Getting to know you: Dr. John Lee

Dr John Lee with his dog Jasper.

I am readying myself for a Zoom interview with Dr. John Lee, chief medical officer for the Cayman Islands Government. He is a man who has gone from relative anonymity to being thrust into the spotlight, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

There he is, at every press briefing, eloquently running through the latest figures, followed by patiently taking questions from journalists and the public.

The charming manner with which he dispenses information has won him quite the fan club.
A reluctant celebrity, he has become the David Cassidy of the local medical profession with a calm demeanor that has helped steer the ship in which we all presently find ourselves – with only restricted movement allowed and almost completely cut off from the rest of the world, in order to suppress the spread of COVID-19.

As Zoom connects us, I see the familiar face before me, the one from all the TV, Facebook Live and YouTube videos. Usually wearing a polo shirt at the briefings, this time he is sporting a Rotary Club T-shirt. I’ve managed to get him on the first day off he’s had since December 2019. I’m sure this is how he wanted to spend it.

Early days

Lee was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which is where he spent the first six years of his life before his family moved to Singapore. His father was a university lecturer at
the time.

When he was eight years old, his mother died when an elective hysterectomy surgery went wrong. “Her death coloured my whole life,” he revealed.

Finding it hard to cope in the years that followed, Lee’s father sent him to boarding school in the UK when he was 11. He would not see him again until he was 16.

School holidays were spent with extended family and friends, many of whom became very significant people in his life. The strongest relationship he had was with an aunt who lived in Covent Garden, London.

“My uncle was a theatre impresario,” Lee said. “He had six theatres (in London) and I would work in them in the evenings to earn pocket money.”

Dr Lee relaxing in his garden.

Career

Believe it or not, Lee might have been working on the government’s budgets and books, if he’d had his druthers.

He never wanted to be a doctor – he wanted to be (a lumberjack?) an accountant.

“I love spreadsheets and figures, and always have done,” he said.

“I wanted to be a company secretary … and believed accountancy would take me there.

“I never wanted to be the boss, I always liked to be the second-in-command. A senior person, but not the person at the top, and I thought a company secretary would be that sort of a person.”

His father; the careers advisor at school; his house master; and, basically, anyone else influential in Lee’s life had other plans. They essentially pooh-poohed his thoughts on his own further education and collectively agreed that medicine was his future.

“I was a good boy,” he said with a laugh, explaining why he followed the path that was chosen for him by others.

He subsequently attended University College London in Bloomsbury, not far from his old stomping grounds of Covent Garden, and became a specialist in pain management.

It is a job that, by design, requires an empathetic nature and, Lee admitted, can take an emotional toll.

His work as a consultant at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, University College London Hospitals, is what led to a meeting with Dr. Delroy Jefferson from the Cayman Islands, who had travelled to the UK on business.

Jefferson, who was working in pain medicine at the Cayman Islands Hospital, suggested to Lee that he and some colleagues visit and hold a training session on the subject.

“So, about eight of us came over for a pain symposium around 2008,” Lee said. “And during it, Jeff said ‘Why don’t you stay? Why don’t you work here?’” Clearly thinking he was joking, Lee laughed it off. “I mean, when does anyone say, ‘Come and work in the Caribbean’? (laughs),” he said.

Lee returned to the UK, but a year later Jefferson was back there and assured him that his offer was serious. The would-be company secretary then looked at the proposal as an actual possibility and made another visit to Cayman before deciding that, yes, it would be a nice place to live.

About a year later, the deal was struck, and it took another six months of paperwork and arrangements before Lee found himself arriving at his new home in December 2011.

Exercising with dog Jasper.

In May 2019, he was appointed chief medical officer for the Cayman Islands. He couldn’t know at that time that, just over six months into his job, he would be presented with arguably his career’s greatest challenge.

Coronavirus

“January. In January there was no sign that it was remitting and every sign that it was spreading,” said Lee, when asked when he first realised that COVID-19 was going to be extraordinary.

