Images courtesy of Faye Lee
Faye Lee, 32, might be New York’s only emergency room doctor by night and world-traveling surfer by day. Not that New York City can accurately claim her as a resident: Lee spends most of her time traveling in search of the perfect wave or paying gigs at far-flung hospitals and has been to a dozen countries since finishing med school five years ago.
Theme caught up with Lee via email, once during a layover in Tokyo on her way back from Sumbawa, a small island off the coast of Indonesia, and again in the New Mexico town where she’s currently doing night shifts in the ER.
Indonesian ding repair
Theme: Is thrill-seeker a word most people use to describe you?
Faye Lee: My colleagues all think I’m crazy because I’m so passionate about surfing; people describe me as either crazy or lucky. And it’s true, my life really does revolve around surfing to a significant degree. But, and I know this is going to sound hokie, surfing is not sport to--it’s a lifestyle.
What do your fellow surfers think?
They think I’m lucky because I get to live out the dream.
How’d you become a doctor and a serious surfer? What’s the secret to living a dual life?
My natural rhythms tend to be all screwed up anyway, since with emergency medicine, you do a lot of switching between days and nights. I try to take advantage of the jetlag by starting off with night shifts. Right now, I’m still synced with my Indo schedule, except instead of surfing, I’m working.
But how do you manage both? Do you foresee a time when you’ll have to choose?
The way I see it, I have two options. I can continue what I’m doing in New Mexico—work like crazy for a couple weeks, take a couple weeks off to go somewhere different, then repeat. When I’m working full-on like that, it almost doesn’t matter that I’m a thousand miles from the ocean and many thousands more from my boyfriend, because all I’m doing is working. It’s a bit brutal, but worth it. It helps that I really do love my job.
The other option would be to take the more traditional approach to emergency medicine scheduling. Work a few days, have a few off, spreading my shifts across the whole month instead of just two weeks. I have to admit though, I’m a bit addicted to the first way. I’d much rather have lots of time off in one chunk…wouldn’t you?
Did you always want to be a doctor?
When I was a little kid, I wanted to be an Olympic swimmer and marine biologist. In high school, I thought I’d go into teaching, then be a volunteer forest firefighter in the summers. It’s funny, because as an undergrad, I was anti-pre-med. Being a bio major, I took all the same classes that are pre-requisites for med school, and the majority of the class was made up of pre-med majors...super smart, always asking questions the prof couldn’t answer (and i could barely understand, Are we looking at the same book?!?), arguing for points on assignments.
To be honest, I never really liked school and felt like I was going through the motions. Medicine didn’t seem like a viable option to me because I felt like I’d be lucky if I could make it out of college, let alone another four years of med school. I didn’t feel smart enough. But I ended up enjoying my classes much more than I thought I would, even the studying. When I graduated, I became involved with some HIV research, which was booming at the time. It turns out, I hated it with the passion and conviction I had lacked for so long. I worked with millions of bacteria on the top floor of a sterile biolab that overlooked the Pacific. It still hurts to think about it. Next thing you know, I was studying for the MCAT and applying for medical school.
Why emergency medicine?
In my naivete, that’s what I thought medicine was. Someone gets hit by a car, has a heart attack, breaks his toe, you go see “the doctor.” I love emergency medicine because I see a little bit of everything and everybody, from the 1-day-old to the 102-year-old (my oldest patient), men, women, children, pregnant, crazy, rich, poor, drunk, high, depressed, gun shots, heart attacks, car wrecks. I see it all—sometimes in the same day. I like that I have the opportunity to save lives. I like that I don’t have to ask the person’s insurance status or even name before I can offer care. And of course, I like the flexibility and the lifestyle it gives me.
I like that I have the opportunity to save lives. I like that I don’t have to ask the person’s insurance status or even name before I can offer care. And of course, I like the flexibility and the lifestyle it gives me.
What’s the one thing you never leave home without?
My passport. Other than that, I travel light. If I’m going somewhere I know has a good selection of used boards, I’ll just pick one up when I get there.
Where’ve you been in the last year?
I may miss a few trips on this one, but let’s see...winding down two months in Indonesia now. Was in El Salvador in June, July and September, Hawaii in April. I spent last New Year’s on a trans-New Zealand road trip. Before that, I ping-ponged between New York, California, and Puerto Rico.
And before that?
The Maldives, preceded by a New Zealand-Tahiti trip from April to June—that’s when I met Rich in 2006. Before Rich I was in Costa Rica and Nicaragua in February and March. In 2003, I spent the spring traveling through Australia, Costa Rica and Panama—I’d finished my medical school course work a quarter early by saving up all my vacation time till the end.
Is this something that runs in the family?
I have one brother and one sister, both older. We all have the travel bug, but I think I’ve got it the most.
Where do you consider home?
I’m fairly homeless right now. I guess New York is home base since my sister and dog are there, and I have a place for all my stuff. I moved there in July 2003 for my residency.
Hideaway surf spot in Hawaii
Where’d you grow up?
I’m Southern Californian, born and bred. I grew up in a small Los Angeles suburb called Eagle Rock, nowhere near the beach. I did my undergrad at U.C. San Diego and ended up staying to get a master’s degree. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with myself, so I stayed a student. That’s when I picked up surfing: La Jolla shores, the summer before I started med school.
You surfed your way through med school?
Once I started med school, I was always studying. Believe it or not, I actually surfed more once I came out to New York. I’d give myself 90 minutes to get from the water to work at Bellevue Hospital...you can never tell with NYC traffic and parking.
