Alum's spirit of service invaluable to women of the Hmong refugee community

Dr. Lee with patient
Obstetrician and UC Davis alumna Fenglaly Lee checks in on new mother Ashley Arias and her new baby that Lee delivered earlier at the Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno.

Providing health-care services to California's nine million foreign-born residents poses many challenges, including overcoming the cultural, language and gender barriers of many of the state's 26,000 Hmong refugees.

UC Davis School of Medicine alumnus Fenglaly Lee easily transcends those barriers. Lee is the first Hmong female Ob/Gyn in the Central Valley — and possibly the state. In August, she joined the Omni Women's Health Medical Group in Fresno, her hometown and home to half the state's Hmong population.

"I feel like I am able to make my Hmong patients more comfortable," Lee says.

Speaking the language

Lee says her patients like being able to interact with her in the Hmong language.

"If they can understand their condition and the treatment I am recommending, it empowers them and, in the end, makes them more willing to follow my medical recommendations."

Lee said she particularly enjoys the wide range of medicine she is able to practice and the diversity of her patient population. Most of her patients are low-income immigrants of Hispanic origin, but, as a whole, her patients come from all walks of life. "We have everybody from educated lawyers and teachers to recent immigrants," says Lee.

After graduating from UC Davis School of Medicine in 2003, Lee joined the UC San Francisco-Fresno Ob/Gyn Residency Program, where she now serves as a volunteer faculty member.

Well prepared

She credits the training and mentoring she received at UC Davis for preparing her to practice medicine in Fresno's semi-rural setting.

"If they can understand their condition and the treatment I am recommending, it empowers them and, in the end, makes them more willing to follow my medical recommendations."
— Fenglaly Lee, M.D.

"The free student clinics allowed me to get a grasp of running a clinic while giving back to the community," says Lee, who was co-director of the Paul Hom Asian Free Clinic during her third year.

Lee and her family resettled in the United States after fleeing war-torn Laos and winding up in a refugee camp in Thailand. The family arrived in Fresno when Lee was about six years old. She is the fifth of nine children and the first to earn an undergraduate college degree. Her parents once supported the family by harvesting local crops. Later, her father started a shipping business. It was his death following a stroke in 1998 that prompted Lee to focus on a career in medicine.

While still in medical school, Lee was recruited by Sacramento's Hmong Women Heritage Association to promote health screenings in the community.

"It was a blessing to have someone like her to speak to these women," says Steve Ly, a childhood friend and a member of the California State Advisory Council on Refugee Assistance and Services.

Word is spreading

As word spreads about the new Hmong female Ob/Gyn, Lee is beginning to see more Hmong patients, who are often very private about their bodies, Lee says.

Though Lee is able to overcome the language and gender barriers, she constantly battles a distrust of Western medicine. Lee says she must persuade many of her Hmong patients of the need for regular preventive care and screenings.

"I am always reminding them to have their annual exams," she says.

Spirit of service

Faculty physician Mary K. Miller, one of Lee's medical school mentors, is not surprised by the important role Lee now plays in the health of Fresno's Hmong community.

"She was very much committed to her Hmong patients and saw that her future would be serving an underserved community when she was in medical school here," says Miller, clinic medical director for Ob/Gyn and the site coordinator for the Ob/Gyn clerkship. "She had this great, heartfelt spirit of service."

That spirit of service is equaled by Lee's spirit of perseverance, Miller says.

"She had some very difficult experiences in the refugee camps and growing up, but she was able to turn that into something wonderful."