The license plate, PRAXIS, on the 1997 Toyota RAV4 Kyla Lee, MD ’98, FACP, has owned since medical school aptly describes her approach for teaching and mentoring medical students. 

With Ancient Greek origins, the word “emphasizes the importance of critically reflecting on practice, ensuring that practice is grounded in theory and ensuring that practice contributes to how we understand theory and the context in which we operate,” according to the blog Sustaining Community.

“If we can have deep thinkers who figure out how to do things in the world, that’s how we bring about change. And that has always been an important part of my journey,” says Lee, an internal medicine physician at Gundersen Health System in La Crosse, Wisconsin, who became president of the Wisconsin Medical Alumni Association (WMAA) in July 2022.

Kyla Lee, MD ’98, FACP (center), relishes the opportunity to mentor medical students. Pictured is the group that completed their rotation in 2022. Back row (left to right): David Alderman, Lee, Kaitlyn Landry; front row: Ruby Gravrok, Mark Saari, Alli Zeman, Carley Sprackling. —Photo by Brooke Doval/Gundersen Health System

Lee holds a clinical adjunct faculty position at her medical school alma mater—the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH)—and has been a member of the WMAA Board of Directors since 2013. She aims to help strengthen the SMPH’s success, with an emphasis on cultivating relationships among students and alumni. The WMAA does this in many ways, such as supporting scholarships, boosting the efforts of student clubs and hosting events that foster interactions among medical trainees and alumni.

“I think it’s important to promote an inclusive, diverse and collaborative educational environment that fosters the engagement of alumni from near and far, so our students have opportunities to help diverse and underserved populations thrive in Wisconsin and around the globe,” she shares, adding that she advocates for medical students who struggle to fund their education.

“These are the reasons I’m passionate about my roles at the school and in the WMAA,” Lee notes.

At the Gundersen Health System/Western Academic Campus, she serves as the SMPH director of student programs; as part of this role, she leads Phases 2 and 3 of the traditional medical student programs, and she assists with training medical students in the school’s Wisconsin Academy for Rural Medicine.

When the SMPH began its curriculum transformation to the ForWard Curriculum, Lee served on the Curriculum Transformation Steering Committee and helped implement the curriculum at Gundersen. There, she is the Acute Care Block Phase 2 site director; Inpatient Acting Internship: Internal Medicine, Cardiology and Pulmonary Critical Care Phase 3 site director; Intern Prep Course site co-director; and Clinical Competency Committee chair for the Transitional-Year Residency Program.

“We’re building compassionate physicians for the diverse communities we serve, and I want to continue to strengthen this,” notes Lee. “I feel fortunate to be part of this school that cares about the importance of medicine, public health and health equity.”

Lee knew at a young age that she would enter a helping profession because she “was the kind of kid who rescued spiders” ahead of her mom’s vacuum cleaner.

“I credit my mom for fostering my affinity for learning and my love of animals and nature. Among other things, she took my siblings and me to nature centers and encouraged me to earn my Girl Scout First Class Award—equivalent to an Eagle Scout rank—even when others lost interest in scouting,” says Lee, who grew up enjoying hobbies of camping, hiking and biking, which she now does on her e-bike with medical students, when schedules allow.

Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate premedical curriculum and a master’s degree in psychology at Harvard University. When teaching middle school in Boston and rural Vermont and Kenya, as well as college courses in South Africa, she realized that the students’ lives were grounded in the reality of daily survival.

“While teaching science was extremely rewarding, it did not allow me to confront issues of deeper importance to me. I decided to attend medical school so I could focus on people one on one,” she shares.

Other factors in Lee’s life—including losing her grandmother to colon cancer while receiving home hospice care; hearing inspiring stories about her immigrant grandfather’s friendship with Albert Schweitzer, MD, while her grandfather was working as an engineer in Africa; and witnessing her father’s strong dedication to serving in the military—also fueled her drive to become a physician.

“The UW School of Medicine and Public Health has a really special character. I had wonderful mentors, including Drs. John Harting and Dean Manning, who focused on interactive group work, and engaging teachers such as Drs. Patrick McBride and Paul Bertics. Their approaches spoke to me,” reflects Lee.