Not only was it obvious what the global implications could be, it was clear that the figures in Cayman could be potentially disastrous.

“Thank goodness, I had started to develop a working relationship with (Hazard Management Cayman Islands director) Dani Coleman already,” he said, readily admitting that he could not handle the magnitude of the issue alone.

He told her that the team had to grow in order for Cayman to tackle the problem and she was immediately on board, talking to the Governor and pushing for what needed to be put
in place.

“She was hugely supportive and helpful, especially in the early days, making this a government imperative, not just a health imperative,” Lee said.

Another positive development was the receptiveness of the Cayman Islands Government to the information and advice it was given by Lee and his team. “They listened and acted,” he said. “I was really impressed by how quickly things moved.”

Looking back, it is hard to believe how the local and worldwide situation accelerated in such a short period of time. Experts were getting worried in January; news reports were increasing daily in February; and by March, cruise ships were being turned away. Cayman was heading towards an unprecedented period of curfews and closed borders.

Lee doesn’t sugarcoat the unrelenting pressure that he and other team members have been under since their coronavirus work began. He said that it was particularly hard in the beginning, with the stress, due to the “unremitting nature” of it all. But when government joined the fight, it helped immensely, removing the feeling of being alone in the face of such a crisis.

Regardless, the incoming emails were never-ending, sitting in his inbox, ready to greet him in the early hours of the morning and arriving throughout the day, well into the wee hours of the night.

Although, on the whole, people have been extremely cooperative under the circumstances, Lee’s biggest frustration has been the resistance of some to get on board with what they are trying to do.

“Not everybody is collaborating in the same way in order to achieve a positive result for the country as a whole,” he said.

Looking forward

Mercifully, after months of hard work, Lee feels that, finally, things are getting easier. The ability to test a large percentage of the population coupled with much faster results and a government strategy that appears to be reaping dividends have gone a long way to making his job more manageable.

He credits people like Governor Martyn Roper, Premier Alden McLaughlin, Minister for Health Dwayne Seymour, and Danielle Coleman, for their tireless efforts and support.

He also said that the Cayman Islands’ relationship with the UK, and the assistance of the Pan American Health Organization and the Caribbean Public Health Agency – which have been there throughout this journey – have been instrumental in getting the country to the strong position it is in now.

As he finds himself with pockets of free time in his calendar, Lee is able to enjoy the things he loves, like cooking, watching ‘The Sopranos’ or classic British comedies, and exercising with his dog Jasper, who made a surprise appearance in our Zoom call.

When I asked him where he would like to visit when we are finally all able to travel again, he reckoned Little Cayman would be a good start.

The man is well-travelled and familiar with many cosmopolitan cities, so the idea of spending a week in a quiet place like the smaller sister island where he can take his dog along sounds idyllic.

He’d also like to visit Norway or Iceland, as he is somewhat of a keen photographer, but apparently the first question is always: Could I take Jasper?

He sure loves that dog, which certainly won’t hurt his fan club status any.

Dr. Lee is a keen cook.

When the restaurants eventually reopen, a meal at Ristorante Pappagallo or Bàcaro would suit his fancy, or just a casual outdoor sit-down at Macabuca or Sunset House.

Like the rest of us, he looks forward to the days when we can enjoy a bit of normality and WhatsApp doesn’t rule our lives.

Home

Lee has lived in five countries: Malaysia, Singapore, the UK, the US and now Cayman, and identifies with every one, stating that each has been a significant part of his life.

“My home is where I live now,” he said. “Your home is not in the roots or the leaves of the trees; it is where you find love and you’re happy and you flourish, and I’ve found that in Cayman. I’m happy here because the people have made me happy – they’re a good bunch to be with. I love being here.”

There is no question that Lee feels very fortunate to be living in Cayman and working with such an exceptional group of collaborators. We’re pretty sure the feeling is mutual.

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