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Superman, M.D.
S.B. Lee, a former Olympic hopeful, is quadriplegic. He’s also chief resident in Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation.

S.B. Lee examines patient Randy Carroll, also quadriplegic. "Dr. Lee has given me strength, something to look forward to," says Carroll.
On the night before his life would change forever, S.B. Lee slept fitfully. As he nursed a series of minor injuries from grueling gymnastics training, he resolved to prove to his parents that their move to the United States was not in vain. He relived the magical moment at the Olympic gymnastic trials just days earlier, when he discovered he’d earned a spot on the Korean men’s gymnastics team for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.

But the next morning at practice, when the high school senior attempted the somersaulting dismount he’d done hundreds of times before, he fell and landed on his chin. “I felt weird,” Lee recalls, “like I was floating. A few seconds later, it dawned on me that something terrible had happened.” Lee had hyperextended his neck and dislocated one of his cervical vertebrae.

Lee’s accident affected the seventh vertebra and left him a quadriplegic—all four limbs shut down. The condition, in the parlance of rehab medicine, is known as “tetraplegia.” His first fear was not that he couldn’t move but that he, a prized first-born Asian son, would be a disappointment—a “broken trophy”—to his parents.

Today, Robert Seung-bok “S.B.” Lee is chief resident in the Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation. By his own account, Lee is one of only two tetraplegic physicians currently practicing in the nation. (The other is an internist in New York.)

Lee’s journey from Olympic athlete to tetraplegic physician required tenacity, hard work and optimism—the very same attributes he inspires in his patients. “S.B. gives patients a sense of hope that able-bodied doctors can’t,” says attending rehab physician Sam Mayer. “He has a unique empathy and inspires them to work hard at rehab.”

Lee has relearned to type with his thumbs.
After confirming Lee is really a doctor, patients often ask, “How fast can you go on that wheelchair? How do you get back on it when you fall?” Lee knows they’ve made progress when they ask, “How long will it take me to learn how to do that?”

Lee and 13 other house staff waste no time pushing their patients on the 14-bed Halsted 3 rehab unit to the limit. With short lengths of stay—10 to 21 days—patients must progress before moving on to outpatient care or a rehab facility. Roughly 100 outpatients and 95 inpatients with spinal cord injuries come through PM&R each year. Success, says Director of Spinal Cord Medicine Services Rosemarie Filart, is measured by a realistic expectation for each person. Having Lee on the team, she adds, is a bonus for these patients, especially.

Lee is particularly attuned to the frustration and anger patients can experience at various stages of adjustment. “I can tell when people need psychiatric intervention,” Lee says. The first stage, denial, is an ideal time to launch rehab, he says, before the harsh reality of the traumatic injury sinks in.

Three years ago, a motor vehicle accident left Charles Kinney Jr., 25, a paraplegic. His career as a construction worker ended abruptly. Lee taught him more than exercises, Kinney recalls. “He kept me within reality. He said, This kind of stuff happens; now you’ve got to deal with it. Then he showed me how.”

When Lee was a boy in Queens, N.Y., he felt like an outsider. He spoke little English and endured incessant teasing about his accent and the way he dressed. Lee hoped his gymnastic feats would turn his classmates’ ridicule into respect. The plan was working, and his future was looking brighter, until that tragic day.

After the accident, Lee spent three months in an acute hospital, then eight months at New York’s Rusk Institute for intensive rehab. It was there that Lee would answer to a different kind of coach: none other than physiatrist Howard Rusk himself. Rusk inspired Lee to change gears and pursue a career in rehab medicine.

But first, Lee had to refocus his goals from triple somersaults to finger flexes, much of that time in halo traction. His Asian heritage, which eschews self-pity and glorifies hard work and resilience, would sustain him. “I had to make sense of the turn my life had taken,” Lee says. “I decided to rebuild my body and lifelong dreams.”

With Olympian diligence, he turned rehab baby steps into milestones. “I hated those exercises. It was very degrading to me. Here I was in tip-top shape, an international caliber Olympic athlete, lifting five-pound weights when I could do triple flips and somersaults.”

During rehab, Lee regained some mobility in his arms and hands. Technically, he is tetraplegic: all four limbs are affected but not necessarily completely paralyzed. Using a special device, Lee can hold a pen. That, in part, got him through Dartmouth Medical School, where he was the first student with his type of disability ever to enter the school. There, he faced myriad obstacles—not least, navigating the New Hampshire ice and snow in a wheelchair.

Then, as a resident, Lee actually cared for his mother, who had suffered a devastating stroke. The experience, he says, taught him about stroke management. Perhaps it also proves he is anything but the family “disappointment” he once feared he would be.

Today, as a physiatrist at Johns Hopkins, Lee is eager to raise the profile of PM&R. The small but growing department now has a new director, Jeffrey Palmer, and has moved its headquarters to East Baltimore, on Phipps’ first floor, from Good Samaritan Hospital. With a 51-bed inpatient rehab unit, it had been home to rehab medicine since 1970. (In addition to this unit, PM&R has 14 beds at Bayview and 57 at Kennedy Krieger.)

Lee is agile with his wheelchair but says he's "not too proud to say yes if someone wants to push me. My shoulders need a break."

Meanwhile, Lee’s future, even in a wheelchair, looks bright. He’s had a flood of offers to join prestigious rehab departments, including Hopkins’. But when he volunteered at the Summer 2004 Olympics in Athens as a team physician with the Korean delegation, he was offered a full-time position on the medical staff, provided he trains in primary care. Lee loves the Olympics milieu so much, he’s willing to train for a few more years.

Lee once met “Superman” Christopher Reeve, who championed aggressive physical therapy and stem cell research. Although Lee admired Reeve’s zeal to walk again, Lee doesn’t expect to see a cure for paralysis anytime soon. “I have a more realistic view. But if it happens, great. I’ll be first in line.”

Until then, the appearance-conscious Lee will continue to lay out his clothes every night before he goes to bed. He’s gotten faster at it over the years. When he must wear a tie, he prepares a loose knot the night before. The next morning he slips the tie over his head—like a gold medal—and tightens it to face the day.

—Judy Minkove




Johns Hopkins Medicine

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