For Bellingham PeaceHealth pediatrician Josie Lee, an average day means a roster of some 22 young patients, with symptoms ranging from broken bones to depression, asthma attacks to acne.
The 40-year-old doctor from Seattle watched the work of her mother, a school nurse, with admiration and knew from a young age that she, too, would work in the health care field.
"I found my rotation with kids and families during medical school at the University of Washington to be the most rewarding," Lee says.
Later, she found inspiring mentors and great experiences during her pediatric residency training at Seattle Children's Hospital.
"Residency is a very intense time; you practically live at the hospital and spend one out of every four nights there. But at Children's I felt like I was a part of a very special, very dedicated group of people who were working hard to save kids' lives," she says. "It made all the hard work worth it to be a part of a team like that."
Lee and her husband, Mike, visited Bellingham every year when Mike would compete in the canoe leg of the Ski to Sea race. Lee had done a two-month residency in pediatrics at Madrona Medical Group in Bellingham, as well, and was impressed with the quality of pediatricians she encountered.
So, in 2003, when the couple moved to Bellingham permanently, they felt certain it would be a great place to live and raise their children.
Lee's days are nothing if not diverse.
"I see anything from baby and child checkups to kids with flu symptoms, earaches, coughs, sore throats, asthma attacks, stomachaches, acne and warts," she says.
Her practice includes teenagers who are struggling with depression, anxiety or eating disorders, as well as kids with major disabilities and complex medical problems. She's also no stranger to minor traumas, such as broken bones, sprains, and cuts that need stitches.
As the mother of 5- and 8-year-old boys, there's a lot of juggling to balance home life with work life. Lee has found a compromise by working three days and one night a week, as well as one weekend a month in the after-hours clinic.
On a work day she will get her kids up and dressed for school, make their lunches and then head to the office. In-between patients, there are phone calls to return, medications to refill, lab work to check and X-ray results to examine.
As soon as the door closes on the last patient, she's back in "mom mode," picking her boys up from basketball practice and bracing herself for an evening of dinner, homework and bedtime stories.
"Being a mom makes me a better pediatrician," Lee says, "because I can relate to parents' worries and be sympathetic to what they are going through.
"Living in a small city like Bellingham, I end up getting to know some of my patients and their families socially, or running into them at playgrounds or at school. Inevitably it happens whenever my kids are behaving badly in public, or when I'm wearing ripped sweatpants and haven't brushed my hair!"
Handling such encounters requires delicate balancing of the need for patient confidentiality with the desire to be friendly and to socialize.
"It can be awkward at times, and I'm still learning the best ways to handle that," she says. "Luckily, most people are respectful of my situation and try not to bombard me with medical questions when I'm in 'mom mode.'"
Being a pediatrician means spending time counseling - both kids and their parents. It's an inseparable part of the job, and one that can be particularly difficult when Lee has to deliver bad news about a serious diagnosis. Fortunately, that doesn't happen too often, she says.
"Most of my days are spent seeing relatively healthy kids, and I've seen some amazing recoveries; for example, kids who I saw in the emergency room or neonates who were critically ill and had to be airlifted to the ICU at Children's," she says. "I love seeing them back in clinic a few years later, perfectly healthy and thriving."
One of the great upsides of her job is getting to know children and their parents over time.
"It's especially wonderful to take care of them as newborns and then get to see what kind of kids and teenagers they turn out to be," she says. "It's very rewarding to support parents in taking the best possible care of their kids."
The variety of patients that Lee encounters also keeps her on her toes.
"I could see the child of college professors who have done extensive Internet research on their child's medical problem, and walk into the next room to see the child of migrant farmworkers who don't speak any English," she says.
Lee also sees many babies born to drug-addicted mothers, as well as kids who have to be placed into foster care because their parents are addicts and can't take care of them.
"It's a big problem all over the country," she says, "and Whatcom County is no exception."
Lee says half of her medical school class was comprised of women, a fact she considers amazing given her mother's experience.
"My mother remembers telling her high school career counselor that she wanted to go to medical school," Lee recalls. "He told her women didn't do that, and pointed her toward nursing schools instead. It's amazing the amount of progress that was made in one generation."
Her mother remains her inspiration, both at work and at home. One of the great challenges of being a doctor, Lee says, is the ability to move from taking care of people at work to taking care of family at home.
"I struggle with that every day," she says. "My mom managed to do both well."
TAKE TIME TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT DOCTOR FOR YOUR CHILD
What's the best way to pick a doctor to care for your child? Here's some advice, summarized from a variety of medical websites.
- See if your local medical society provides referrals to pediatricians and to family practitioners who care for children. Whatcom County Medical Society offers referrals. Call 360-676-7630.
- Ask your obstetrician or midwife for recommendations.
- Seek recommendations from friends, relatives, neighbors or co-workers if you trust their judgment and share similar views on parenting.
QUESTIONS TO PONDER:
- Is the doctor's office in a convenient location, and do the office hours fit your schedule?
- How are routine telephone questions handled at the office? What about phone calls during off-hours? What about calls on short notice for medical appointments?
- Does the office provide other ways to be in contact, such as websites or email?
- Is the doctor in a group practice? If so, who fills in when your doctor is gone?
- What does the doctor charge for routine exams, sick visits and immunizations? Does the doctor's office accept your medical coverage?
INTERVIEWING THE PROSPECTIVE DOCTOR:
- Are the doctor and office staff friendly and helpful, and does the office seem well-run?
- Does the doctor show interest in your child's condition? Did your child respond well to the doctor?
- Does the doctor take time to communicate clearly and fully to you and your child? Does the doctor welcome questions?
- Is the waiting room pleasant? Is there convenient and adequate parking?
Lauren Kramer is a Bellingham freelance writer.