Surfing in Far Rockaway gets a bad rap.
In New York, you have to hit the water with even the tiniest bit of swell because you know it won’t last long. Besides, I needed it...residency can be pretty stressful, at times, downright toxic. Surfing rejuvenates the soul. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve paddled out after a rough day or night of work...you just come out of the water washed of it.
How does living near a Native American reservation compare?
I really enjoy New Mexico, though I hate that it’s so far from waves. Right now, I’m pretty much two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off a month.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve paddled out after a rough day or night of work...you just come out of the water washed of it.
Is it hard finding these gigs?
I have a recruiter who looks at available positions around the country. Fortunately or unfortunately, there’s almost always a need for EM-trained physicians. I work on per diem so I get to set my own hours. I’m still trying to work out my long term plans but they go a little something like this...work in New Zealand six months a year (their summer is our winter); go to Dubai for three months to be with Rich; spend the last three months “somewhere” in the US...definitely spending some of the time on the reservation because I really enjoy it, but also going some other places I’ve always wanted to see, I’m hoping Alaska and Wyoming. The only thing I know for sure is that I’m not going to stick with one job or location.
How did this last trip rank?
Indo’s kind of like Mecca for all serious surfers. The water is crystal blue and so clear, you’ll be riding along and see the reef pass beneath you.
Did you come across many female surfers?
Most days I’d be the only girl, sometimes with 25 guys in the water. It can be kind of intimidating. There’s an unspoken pecking order and guys are always jockeying to get waves and establish their place. Unless you’re really aggressive for waves, you get paddled around a lot. When there are more women in the water, there’s almost a palpable difference as the estrogen balances out the testosterone. I love surfing when there are more women in the water.
Longboard or shortboard?
I ride a shortboard; my quiver ranges from 5’10” to 6’2.” I’m most comfortable in three- to four-foot waves, and I’m goofy-footed, so I prefer lefts but don’t mind rights.
What do you do to unwind after a day of surfing?
My boyfriend and I aren’t ones for nightlife and clubbing or getting hammered so we’re in bed quite early most nights, reading or watching a DVD before crashing out. The surf is almost universally better early in the mornings so we’re up for a dawn patrol most days. This past New Year’s Eve we were out by 10:30, but woke up to perfect, empty waves in 2008.
Indonesian surfing stray dogs
Any survival tips for avoiding sharks, storms and sunstroke?
Know your limits, replenish your fluids and salts. Even though they look kooky, a hat and rashguard can make a big difference when you’re surfing those high-noon sessions in the sizzling sun.
Do you remember the first wave you caught?
When I started surfing, I got my butt kicked. I swam competitively in high school and college but I remember flailing around in del Mar the first few times I went out and not even making it past the breaking waves. I was exhausted after an hour. I thought I’d been catching waves for five or six months but I’d been riding the breakwater. I remember that day, finally dropping into the pocket and riding along the face of the wave before it had broken. A lightbulb went off and i was like “hmmm...now that’s a wave!”
Faye Lee’s Top 5 Surf Spots
1. New Zealand, wide range of waves with good consistency, easy to travel from one side of the country to the other and follow a swell, great roads, beautiful landscapes that change everytime you turn a corner, lots to do when there’s no surf
2. Indonesia, a surfer’s mecca, super consistent, great quality, wide range of warm water waves, there’s something for everyone wave-wise, and it’s inexpensive
3. Puerto Rico, a winter haven for east coasters—a cheap 3-hour redeye flight on JetBlue puts you five minutes from one of their best breaks just in time for the dawn patrol session, lots of waves to choose from, 80 degrees in the water while there’s snow on the ground in New York
4. Maldives, difficult to do on a budget (resort or charter boat style only), but the waves are consistent and really playful and you can try out new maneuvers without too much consequence (it’s mostly soft reef), all you can eat buffets are the norm at most resorts, it’s always nice to spoil yourself once in a while. great for couples.
5. El Salvador, quick and easy trip from the States, catches the most swell in Central America, consistent, warm water, uncrowded, five or six different waves within a half hour’s drive, good roads (far better than Costa Rica!)
Faye Lee’s Travel Tips
When stalking the next great wave, Dr. Lee carries an extensive medical kit of antibiotics, sutures to stitch wounds and splints for broken bones. But here’s what she says the average adventurer should have.
• Powdered gatorade. Replaces fluids and electrolytes after marathon surf sessions in the sun, but also great for preventing & treating dehydration when you’ve got the stomach bug.
• A big tube of triple antibiotic ointment. For those inevitable cuts and scrapes you get from the reef.
• A big tube of hydrocortisone cream. Takes care of those itchy, sleepless nights after you’ve been nailed by the mosquitoes, sandflies or jellyfish.
• Duct tape. Good for everything from fixing minor dings on your board, to helping you secure your mosquito nets, to bandaging up minor wounds...best to keep those wounds covered with a bit of ointment and gauze, especially in the tropics where wounds take longer to heal and tend to fester a bit more in the humidity.
• For fun, don’t forget an iPod, odwalla bars and some good books. Also, befriending the locals can make or break a trip. Before I came to Indonesia, I went to the Goodwill and picked up a bunch of t-shirts for the locals. I brought chocolates for the kids and scooby snacks for the dogs.In the water, the same rules apply everywhere...just show your respect. don’t paddle around people in the water or drop in. And if you do… apologize.