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Comeback

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's a different kind of June graduation.

Ed Boehme, a 40-year-old man newly paralyzed from the waist down, is about to be released from John Hopkins' Comprehensive Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit. He's being transferred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington.

"I always tell my patients rehabilitation doesn't stop when you leave the hospital," says Dr. Robert Seung-bok "S.B." Lee, a chief resident at Hopkins, "that's where it starts."

Lee is seated at Boehme's bedside. In his wheelchair. They have bonded, these two men with broken bodies, in ways that healthier people probably can't comprehend.

In high school, Lee, now in his mid-30s, fell and crushed his neck doing a gymnastics routine while training for the South Korean Olympic team. Although he has limited use of his hands, he's classified as a quadriplegic.

Boehme's life changed only recently. A tumor in effect strangled his spinal cord. He underwent four surgeries in the past two months. He is just beginning to adjust to this strange new world of limitations.

Lee knows all too well what Boehme is going through. He recalls being scared years ago when he left the hospital and entered the more arduous rehab phase of his recovery. It was a long, lonely road to travel, but one that eventually led him to Dartmouth Medical School and post-graduate training at Harvard University and Hopkins.

Boehme, a computer analyst for MCI, hopes to resume his career. First, he will have to regain control of his fingers and learn to master a wheelchair.

"I see you just zooming through the hallways," he says to Lee. "That's what I want to do. ... I sure wish I could take you with me."

Lee is entering a new stage of his own life. He finishes his residency at the end of the month and turned down fellowship offers at both Harvard and Baylor medical schools to remain at Hopkins. He'll spend the next year doing research on spinal cord injuries, particularly problems related to fertility and infection.

If all goes according to plan, Lee will then make a sharp turn and devote three or four years to earning certification in internal medicine. He enjoys spinal cord research, but his heart is pulling him toward sports medicine. He is a volunteer physician for the U.S. Naval Academy football team and has served in a similar capacity at the Boston and Baltimore marathons, plus the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.

Someday, he intends to step off the medical-profession fast track and become a college or university team physician, the sporting world's equivalent of a general-practitioner country doctor.

"Deep down inside, I literally think the way I used to think as an athlete," Lee explains. "A lot of that mentality helped me get through medical school."

Born in Korea, but raised in New York City, Lee was a senior at a public high school in Queens back in 1987. He was also an elite gymnast who had just made the training squad of the South Korean Olympic gymnastics team, the payoff for years of practicing at least four hours a day, six days a week.

Floor exercises were his specialty. While working one night on a move called the Arabian One and Three Quarter - imagine somersaulting through the air and ending in a modified pushup position - Lee landed full force on his chin. He hyperextended his neck and dislocated the seventh vertebra on his spine.

He would never walk again, much less compete in the Olympics.

"My dream was to win a gold medal and represent Korea," says Lee. "I always told myself I was doing this for my parents and my country."

The Lee family emigrated to the United States in the early 1970s, filled with land-of-opportunity expectations. But Lee's father, Changkoo, a pharmacist back home, could find employment only as a janitor. His mother, Bosook, worked in a staple factory, punching in at 4 a.m. every day.

Ten years ago, Lee's parents had a change of heart and returned to Seoul. By that time, Lee had found a new dream to pursue and was making his way in America in a wheelchair. During a three-month stay at an acute-care facility in Pennsylvania and another eight months at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine in New York, he decided to become a doctor.

Lee wanted to know why his body didn't work anymore, what circuits had blown inside him. He also wanted to make a point to those doctors and residents who would breeze into the rehab unit and treat paralyzed patients like "research projects," poking and prodding them, yammering to one another in their incomprehensible med-speak.

A thought bubbled up in his brain: "I'm going to tell you guys someday how it really is."

Lee does that now, sometimes merely by going about his business at the hospital, sometimes by politely bringing to the staff's attention that, for example, many disabled people can't open the bathroom doors in the inpatient rehab unit. (Those doors have since been modified.)

"One of the things it has helped me to do is sort of see though his eyes what it is like to be one of these patients," says Charlie Knoll, director of physical medicine and rehabilitation consultations.

"He offers the patients something able-bodied therapists can't offer in terms of the way he's able to inspire them," adds Stacey Bittner, a senior occupational therapist. "It's about the choices we make. He chose to be independent and successful."

Lee has an apartment. He drives a car. He is taking sailing lessons. But reality can't always be bent to one's will, as Kelly Hargis, a 40-year-old respiratory therapist from Essex, has learned.

On April 15, 2004, she woke up paralyzed from the chest down. There was no warning. Hargis had contracted a rare fungus that attacked her spinal cord. Somehow, she found the strength to make peace with her horrific luck.

"It's all about the attitude. You've got to have a positive attitude," says Hargis. "I don't mind being in a wheelchair. But I want to be able to be healthy in my wheelchair like Dr. Lee."

Lee occasionally stops by her room on his hospital rounds, lately to share tips on how to maneuver a wheelchair through the obstacle course of daily living. Unlike Ed Boehme, Hargis faces the additional hurdle of having to find a new career.

"A respiratory therapist needs to be very agile and mobile," Lee says during a recent visit. "More than likely, it might not be a very feasible option for you."

Hargis is unfazed. She'll go back to school and study something else. Meanwhile, Lee is free from such physical constraints, but not professional ones: Friends and advisers at Hopkins are urging him to forget about sports medicine. Research is more prestigious. Private practice pays much better.

But, then, they're doctors, not former Olympic-hopeful athletes. S.B. Lee's body took the blow, not his heart. Don't count on him being lured from his charted course by colleagues' sweet siren songs of logic.

"I'm my own person," he says. "I have my own dreams."

Robert Seung-bok Lee

Born: Seoul, South Korea; lives in Baltimore.

Education: Bachelor's degree in romance languages, New York University; master's degree in public health, Columbia University; doctor of medicine, Dartmouth Medical School (first quadriplegic ever admitted).

Hobbies: Sailing, wine tasting, international travel.

Most influential book: A World to Care For, the memoir of Dr. Howard Rusk, a founding father of modern rehab medicine. "I read that cover to cover many times. That's what inspired me to go into rehabilitative medicine."

Favorite Olympic moment: Attending the 2004 Summer Games as a team physician for the Korean gymnastics team and seeing two members win gold and silver medals in the all-around competition. "Those guys actually fulfilled my dream for me."

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