SURGICAL ONCOLOGIST, NORTHSIDE HOSPITAL
Growing up in New York City, Dr. Jonathan Lee recognized early on his aptitude for science and mathematics. He also enjoyed working with his hands and interacting with people. When it came to picking a career, he found one where the intersection of those four elements came into play: medicine. “I always thought medicine would be the best place to do all that,” he says. “There aren’t many careers that fit all those elements best.”
Since earning his medical degree from New York University in 1995, Lee was inspired by a mentor to focus his talents in the niche area of melanoma and sarcoma (skin cancer) surgery and research. “I wanted to go into academic medicine, and my first faculty position at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey was a combination of research and clinical work,” he says. “But I found those patient-doctor relationship moments are the ones that make a difference to me.”
Five years ago, Lee arrived at Northside Hospital in Sandy Springs to build a melanoma and sarcoma program. “I’m from academia, so the transition has been my chief challenge,” he says. “I’m also a tiny little Asian Yankee in the South. So it’s been interesting!”
It’s also been rewarding. Lee claims his biggest accomplishment to date has been creating the melanoma program at Northside. “When I got here, there wasn’t a streamlined way of taking care of patients with melanoma/sarcoma,” he says. “I had to build a team of colleagues with similar interests and put together a program from screening through diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. We now have a program that would go up against any other in the U.S. And the number of patients we’re helping has grown so much that our weekly conference call about difficult cases has grown from an hour every other week to 90 minutes every Wednesday.”
Rising Star Revelations
What is your secret to success?
We delude ourselves that we have control of our lives, when we don’t. I’ve always looked at what I could do better and what opportunities would let me do that. Who is your role model? What I am today is the influence of many people in my life: my parents and the work ethic they showed me; my college professors who took time to teach me; the professors in medical school who taught me their art. I learned from many people.
What is your ultimate goal?
I don’t have any significant career ambitions. But I want my career and life to make a difference to the people in this region. So far, I have been able to do that.
What is the biggest obstacle you’ve faced in your life?
I face obstacles every day, and some are more serious than others. The biggest is working with people, believe it or not. As much as I enjoy it, people have their own perspectives and opinions, and I have to figure out how to work with others who don’t share mine.
What advice would you give to someone following in your footsteps?
Let your passion drive you. Medicine is not an easy job; I still face challenges every day. Without passion, this job becomes very difficult to do.
What was the best or most memorable day of your career?
All my most memorable days revolve around patients. I once took care of a man in New Jersey with a very advanced sarcoma in his arm, but he refused to let me do what I needed to do, so he could [continue to] work to pay for his children’s educations. He came back a few years later and was suffering so much, I had to remove his arm. It was a traumatic operation for everyone, but he said, “My kids are out of college now, and I don’t need this arm.” His life was more than his cancer, and I had to respect his decision. After it was over, he came up and gave me a hug and called me his friend. That touched me significantly.
PHOTOS: Sara Hanna
STORY: H.M. Cauley