MCW Professor and His Family Strive to Improve Health for All
About five years ago, MCW’s Dr. Ken Lee heeded a call to serve at an orphanage in Puebla, Mexico.
Serving has always been at the center of his medical career. Ken Lee, MD, a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation and 23-year member of the faculty at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) has also had a career as a global physician. Dr. Lee, a retired colonel, served 27 years in the U.S. Army National Guard as a state surgeon specializing in trauma and primary care. His service took him across the world, including tours to Nicaragua to set up medical humanitarian camps and to Iraq to treat wounded soldiers.
He himself was wounded by a suicide bomber in Iraq in 2004, recovering slowly from that trauma. Having once been a patient at a veteran’s hospital, Dr. Lee is now the chief of the Spinal Cord Injury Division at the Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Milwaukee.
Five years ago, Dr. Lee heeded a different call to expand his community engagement and patient care to another international setting. This one came from his son, who had just returned from a visit to the Esperanza Viva Rescue Orphanage in Puebla, Mexico as part of a high school service learning experience.
“He came back excited,” recalls Dr. Lee. “He said, ‘they need doctors; not many doctors have come by to take care of these kids.’”
The orphanage, founded in 1994 by two American missionaries, is located in a rural section of east-central Mexico and serves about 100 children. Most of them are abandoned street children who were human trafficked and sexually abused, Dr. Lee says. The orphanage, which has a school, youth ministry and church, functions like a family system, with one adult staffer in charge of living with and caring for a group of six to eight children. Dr. Lee and his wife, a dentist at Children’s Wisconsin, decided to visit to Puebla to assess their assets and needs.
“The orphans do not have access to primary and dental care,” Dr. Lee shares.
One-by-one, they assessed the children; Dr. Lee conducted full physical exams and his wife, dental exams. He assessed that the children had musculoskeletal issues and poor dental hygiene. They also faced the added challenge of helping children who had been abused feel safe in an unfamiliar setting such as a dentist chair and around other medical equipment. Despite those challenges and the fact that resources in Puebla were extremely limited, that visit began what is now a labor of love for Dr. Lee, his wife and their two children, who also accompany them to Mexico.
Serving in Puebla on a regular basis the past several years helped to eliminate the backlog of children who need care. Dr. Lee and his wife also treat 80 staff members at Viva Esperanza and even other community members of Puebla. Some villagers, he says, walk days to receive treatment. Dr. Lee makes sure to give them his full attention. “We were invited to visit two or three times a year which isn’t sustainable,” Dr. Lee says. “I determined the best way to partner with the organization would be to develop a telemedicine program.”
When Dr. Lee returned, he sought a consultation with the MCW Office of Global Health to strategize on how to ethically and sustainably grow his engagement with a telemedicine approach and funding to support the efforts. Telemedicine is the electronic exchange of medical information and clinical impressions of patients who present with illnesses for the purpose of improving patient care.
Upon his return, Dr. Lee also presented his community engagement efforts to his department leaders to seek their support and administrative assistance. A formal telemedicine agreement was signed between MCW and Esperanza Viva Jovenes. This agreement allows MCW’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and its multi-disciplinary consultants to provide consultation via telemedicine to Esperanza’s orphans and staff.
Integral to practicing telemedicine is the deployment and use of a telemedicine unit: a machine enabling the transmission images, live video, vitals and other medical signals to a medical team not physically present with the patient. Esperanza Viva’s full-time nurse, Jessica Nunez, visited MCW in September 2019 to be trained on the machine’s use and operations. She now facilitates the exchange in Puebla. Dr. Lee also briefed the Mexican Consulate in Milwaukee about these partnership efforts. The consulate advised on how to ship the telemedicine unit to Puebla.
“I can see it clearly as if I’m looking at it as a patient here in the United States,” Dr. Lee says, adding that the machine also features a stethoscope, otoscope and other medical attachments.
Another benefit of the telemedicine unit is that it allows Dr. Lee to engage other specialists at MCW to treat Puebla residents, including dermatologists. Incredibly, the partnership impact of Dr. Lee and his family of healthcare providers continues to grow. His daughter, an anesthesia resident in Massachusetts has included this global partnership as part of her scholarly internship efforts. Dr. Lee’s son, a second-year medical student, serves the team as a medical technician.
To date, Dr. Lee has recruited 38 physicians and dentists from 26 specialties to engage in the telemedicine initiative. They have provided telemedicine to 14 Puebla residents since late 2021.
In August, Dr. Lee reignited his physical presence with the first partnership visit to Puebla since the start of the pandemic, accompanied by Sang Hun Hong, MD, an assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences who provided eye exams to each child. Two medical students, Jeffrey Ai and Morgan Lucero, were also part of the visit. Going forward, Jeffrey Ai will be working to improve the telemedicine unit and Morgan Lucero is developing a health education curriculum for youth and staff with the support of the nurse at Esperanza Viva.
Their efforts as part of MCW’s global health pathway scholarly project is designed for medical students interested in the advancing health equity of patients, families, and communities around the world, allows them to engage in faculty-lead global partnerships.
“My hope is that these students will become engaged physicians of the future who can care for diverse patients and communities both at home and abroad,” Dr. Lee says.
Together, they are also developing a formal one-month global health elective for senior medical students to experience telemedicine healthcare in and global partnerships in Puebla, Mexico.
“From the children in Puebla and with my own children, engaging globally is worthwhile. Most more importantly, I feel like I’m using the medical skills and competency in an area where I have been invited to partner and contribute to increased access to care,” Dr. Lee says. “This is knowledge changing life in action.”
If you are a clinical provider and want to engage in this global telemedicine initiative or want to support this partnership, please complete the interest form.
For more information about MCW’s global engagement, please contact the Office of Global Health at email@example.com.