Once an Olympic hopeful, he's now a doctor - in a wheelchair - helping others cope

June 17, 2005|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

It's a different kind of June graduation.

Ed Boehme, a 40-year-old man newly paralyzed from the waist down, is about to be released from John Hopkins' Comprehensive Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit. He's being transferred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington.

"I always tell my patients rehabilitation doesn't stop when you leave the hospital," says Dr. Robert Seung-bok "S.B." Lee, a chief resident at Hopkins, "that's where it starts."

Lee is seated at Boehme's bedside. In his wheelchair. They have bonded, these two men with broken bodies, in ways that healthier people probably can't comprehend.

In high school, Lee, now in his mid-30s, fell and crushed his neck doing a gymnastics routine while training for the South Korean Olympic team. Although he has limited use of his hands, he's classified as a quadriplegic.

Boehme's life changed only recently. A tumor in effect strangled his spinal cord. He underwent four surgeries in the past two months. He is just beginning to adjust to this strange new world of limitations.

Lee knows all too well what Boehme is going through. He recalls being scared years ago when he left the hospital and entered the more arduous rehab phase of his recovery. It was a long, lonely road to travel, but one that eventually led him to Dartmouth Medical School and post-graduate training at Harvard University and Hopkins.

Boehme, a computer analyst for MCI, hopes to resume his career. First, he will have to regain control of his fingers and learn to master a wheelchair.

"I see you just zooming through the hallways," he says to Lee. "That's what I want to do. ... I sure wish I could take you with me."

Lee is entering a new stage of his own life. He finishes his residency at the end of the month and turned down fellowship offers at both Harvard and Baylor medical schools to remain at Hopkins. He'll spend the next year doing research on spinal cord injuries, particularly problems related to fertility and infection.

If all goes according to plan, Lee will then make a sharp turn and devote three or four years to earning certification in internal medicine. He enjoys spinal cord research, but his heart is pulling him toward sports medicine. He is a volunteer physician for the U.S. Naval Academy football team and has served in a similar capacity at the Boston and Baltimore marathons, plus the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.

Someday, he intends to step off the medical-profession fast track and become a college or university team physician, the sporting world's equivalent of a general-practitioner country doctor.

"Deep down inside, I literally think the way I used to think as an athlete," Lee explains. "A lot of that mentality helped me get through medical school."

Born in Korea, but raised in New York City, Lee was a senior at a public high school in Queens back in 1987. He was also an elite gymnast who had just made the training squad of the South Korean Olympic gymnastics team, the payoff for years of practicing at least four hours a day, six days a week.

Floor exercises were his specialty. While working one night on a move called the Arabian One and Three Quarter - imagine somersaulting through the air and ending in a modified pushup position - Lee landed full force on his chin. He hyperextended his neck and dislocated the seventh vertebra on his spine.

He would never walk again, much less compete in the Olympics.

"My dream was to win a gold medal and represent Korea," says Lee. "I always told myself I was doing this for my parents and my country."

The Lee family emigrated to the United States in the early 1970s, filled with land-of-opportunity expectations. But Lee's father, Changkoo, a pharmacist back home, could find employment only as a janitor. His mother, Bosook, worked in a staple factory, punching in at 4 a.m. every day.

Ten years ago, Lee's parents had a change of heart and returned to Seoul. By that time, Lee had found a new dream to pursue and was making his way in America in a wheelchair. During a three-month stay at an acute-care facility in Pennsylvania and another eight months at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine in New York, he decided to become a doctor.

Lee wanted to know why his body didn't work anymore, what circuits had blown inside him. He also wanted to make a point to those doctors and residents who would breeze into the rehab unit and treat paralyzed patients like "research projects," poking and prodding them, yammering to one another in their incomprehensible med-speak.

A thought bubbled up in his brain: "I'm going to tell you guys someday how it really is."

Lee does that now, sometimes merely by going about his business at the hospital, sometimes by politely bringing to the staff's attention that, for example, many disabled people can't open the bathroom doors in the inpatient rehab unit. (Those doors have since been modified.)

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