COURTING HOPE: The Inspiring Story of Medical Missionary Work

Dr. Michael D. Lee recently joined ApolloMD as Medical Director of Anesthesia at UNC Health Blue Ridge. A native Texan, Dr. Lee graduated from Duke University with a B.S.E. in Biomedical Engineering and earned his medical degree at Baylor College of Medicine. He and his wife, Bess, have three children and nurture a family devotion to service and philanthropy.

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During his undergraduate years as a biomedical engineering student at Duke University, Dr. Michael Lee committed fervently to involvement with campus ministry programs, volunteering regularly as a tutor for at-risk children and building friendships with peers who shared a passion for service and mission work. Those friendships elevated his focus as he planned for his future, influencing him to carefully consider his path.

Dr. Lee remembers recurring themes in their discussions, “How are you going to make a difference in the world besides just being corporate? What are you going to do to help people?” he says. “I always had in the back of my mind that I need to be doing something to give back, to share what I was trained to do with people who are less fortunate.”

SQUARING UP

His first job out of residency connected him with colleagues who would inspire him further to put that theory into action through international medical volunteering.

“A friend of mine who is a general surgeon had done some medical mission trips with Medical Ministry International and recommended that I pick a short-term trip and go,” Dr. Lee recalls. He took the leap and scheduled that first trip to Bolivia, opening himself up to a whole new perspective on his approach to both medicine and to outreach.

“It was a life-changing experience in terms of how I view what we have relative to what the rest of the world has,” he admits.

“Sometimes [here], we get focused on ‘Do they have the gloves that I like to wear in the OR? Is the anesthesia machine as good as the one I worked on at the other hospital?’ Then go to a place where they wash and reuse the surgical gowns and gloves, and they’re hanging out to dry on a line in a field with cows walking around. And the anesthesia machine really doesn’t work, and you have to improvise to figure out how to do things on the fly … we take things for granted here in this country and think that’s the way it is everywhere. It’s just not in a lot of these places.”

POINTS GUARDED

Other medical missionary trips followed and, surprisingly, tapped into his engineering background as well as his medical training.

“The first time I went, the anesthesia machines didn’t work at all,” Dr. Lee divulges. “I really hit it off with the missionary based there and I promised that I would come back, so they made me the director for the next trip. I asked him to get a better anesthesia machine the next time … but, the ventilator didn’t work, the gas spilled out onto the floor, nothing about it worked.”

By his third trip, he secured a viable option for an anesthesia machine; he learned that his current hospital would be upgrading theirs and would allow him to purchase the old ones at a discounted cost. He decided to buy one, donate it to the mission, and find a creative way to transport it down to the site.

“We took apart the anesthesia machine and I built it back into [the semblance of] an ice chest,” he explains. “I could take that on the plane and reassemble the anesthesia machine once I got it over there. Because to try to ship one there is prohibitive—it would have been confiscated … I took an ice chest, a suitcase of parts, and had all my clothes for the week rolled up in a backpack.”

 

A NET GAIN

Dr. Lee keeps his eyes, ears, and heart open to new callings, leaning into faith for guidance. As career and family transitions limited his ability to physically join in on medical volunteering opportunities, Dr. Lee found new ways to champion projects.

When he relocated back to North Carolina, Dr. Lee unexpectedly identified a way in which his love of basketball could help aid these efforts. He says, “My first thought being back in NC was getting back to Duke basketball games!”

So, he secured season tickets and saw a higher purpose for those tickets emerge — auctioning them and sending the proceeds to various medical mission groups. The overwhelming success of that effort inspired this medical missionary to found BlueHealers.org and fully develop this channel of philanthropy.

“That next year I made my own website to auction every single ticket off,” Dr. Lee reports. “There were people who bid on these auctions who wanted to know what they were supporting, researched, and gave money outside of this auction. I felt like I was both raising money and awareness at the same time. That was in 2006 and I’ve done it ever since. Now, I’ll see on the Fan Forum questions about when we’re going to put the schedule up on Blue Healers!”

TEAM EFFORT

Even a brief discussion of family background reveals that Dr. Lee’s propensity toward reassurance, compassion, and empathy flows in his blood. He proudly shares details, “My maternal grandfather received only an 8th grade education, but he built a very large business and was always giving. He was very involved with Youth For Christ and was constantly donating money and setting things up. That’s the way we were raised, to think about people who were less fortunate. While I was in college, my dad felt a calling to go to seminary. So, I jokingly tell people that I’m an adult-onset, type-2 Preacher’s Kid … and it was too late to rebel.”

Dr. Lee hopes that he’ll soon be back in rotation for those medical mission trips himself. To accomplish that, he’s focusing on strengthening his work-life balance and considering which programs he might best serve.

“I was taught that there are ‘Goers’ and there are ‘Senders’. There was a time in my life when I was a go-er and now … I’ve comforted myself with the knowledge that I’m a sender. I may not be going, but I am able to raise funds and awareness for people who are going.”

Click here to learn more about the Blue Healers or bid on tickets.

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