Photo by Richard Howard
For six weeks in 2014, Kwan Kew Lai ’74 donned three pairs of gloves, a full-body protective suit, a hood, apron, and goggles to protect herself from infection as she cared for patients in an Ebola Treatment Unit in Liberia, bringing her version of “sed Ministrare” to one of the most dire medical outbreaks in recent memory.
“I must admit, taking care of Ebola patients in an ETU is a challenging one, both emotionally and physically,” Lai wrote in a blog she updated almost daily. “Every one of us is affected by the extreme sufferings of the patients and the death toll.”
An infectious disease physician, Lai volunteered for grueling 12-hour shifts—making the dying more comfortable, rejoicing when a person identified as a “suspected” Ebola patient tested negative, and even caring for a premature newborn.
While Ebola may have presented the most immediate risk to her own health, it was far from the first time she’d offered her medical expertise to a community in need of additional doctors. She was so committed to volunteer service that she reduced her professional responsibilities to part-time clinical work at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Needham, Mass., so she could leave the comforts of home to help abroad. She’s mentored and trained HIV/AIDS clinicians in Vietnam, Malawi, and Uganda, and provided relief services after the earthquake and during the cholera outbreak in Haiti, among many other projects.
Before she had even completed the mandatory quarantine at home in Massachusetts following her Ebola work in Liberia, she wrote that she would return to the outbreak.
“My presence might not make a dent in the Ebola cases, but it would ease the aches in the lives of the few I touch,” she wrote about her desire to serve in Sierra Leone. “Every day I am there will make a difference in someone’s life.”
Lai says her commitment to helping others goes back to her teenage years, and grew only stronger through her college experience. She came to the Wellesley from Malaysia, where she learned about universities and colleges on the other side of the world thanks to a library at the United States Information Service office. When she was growing up, her local community library had a fee that her family could not afford to pay. A teacher later introduced her and her classmates to the library at the USIS.
“We could all get a library card and we could borrow books for free,” she says. “Two books for two weeks.”
As she approached the end of high school, Lai and a friend used the library to research higher education in the United States. They learned that some schools offered scholarships to international students and narrowed down their searches to places that might fund their educations.
“Wellesley gave me a full scholarship,” Lai says, “No one else did.” She arrived on campus in 1970.
Ironically, Lai sat in a cordoned off space at her graduation in 1974 for students who received an empty diploma holder. She had not quite finished, but not because she’d fallen behind. Rather, Lai left Wellesley after her junior year just four credits shy of her bachelor’s degree in molecular biology. She enrolled at the dental school at Harvard, with the plan of using the credits toward her Wellesley B.A. Since Harvard’s semester ended after Wellesley’s, her academic work was considered “incomplete” at graduation.
“They did not give me my degree until I completed my first year at Harvard,” she says.
At the time, she says, dental students spent their first two years at the medical school. The experience left Lai longing to treat more than just the mouth and jaw.
“I decided that I would finish,” she says, “but at the end of my dental school I thought I would do something more challenging, such as oral surgery.”
She scored interviews with several oral surgery residencies, but was so discouraged by the condescending and dismissive nature of the man who interviewed her at Vanderbilt University that she cancelled the rest of her interviews and decided to finish a medical degree instead of heading straight into oral surgery. Ultimately, her time at the Chicago Medical School led her to a residency in internal medicine and a very different path. She wanted a challenging specialty that would require her to evaluate and consider more than a specific organ or system.
“Infectious disease involves the whole person,” she says, “you really need to think about the whole person to come down with a diagnosis.”
She returned to the Boston area to complete her training and later joined the faculty at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, where she achieved the rank of full professor in 2001.
But several influences were luring her away from full-time employment. As far back as her teen years, she says, reading about physician Tom Dooley’s life of selfless humanitarian service in those USIO library books, she imagined a similar life and career. Wellesley’s motto nurtured that impulse.
“It is a motto that is encouraging us to help others rather than being helped,” she says. “Wellesley actually helped me to get an education, so it started with that.”
“I wouldn’t be a doctor today if not for Wellesley,” she says, so she feels giving back to others brings her full-circle.
Before 2004, she had done some volunteer work, but never as a physician. The Indian Ocean tsunami that year changed her focus.
“When the tsunami came, I saw all these terrible pictures,” she says, and she asked herself, how would I feel to be suffering like that?
“I felt like as a medical doctor maybe I should go to help,” she says, “but I didn’t know how.” She quickly learned that it’s not as easy as simply making oneself available. “It’s actually very difficult to find an organization that will take you.” Even when international aid groups were on the news talking about the need for volunteers, she discovered many barriers to actually reaching the patients who needed care.
But she has figured it out: Since 2005, she has volunteered in nearly a dozen countries in Africa, in addition to India, Nepal, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Haiti. She left UMass Medical in 2008 for the part-time clinical practice at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital.
Her Ebola blog gained her attention when she was featured on NPR, bringing many new readers to a space she hadn’t really imagined would become so public.
“Sometime a few years ago I decided to blog,” she says, “in a sense for my family, so they could go to the blog and read about it and so they could at least know that I’m safe, nothing happened to me.” Lai says she draws inspiration from the dedication of the local health-care workers, who are doing similar work to her but in their own communities, potentially treating patients they know. “They gave me courage, think[ing] about them working day in and day out without thinking about their own safety,” she says, “So that gave me a lot of hope for humanity.”
Others find similar inspiration from Lai’s work.
“She represents the best in humanism and physician service to society,” says Katherine Murray-Leisure ’74, also an infectious disease doctor. “To volunteer for the Ebola work, for a disease for which there’s no cure and [is] highly transmissible, was remarkable.”
Murray-Leisure remembers Lai as a shy, quiet student, but admires her today for her dedication and commitment to the most vulnerable patients. She says Lai excels as a clinician, particularly in working with patients who have HIV/AIDS, Ebola, or other infectious diseases that can be accompanied by a social stigma, because she is a great advocate for them.
Murray-Leisure says local and global authorities were not quick to recognize the severity of the Ebola outbreak, yet “Kwan Kew went right into it so courageously.”
Most recently, Lai returned from Greece where she worked with Syrian refugees, a population she had long wanted to serve, and a smaller number of refugees from Iran and Afghanistan who were waiting to enter European Union countries.
While her Ebola work has garnered the most attention, it’s not the volunteer effort Lai looks upon now as having the most impact.
“The time when I felt I was most useful was when I was doing HIV mentoring,” she says, helping medical providers in several different countries become more adept at caring for vulnerable, often stigmatized, patients.
Sed Ministrare, indeed.