During her time on the Hill, alumna Sharon Lee’s experiences shaped not only her future career but her values, belief system and outlook on life.
Lee graduated in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology before going on to graduate with a doctor of medicine degree from the KU School of Medicine in 1982. Lee is known in the Kansas City area for making health care accessible and affordable for patients, regardless of their ability to pay. Her clinic was the first in the area to treat patients with HIV, and as other major public health issues have emerged, the services for clients have changed, as well. In recognition of her contributions, Lee has been selected as a 2014-’15 Distinguished Alumna of the KU College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.
As an undergraduate at KU between the late ’60s and early ’70s, Lee was a student during a period of great unrest in both our university and nation’s history. Protests surrounding issues including the Vietnam War and racism were common on campus and in the spring of 1970 the Memorial Union was burned.
“Having those experiences in my early years at KU, really broadened my outlook,” Lee said. “The chancellor worked with the students so we could limit the violence that happened on campus … and in general the times helped open my mind. Sometimes it’s a hard thing to understand why people are doing things and at a university there’s lots of discussion and picking each other’s minds.”
The lasting impact from these experiences for Lee was a desire to help people and be of service throughout her career.
Her passion and empathy for others led Lee to consider a variety of paths. Lee changed her major a few times, studying speech therapy, law and chemistry before deciding on a psychology major.
“The College of Liberal Arts & Sciences was kind of like stepping into a big hall with lots of open doorways. I could walk down the hall and peek into some of the rooms and decide which ones I really wanted to enter,” Lee said. “It was important to have all that flexibility because I was growing so much with all of the other experiences in my life.”
After graduating from the College and then the School of Medicine, Lee was ready to give back and be of service. Lee knew she wanted to offer medical services to those who wouldn’t otherwise have access to health care. Initially, she considered opening a clinic abroad or in the Appalachian region of the United States but ultimately, Lee felt there was a great need closer to home in Wyandotte County. To help keep Kansans from slipping through the cracks, Lee established her own clinic called Family Health CARE Services. The clinic was created to serve all people, regardless of insurance coverage or their ability to pay. It was also established on an egalitarian basis, with all staff (including Lee) paid the same modest hourly wage. Initially, the clinic provided basic preventative and diagnostic care. Throughout the past 25 years, however, its services and offerings have expanded dramatically.
Family Health CARE Services first expanded when the HIV epidemic reached Kansas City. At the time, medical professionals didn’t know much about the disease and weren’t able to effectively manage or treat it.
“Quite honestly, when I was in medical school there was no such thing as HIV,” Lee said. “I did not feel like I was in a position to take care of these folks because I wasn’t (specialized in) infectious disease. In this part of the country, the idea was if you’re going to take care of HIV patients you should refer them. But I couldn’t get anyone to see my patients.”
In the early days of the HIV epidemic, Lee called a few of her contacts who specialized in infectious disease. However, because her patients didn’t have insurance coverage or the ability to pay out of pocket, there wasn’t a lot other physicians would do.
“I realized then that because my patients were poor the only way they were going to get care is if we provided it at our clinic,” Lee said.
In order to continue providing care to patients, Lee expanded the clinic’s offerings, becoming one of the first physicians in the area offering HIV treatment and supportive services.
Today, Family Health CARE continues to expand services in order to meet the community’s needs. Lee and her team offer a wide range of support including family focused legal aid programs, literacy assessment and GED completion programs, dental, mental health and fitness-focused education and classes. Everything from senior arthritis workout sessions and cardio to kids’ karate classes are now offered at Family Health CARE services.
“We’ve started really working hard on fitness issues because they have long-term health effects if we can get people interested in fitness,” Lee said.
For Lee, health is about overall well-being and is not simply confined to diagnostic treatment. Lifestyle choices including fitness and nutrition play a large role in a person’s overall health. This commitment to healthy living spurred the clinic’s most recent project, which is still in progress. Lee is working on bringing a small grocery store to the food desert in northeast Kansas City, Kansas. A food desert is defined as an urban area or rural town without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. In this part of the city, Lee says, it takes residents about two hours to get to a grocery store. Many of them don’t have cars and they either have to walk or take several bus transfers.
Efforts like these have certainly begun to change the landscape of Wyandotte County, providing access to important health and well-being services that wouldn’t otherwise be available.
When looking back on her time in college Lee strongly believes those experiences helped solidify her beliefs and directed her future career.
“I think the whole college experience shapes us. Our life choices include the opportunities we take while we’re in a university setting. I encourage everybody to take advantage of as many opportunities at KU as they can.”