BALTIMORE — Dr. Robert Seung-bok Lee leans out of his wheelchair and over the hospital bed, asking a patient recovering from spine surgery to push her feet against his hands.
Dr. Lee cannot walk and does not have the full use of his hands. But he has some use and makes the most of it, which is the message he tries to give patients.
Dr. Lee lost full use of his body at 18, when training with the South Korean Olympic gymnastics team.
He dislocated a vertebra in his neck by landing on his chin during a dismount on a floor exercise. Rehabilitation allowed him to regain control of the major muscles in his arms, but control of the hand muscles that make fine-motor motions has not returned.
The accident ended his athletic hopes but led to a new vocation as a physiatrist, specializing in rehabilitation of problems ranging from sore shoulders to spinal-cord injuries.
Dr. Lee, chief resident for the physical medicine and rehabilitation department at Johns Hopkins Hospital, coordinates care for his patients — overseeing the therapies, medications and all other aspects of rehabilitation.
He thinks the first challenge is winning a patient’s trust and that being in a wheelchair gives him an advantage in overcome a patient’s anger and bitterness.
Dr. Lee, in his mid-30s and completing his final year of residency at Hopkins, said he doesn’t wear a white coat if he can avoid it because he remembers how he felt when he was in rehabilitation at New York University’s Rusk Institute.
He said the doctors would come in during rounds with intricate-looking tools coming out of their pockets, then prod and poke patients before talking their “gibberish.”
“It left a bad taste,” Dr. Lee said.
He also remembers thinking at the time that he would one day show them “how it should be done.”
Dr. Lee writes with the aid of a small brace that allows him to hold the pen with only his thumb.
“I make do with what I have left,” he said.
With about three months left in his residency, Dr. Lee has not decided what he will do next but is leaning toward continuing his training. He eventually wants to help patients in rehabilitation and be involved in clinical research involving patients.