August 17, 2017

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Drs. Michael and Noelle Lee: Love Thy Neighborhood

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Dr. Noelle Lee and Dr. Michael Lee

When Drs. Michael and Noelle Lee moved from Pennsylvania to Minneapolis three years ago for Michael’s hand surgery fellowship, they moved into a 550-squarefoot apartment, where many of their neighbors were Somali immigrants.

“I was home alone with a baby,” says Dr. Noelle Lee, a family physician, “and so were a lot of our neighbors, so we became friends.”

The Lees learned from their neighbors how to cook Somali food and, in turn, taught their Somali neighbors how to cook American style. In other small-but important ways, the couple helped these recent immigrants navigate a culture very different from their own. Two years ago, they both accepted jobs at Affiliated Community Medical Centers in Willmar—she in urgent care and he as a hand surgeon.

About 20 percent of Willmar’s population is now Somali, and many live in apartments near the Lee’s house. The couple knew that back in Somalia most women had vegetable gardens, but living in apartments they couldn’t have one, nor did they know what would grow in Minnesota. So the Lees bought three vacant lots next to their home and started a community garden, where they and others from their church taught their Somali neighbors the basics of Midwestern gardening. Dr. Noelle Lee taught one mother how to grow and pick sweet corn. That mother, in turn, taught her daughters.

At work the Lees saw there was much their Somali neighbors didn’t understand about health care in the United States.

“Coming from their background, it’s a learning process for them to understand that a chronic condition requires regular testing and maybe taking medicine for the rest of your life,” Dr. Noelle Lee says.

Last spring Dr. Noelle Lee started giving presentations on health issues at an apartment building near her house with help from a volunteer interpreter. During the talks she explains the concept of over-the-counter medications; how to read a medicine label; what to do for upper respiratory infections, vomiting, diarrhea and diaper rash; temperature-taking; and when to go to urgent care or the emergency room versus when to self-treat.

“The Somali moms are appreciative,” she says, “and many have said they can’t believe a doctor would spend so much time with them.”

The Lee's community garden.

The Lee’s community garden.

The Lees are members of a task force formed by Norris Anderson, MD, medical director of the Southern Prairie Community Care Organization, to come up with ways to improve the health and care of Somalis in Willmar. The couple also has been assisting a Somali man with creating a women’s-only fitness center. They are helping him find funding to remodel an older building into a gym and recruiting women to staff the fitness center when it opens.

Dr. Noelle Lee is waiting to hear about a grant to buy Fitbit digital exercise bracelets that monitor the number of steps taken each day.

“We’d like to start a virtual walking group for Somalis where once a month we’d compare how much we walked, exchange healthy recipes and talk about other health-related topics,” she says, adding that the couple makes time for these activities because they’re “a priority for us.”

“We try to follow Jesus literally when He says to love our neighbors as we do ourselves,” Dr. Noelle Lee says. “To do that, we have found that we first must get to know our neighbors.”

This article was originally published in the November-December 2015 issue of Minnesota Medicine and was written by Howard Bell. For more articles from Minnesota Medicine, go to www.minnesotamedicine.com.