywhere, millions of trash and gums litter the streets, human wastes and wasted humans dumped everywhere, encampments of various colors and the stink. The stench of dirty streets can never be forgotten. The mentally deranged people talking to themselves, gesturing, walking out into the streets, talking to anyone, hundreds of beggars in tattered and dirty clothes walking up to anyone and begging for money to do what with? Use it for drugs. I am not alone in this feeling of despair, depression, sadness, lost while watching the endless parade of the rapid decline in our society. I feel outraged, violated, feel cheated by the government, the inept governor, inept elected officials, lazy public work forces, highly paid cops doing nothing, lack of mental facility, lack of housing for these impoverished, drug crazed mental people. I feel downright sad and mad at the same time. I feel it through my bone. The chilling impact of seeing the worst of our broken down social system of injustice in leaving these helpless victims of capitalism just dwindle away, when the federal government in 1980’s spread the crack cocaine to sell to the inner city poor people to fund the central American anti-government guerillas with arms from Iran. We are paying interests payments as well as the huge sums of principal for the sins of our past mistakes. I see the decline of our youths in this broken system of lack of education, lack of desire to do better, lack of future ambition. We are lacking. As a surgeon who also swore by oath to do no harm to the patients and do good to save lives, I feel obligated by my oath to call for help for our sickened brothers and sisters in the city. For all dirty streets of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, San Diego. Sacramento, NYC, Miami, Atlantic City, etc, etc. I want to propose, “Let’s Clean Up, America.”
Francis Sangwon Lee, M.D.
July 1, 2022