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Published On January 28, 2015

CLINICAL CARE

My Father's House

An immigrant physician’s daughter defines her American dream.

The kitchen of my Manhattan apartment used to contain multiples of the same cartoon potholder. On it, Ziggy is pictured sitting in the waiting room of “Dr. Lee, Acupuncturist” and contemplating a cactus.

The house I grew up in was filled with those potholders. They accumulated next to the decoratively painted circular saws, crocheted slippers, a freezer full of game—all from patients expressing gratitude for my father’s services as an anesthesiologist and acupuncturist in Hibbing, the northern Minnesota mining town of my childhood. In the heyday of Ziggy, no one could come across the “Dr. Lee, Acupuncturist” potholder and not get him one.

Growing up in Korea under the Japanese occupation, my father dreamed of being a doctor and being an American. Both goals had seemed impossibly far away. But somehow, after the war, my father accomplished both, coming to America as a refugee in 1953, and cementing his citizenship through his work as the sole anesthesiologist in a small town in the north of Minnesota. It was natural that his dreams would carry over to his children, and he did everything he could to encourage us to love and pursue medicine.

I still have the book of drawings from Vesalius, the Renaissance master of human anatomy, that I received when I was five, and the tome was probably bigger than I was. My older brothers were given deluxe chemistry sets filled with inflammables, while my sister and I played the game Operation. For our weekend family entertainment, we would watch surgical films—full of live-action blood and gore—borrowed from the hospital’s library.

But at age nine, I began to nurture my own dreams—I wanted to be a writer. I never wanted to disappoint my father, so I decided I could try to be a writer and a doctor. In high school, I wrote an essay that was published in Seventeen. But I had no natural talent in the sciences. I was saved from flunking my physics class only with the help of a clever lab partner.

My first college class—some kind of chemistry—made it clear that I couldn’t walk both roads. The professor began writing equations on a set of blackboards that were motorized, allowing him to write without a pause. I spent the class trying not to burst into tears.

It would take a decade, post-college, but I established a writing career. My father tried to put on a brave face, and even once asked me to help edit an academic paper about acupuncture. But his secret hope never quite faded. He’d point to doctor-novelists such as Michael Crichton and Ethan Canin. He’d note that, see, some writers managed to go to medical school too.

My father passed away unexpectedly when I was in my thirties. Not long afterward, my last Ziggy potholder went up in flames.

When I was going through his effects, I found the diaries he’d kept since the 1940s. In one passage he wrote that if he didn’t have a family to support, he would have liked to become a minister, a composer or… a writer. I found transcriptions of dialogue, simple interactions at the hospital that he had captured with a canny ear for truth.

Not long after that, I began my next novel—a story exploring two generations of doctors. To help me with the research, a medical school dean embedded me with some third-years. When I reported for duty, I saw he’d even arranged for me to wear an attending physician’s long white coat. I looked down at the name tag.

I had finally become Dr. Lee.

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