In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

December 12, 2013

Inspired to serve

By Elizabeth Harty

Kendall Lee, M.D., Ph.D.

Kendall Lee, M.D., Ph.D., isn't one to shy away from a challenge. So it probably didn't surprise anyone that despite a busy career as a neurosurgeon at Mayo Clinic, and conducting research into the use of deep-brain stimulation to treat a host of conditions, Dr. Lee would up and add military commander to his resume. But as Stars and Stripes magazine reports, he recently did just that.

In a profile of the good doctor, Stars and Stripes tells of Dr. Lee's move with his family from Korea to Denver when he was just 10 years old. At the time, they note, the only English word he knew was "doctor. (Prophetic, perhaps?) Language barrier or not, Dr. Lee proved to be an excellent student, graduating with a bachelor's degree in biology from a Denver college in only three years. Then, with a little help from the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Lee went on to earn a double doctorate from Yale before heading to Harvard for a neurology residency.

Bitten by the neurosurgery bug, Dr. Lee jumped to Dartmouth to follow his dream. A dream that eventually led him to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, which Stars and Stripes describes as "one of the world's premier hospitals and research institutions." 

After seven years at Mayo Clinic, performing about 200 surgeries a year, Dr. Lee decided he wanted to do more. "My mom once told me," he explains, "before you become a great surgeon, first become a great man."

With that in mind, Dr. Lee decided that finding a way to serve the country that had been so good to his family would be the best way to heed his mother's words. So at age 42, he joined the Navy Reserve and, as an established world-class surgeon and researcher, was elevated to the role of commander. When the Stars and Stripes story came out back in September, Dr. Lee was in the midst of serving his first stint on active duty at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

Dr. Lee says he drew his inspiration to join the Navy Reserve from his colleagues who had served in the military and also from a Mayo surgical legend: Thoralf Sundt, M.D., who had an illustrious military career (two Bronze stars for valor in the Korean War) before he joined Mayo Clinic. Dr. Sundt, who was recently profiled in the book "West Point Leadership: Profiles of Courage," continued to serve his patients, even through his battle with cancer, until his death in 1992. Dr. Lee quickly adds a caveat. "It's not that I'm saying I want to be or could I ever attain that level of commitment, that level of intelligence, that level of service," Dr. Lee tells Stars and Stripes. "But at least having a role model that is that tremendous a power gives me something to work towards."

Get the full story here. Then be a role model and deploy your comments below.

Tags: Employee Stories, Kendall Lee, Military, neurosurgery

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