As a medical student, she earned scholarships in recognition of her academic excellence, clinical promise and exceptional concern for the comfort and welfare of patients. She also worked in an orthopedic biomechanics laboratory studying total joint replacement.

After earning her medical degree, she completed an internal medicine residency at Gundersen Health System, where—at the end of her residency—she accepted a clinical position. Her love of teaching soon earned her a spot on the teaching faculty, and her role evolved into the positions she holds now.

“The classroom brings questions and knowledge to the table, and teachers who build an engaging environment for students create personal meaning around the information. I want them to own the knowledge so they can address medical problems and ask questions that could change the direction of research or care delivery in the future,” says Lee.

She continues, “I underscore the importance of empathy and safety to help medical students become kind, resilient physicians to serve individuals, families and communities.”

Specifically, Lee encourages students to help address patients’ pain, poverty, loneliness, anxiety, access to care, literacy concerns and discrimination.

“It’s important to know what your patients are famous for—cooking, fishing, volunteering—and what they have faced on their life path,” says Lee.

She teaches students to incorporate patients’ personal details in progress notes, such as, “[The patient] is a delightful, hard-working farmer and truck driver who lost her father to a myocardial infarction and her mother to ovarian cancer as a child, so holidays are particularly hard.” Lee notes that understanding things like patients’ losses are important in delivering care for the whole person.

During feedback sessions, students share how these lessons have made a difference; for instance, one medical student wrote, “It helped me further develop a framework for addressing complex emotional reactions. I have been able to apply this framework in real-time during challenging patient interactions.”

Lee’s passion for education is rivaled only by her commitment to excellence in patient care. Humble yet quick to offer examples of scenarios she shares with students, Lee describes an elderly patient whose children were out of town. The woman felt ill and needed cranberry juice, but she did not have a way to get it.

“She called me on a Saturday morning about her concern, and I delivered cranberry juice to her senior apartment,” recalls Lee. “I was touched that my patient would call me.”

Lee says she is grateful that Gundersen endorses patient-centered care and upholds “small town” values, such as encouraging house calls when necessary.

She explains, “Even though La Crosse is fairly large (population approximately 51,000) and Gundersen Health System is a big hospital that has a Level 2 trauma center and many residency programs, when you drive 20 minutes outside of town in any direction, you’ll find small, rural towns. I take care of a lot of farming families.”

At a time when few hospitals in the nation had palliative care programs but the need was becoming evident, Gundersen supported Lee and five colleagues to receive coaching by the inpatient palliative care team at University of California, San Francisco. Now certified in palliative care in addition to general internal medicine, Lee furthers the reach of empathetic, end-of-life care by teaching others about the concepts.

Over the years, the SMPH and WMAA have recognized Lee for her dedication to medical education. Among several teaching awards, she received the WMAA Sigurd Sivertson Medical Education Award in 2013, the SMPH Dean’s Teaching Award in 2014, and the WMAA Clinical Science Distinguished Teaching Award five times between 2004 and 2020. She also was selected by the SMPH’s MD Class of 2017 for induction into the Gold Humanism Honor Society, in which she received its Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award.

In her precious time away from work, Lee embraces many hobbies, mostly outdoors.

“I grew up out east, where I used to scuba dive and swim in the cold Atlantic Ocean and lakes,” says Lee, who now prefers to dive in warm tropical waters.

She does recreational shipwreck diving and night diving, has seen black coral at 100 feet and completed a certification dive around whale sharks. Lee also enjoys woodworking and construction projects, such as building live-edge tables as gifts, a staircase up the side of a hill at a friend’s farm, and a bridge over a trout stream on another friend’s property in northern Wisconsin.

As she drives her 1997 Toyota to work every day, Lee hopes her students grasp the metaphor that it’s important to “take care of what we have, including each other and our communities.” She concludes that she hopes this type of thinking will help her students make the most of what they’ve gained during their time at UW-Madison and beyond.

By Kris Whitman
This article appears in Quarterly magazine.