Arriving in Richmond from Seoul, Korea, in 1968, Byung-Boong Lee, M.D., Ph.D., F’73, felt fortunate. He was about to begin a clinical and research fellowship in transplant surgery on the MCV Campus, a rarity for a medical student from another country.

“As a foreign medical school graduate back in that time, it was almost impossible to have access to a major leading teaching institute,” he says. “But my fellowship was arranged through the U.S. State Department, and David Hume was kind enough and generous enough to accept me as a fellow.”

David Hume, M.D., and Hyung Mo Lee, M.D. — the namesakes of the future VCU Hume-Lee Transplant Center — would serve as Lee’s mentors and introduce him to the growing field of vascular surgery. Unbeknownst to him at the time, it would become his life’s work.

“Until I came to Richmond I had no idea about vascular surgery,” Lee says. “My mentor, David Hume, was one of the pioneers in this field and he developed such a unique MCV vascular surgery program. And I was one of the lucky few to receive his training.”

After his fellowship ended, Lee was accepted into the Department of Surgery residency program in the VCU School of Medicine and remained in Richmond.

“It was an uphill battle from the beginning, as I expected,” Lee says. “I accepted a sort of discrimination as a natural response to the foreigner like me — different looking, different culture and custom — when I arrived in Richmond. But I survived and proved I was as good as the other residents were professionally.”

Lee, who served as assistant resident and chief resident of general surgery, was known as “the one and only foreigner” in his class. The moniker would follow him even after he became an established transplant and vascular surgeon at Georgetown University School of Medicine, where he started the vascular surgery program in 1979.

“I was often jokingly introduced by that title for many decades afterward,” Lee says. “I was keenly aware of my unique status as an unusual minority and accepted it as a reality. But it was also a liability, and to compensate, I had to work harder than anyone else.”

Today, Lee is a world-renowned vascular surgeon in the field of venous-lymphatic disorders and a celebrated authority on congenital vascular malformation and lymphedema. Since 1974, he has held directorship and professorship appointments in Korea and the U.S., including at Samsung Medical Center, Seoul National University, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Georgetown University School of Medicine (twice). He currently serves as clinical professor of surgery at George Washington University School of Medicine and adjunct professor of surgery at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

In recognition of his contributions to vascular surgery, Lee was named distinguished fellow by the Society for Vascular Surgery in the U.S. He has published more than 800 original papers and abstracts in addition to more than 70 book chapters and has given more than 600 lectures around the globe.

His presentations often discuss ways to increase the number of Asian surgeons in vascular surgery. A recent presentation to the Frank J. Veith International Society focused on valuable lessons Lee learned throughout his career and how vascular surgeons could help expand diversity within the field. He spoke to his fellow Asian-American doctors and medical students, encouraging them to claim credit for their work and promote themselves without shame.

“The U.S. mandates that people get up and make their voices heard,” Lee says. “So, I urge my colleagues of Asian origin to remember to speak up so that other doctors can learn that you are as good as they are.”

Additionally, Lee has served as a mentor to countless young physicians. Among his mentees is James Laredo, M.D., Ph.D., attending vascular surgeon and clinical associate professor of surgery at George Washington University Medical School and assistant professor of surgery at Georgetown University Medical Center. Laredo first met Lee in 2004 when he began working at Georgetown. The two share a connection to this day as Laredo, who lives near Lee in Northern Virginia, still consults regularly with his mentor.

“I absolutely benefited from my relationship with Dr. Lee,” Laredo says. “Whenever I see a complicated patient, I always give Dr. Lee a call and come over to his house. He is very welcoming and extremely helpful in treating these patients.”

The 83-year-old, who continues to write and lecture on congenital vascular malformation and treat patients around the world, feels indebted to his mentors, who he says pulled him through many critical moments, and grateful for his experience on the MCV Campus.

“I was simply lucky to get the chance to learn through the MCV program,” he says. “Yes, I did experience some discrimination. But in general, across the board, discrimination is human nature and I overcame it.”