By: Seng Alex Vang (originally published in Txhawb 2014)
Most people do not know what they want to do in life or may take considerable time to finally determine a career path. For Dr. Fenglaly Lee, she always knew and decided early in life that she wanted to become a medical doctor. Lee is currently the only Hmong woman who is a Medical Doctor in Obstetrics and Gynocology (OB/GYN) in Fresno County and is the owner of Omni Women’s Health Medical Group in Fresno, California. She explains that, “at a young age I always wanted to be a doctor, I was always interested and admired people in the health care field and it was my only career choice.” Through dedication and determination, Lee has remained committed to a very demanding career, overcoming many life-challenges, and passionately serves the community.
Lee grew up as the middle child of nine and was the eldest daughter. Lee shares that growing up with four older brothers and having the responsibility to take care of four younger siblings strengthened her to be courageous, competitive, and determined. She remembers that during many of her family’s early experiences visiting doctors they had to endure long hours of waiting to meet with doctors who didn’t understand the Hmong culture or language. These early experiences inspired her to want to know why this was the case and helped shape the kind of doctor she wanted to be. She also knew she wanted to work in low-income and underserved clinics. Lee states one of her core beliefs is that “you really make a difference working in low-income and underserved clinics because you are serving people who needed assistance the most.”
When she was growing up in the 1980’s many Hmong girls were getting married as early as 13 or 14 years of age. She was afraid to get married and afraid not to have a choice. Lee saw many of her relatives and friends get married and not finish high school. She states, “Being a Hmong daughter, I faced a real challenge of not finishing school.” Lee went to ask her middle school principal to let her skip the 8th grade so she could go to high school and graduate. At first the principal was hesitant about her request. She then showed the principal her yearbook and pointed out all the Hmong girls who got married and did not finish high school. After their conversation the principal decided to let her skip the 8th grade to attend high school. Lee went on to not only graduate from McLane High School, but she also graduated as valedictorian.
The fear of not finishing school was a real challenge that Lee wanted to overcome. She felt another challenge for her was having to decide daily whether to focus on school or to go to work on the farm to help her parents. Like many other Hmong families who relocated to Fresno to farm, her family and relatives started Cherta Farms. Lees shares that her father was supportive of her determination and allowed her to participate in after school activities and get involved in student clubs instead of going to the farm. Lee believes that these experiences really open up a lot of opportunities for her to meet different people and in learning to look for resources and develop leadership skills. Although she feels bad for not going to work at the farm with her parents, being involved opened up doors for Lee. One opportunity that she pursed was volunteering at hospital emergency rooms at the age of 14. This experience really exposed her to what it would be like to work as a medical doctor in the emergency room.
After Lee graduated from McLane she attended the University of California, Davis for four years and graduated with a degree in Physiology. After that she applied to UC Davis Medical School. She states, “It was the only school I applied to and I got accepted into my only choice.” When asked what it was like to be married during college and medical school, Lee replies, “Going to school and choosing this demanding career was not easy without a supportive husband. It was difficult as a struggling young couple because we were both going to school and working toward our careers.” She goes on to mention how the two were already struggling then, and how their situation got more difficult when she had a baby during her first year of medical school. Her husband, Long Lao was majoring in criminal justice and decided to leave school to work as a probation office to support the family. They decided one of them had to work while the other pursued their career.
After she completed medical school at UC Davis they knew they had to come back to Fresno where they still had family who could help to watch their kids while they worked. Unfortunately her father passed away before she was able to tell him that she successfully completed the medical program. Although she was not able to tell him, she believes he would be proud because he always supported her and knew she had the determination to finish. Another reason she returned to Fresno was because she was accepted into the medical residency program at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Fresno Center.
Lee completed the four-year residency program at UCSF Fresno Center, often working up to 130 hours a week. She points out that today there are regulations that prevent residents from working that many hours. The residency program provided her with knowledge and hands-on surgical training. She performed surgeries and learned to look for possible outcomes that could result in accidents or unexpected occurrences. Lee explains that in the residency program there is always someone at hand to help, and residents shadow doctors to learn from, you also report to others at the next level. You also could always go to someone for support because there are experienced volunteer doctors on hand to assist. “You have to perform surgeries over and over to the point that it becomes as normal as driving,” states Lee.
When asked why Lee chose to become an Obstetrics and Gynocology (OB/GYN) medical doctor, which is considered to be a demanding, high-risk occupation, she replies she her decision was influenced by the fact that the lives of the mother and infant are always in potential danger. She explains that in the medical program she had a choice between going into OB/GYN or Pediatrics. She admits that at first she did not think she could actually perform surgery on patients but through determination she overcame that challenge. She understands it is a field that is known for the highest rate of malpractice lawsuits and requires a lot of insurance coverage. Even with all the proper preparation and information provided OB/GYN’s could still be liable if something goes wrong during surgery. Through it all she remains committed to doing the best job she can and to provide high-quality care to the community.
Lee also chose to return to Fresno because she had a strong passion to give back to the community and to do the most meaningful work. As she looks back through her past college application and other scholarships, she recalls she always wrote that she wanted to become a medical doctor to serve low-income underserved communities. She firmly believes in following through and holding herself accountable to what she says she is going to do. Therefore she chose to work in a place where there was the most need and the program at the UCSF Fresno Center provided that opportunity. She explains that working in the clinics that serve 99% Medi-Cal patients allows her more training by working with the highest risk and patients with the most need.
After she completed her residency program Lee did had an opportunity to work in North Fresno and open a clinic with some friends, but they told her they would not see Medi-Cal patients on-call. She was frustrated and explained, “I could not tell my sisters or relatives I could not see them and only accept private insurance coverage.” She decided to work instead in a clinic that served Medi-Cal and low-income patients knowing she would have to work extra hand and have to see more patients. She joined Omni Women’s Medical Group and helped build up the clinic over the past six years. When the leading doctor retired the clinic was sold to her earlier this year.
Lee explains that some clinics only accept private insurance coverage and cap their Medi-Cal or low income patients to 10%. “Sometimes I have to see about 40 patients a day compared to only 10-15 at a private insurance clinic,” states Lee. She asks, “Who else will I serve if I am not committed to serving my own community?” Through these experiences she now understands why the wait time was so long when she used to take her parents to doctor visits at Medi-Cal clinics. She explains you do not have a choice to go anywhere else and sometimes you cannot because of the language barrier. Lee realizes that there may be more money and better opportunities to advance in opening a clinic in another location but she would not feel the satisfaction of doing the best she could to serve the community.
Lee wants the community to understand that doctors should be a partner in making health choices. She takes pleasure in having the opportunity work with clients in the high risk emergency room and in all process of pregnancy. She explains, ‘It is about making the best decision not just about providing the care but also educating the patient to understand their health decisions.” Since she is the only Hmong woman OB/GYN in Fresno when she goes to work she views it as if she is going to see friends and family. Lee understands it may be hard to draw the line and there are both positives and negatives working with relatives. Throughout her medical career she always had to deal with many challenges of self-doubt, such as the feeling of never being good enough or having enough confidence. She concludes that people may compare what is success and what is not, but she doesn’t mind because in the end she enjoys advising and educating her patients. Now as the owner of Omni Women’s Medical Group, she is at a point in her career where she doesn’t feel she needs to prove herself anymore. She encourages others who are interested in pursuing a career in the medical profession to take every opportunity to challenge themselves and learn the next steps to accomplish their goals. She advises, “If someone asks for help just go and do it. It will open the door to new opportunities.”