Dr. Lee, you are famous for being the first Korean physician in Brazil. What was your motivation for becoming a physician, especially in another country, Brazil? Could you share your journey to become a doctor in Brazil, including any obstacles you may have encountered?
Around 100 brave Koreans landed on Brazil in 1962 after government of Korea passed a law on overseas immigration. As Korea was still in recovery phase from postwar period, this law encouraged people of Korea to explore a new life abroad. After I obtained my MD from Busan Medical School, I decided to immigrate to Brazil. In 1965, my family got on the ship heading to the Port of Santos, Brazil. After seemingly endless days of sailing, we finally landed in Sao Paulo. Among numerous difficulties and challenges I had to face, first frustration came from the language barrier. In fact, I had never learned or even heard of Portuguese before I came to Brazil. Of course, my Korean medical license was useless here, and the language barrier prohibited me from even trying any other business. It took months of agony to decide whether to stay in Brazil or go back to Korea. I finally decided to stay and learn Portuguese, and this was how my immigrant life began.
I had to go through a revalidation process in order to prove my education. To achieve medical license in Brazil, I had to take exams that tested the education level of achievement in a range from middle school to college level in Brazil. The middle and high school level examination included history, geography and Portuguese subjects. Without any delays, I went directly to the middle school nearby and spoke to the school authority about my situation and got permission to study with the students. As I finished middle school level exams, again, I went directly to the high school nearby and study with the students. I studied as hard as I could and passed all the exams after all.
After achieving the three certificates of each subject, I had to look for a medical school, which will accept my application. Other than the three certificates, I had to submit a diploma, transcripts and medical license from Korea. I wrote to Korea and prepared for all the documentations. There I was well prepared and visited a medical school in Recife, Brazil. Professors discussed this special case and thankfully accepted my application.
We have heard many stories about your free clinic and community medical volunteering services for those who needed medical attention but could not afford to see a doctor. What was your motivation and driving force to offer these kinds of activities?
As soon as I got my medical license, I opened my first clinic named ‘Yung Man Lee Clinic’ in Korea town located in Sao Paulo. In the early period of immigration, many Korean immigrants could not have access to local hospitals especially due to the language barrier and cost. Koreans living near São Paulo poured into my office. The office door was usually opened until 2-3 AM. I offered free clinics for those who couldn’t afford it to pay. I often visited shantytowns to treat both local patients and Korean immigrants. I never neglected those who could not receive proper medical treatment because of the cost.
At that time, illegal residents and people from low socioeconomic class were very common. I guess I didn’t have the gut to ignore those who needed me as a physician. After awhile, I got used to seeing patients until 2-3 AM. Even though it was challenging, my heart was warm with happiness and satisfaction to help people in need with my talent.
In 2006, you’ve received an ‘Honorary Sao Paulo Citizenship Award’. How did you feel about the award?
It was such a huge honor to receive ‘Honorary Sao Paulo Citizenship Award’ in 2006. I honestly did not expect it at all which was a flattering surprise. I always thank the society for acknowledging and giving me over 15 awards and appreciation plaques for the works I enjoyed. On the other hand, a heavy responsibility fell on my shoulders.
How have Korean immigrants contributed to medical development in Brazil and how do you expect its future?
There are many second-generation Korean immigrants who are working in medical field currently in Brazil. Three generations in my own family is now serving medical treatments as doctors. I have a strong belief that there will be ever more Korean doctors who can contribute both to Korean and Brazilian societies. Koreans always show high education fever. I personally believe that people have to learn wherever they are. Education is the key for future generation. Therefore, learning should be the first, second and third priority among others.
We understand that you have around 30 family members who are also currently practicing physicians including your son Dr. Dong Won Lee who is WKMO active member. You are probably a great influence and role model to them. Do you have any special educational viewpoints towards your descendants?
I have three children. Both of my sons are physicians and my daughter is a dentist. Two of my grandchildren are also doing great at medical school getting prepared to become physicians. I think, though we live in different nations, it is important to learn our mother language and be able to at least know how to write a letter (in Korean) to parents and families in Korea.
You are one of the most significant pioneers of globalization of Korean medicine and WKMO members. Can you give them any advices?
Within a global medical organization as WKMO, I believe we can promote goodwill together and be good strength to each other through various ways of interaction. Thank you.