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Dr. Elizabeth Theresa Lee-Rey

Year of Birth / Death

b. 1960

Medical School

University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine


New York

Career Path

General medicine: Family
Education: Teaching
Dr. Elizabeth Theresa Lee-Rey


As far back as I can recollect, there was never a moment that I did not profess to anyone who would listen that I would become a physician. This fate was sealed by my mother's advice to remain passionate, free-willed, and financially independent, together with my father's values on education, honor, and integrity, plus my own true grit and desire to make a difference. Medicine's attraction for me was its ability to touch life, the person, their families, the environment, and society. This was challenged early when guidance counselors and others doubted that I truly had what it would take. That was just the edge I needed.


Dr. Elizabeth Lee-Ray feels that one of her greatest accomplishments is that "I was able to become a mother and nurse my children while working successfully as a physician. I advocate the benefits of nursing to my new moms, yet my greatest challenges against doing so were [from] peers and colleagues." In 2002, she was named co-director of New York's Hispanic Center of Excellence at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She also has worked to establish a self-sustaining peer-run network aimed at the Hispanic adolescent male, to promote health and prevent disease with community-based support.

Elizabeth Lee-Rey's mother was her most vocal supporter. "She was my rooting section and taught me early that in order to achieve I had to believe in myself, take pride in all my actions, and keep true to myself."

Now Lee-Ray is a mother of two pre-teen boys, wife to a supportive husband, full-time physician to her community, health-care reform advocate, and teacher. She speaks affectionately of her Puerto Rican-Chinese upbringing as a warm blend of arroz con leche (rice pudding) and tofu, along with discussions of Pedro Albizu Campos (who fought for an independent Puerto Rico) and Mao Tse Tung. "Imagine the adversity and cultural barriers for my mother," she says, "a pre-teen orphan from Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and my father, 'El Chino' (born in Shanghai Province in mainland China), who fled the Cultural Revolution, stowing away on a ship and leaving his family behind. She was only 12 when I was born; add to that the challenge of trying to raise their own family (me, my younger brother, and our adopted sister) on the Lower East Side of New York City in the 'Alphabet City' neighborhood. But they did it, and after forty-two years of marriage are still together, living not far from the projects of my childhood on Avenue D, and their daily treks still include Chinatown and Delancy Street."

As an undergraduate studying psychobiology at New York University, she was involved in Aspira and the Boriqua Health Organization, where she became aware of the power of grassroots advocacy. After receiving her medical degree from University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1990, she joined the Residency Program in Social Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center, where she found a lively commitment to community and social change. Since completing her residency in family practice in 1993, she has been on the faculty at Montefiore and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In 2001, Lee-Ray became a national Hispanic Medical Association Leadership Fellow and linked her passion for grassroots advocacy to policy reform, focusing on health care disparities, particularly for those whose access to care is limited by their proficiency in English.

Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

While at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the only Hispanic in my class, I struggled with holding onto my sense of self and identity, My biggest obstacles were isolation, distance from family and friends and lack of a role model and mentor. I could not share my experiences with those I cared about most. I am the oldest, the first to graduate college as well as the first and only doctor in my family. I did not have anyone who was like me, at home or at medical school, nor did I feel that I belonged.

My class was filled with sons and daughters of chairmen, heads of departments and most of the time I questioned my place at Pittsburgh. I was ill prepared for not being able to be myself and having no room in my life for anything but my next series of exams or rotations. There were no occasions to speak Spanish, no specific Latino activities to attend, not even Salsa music to listen to. (Despite this, I left Pittsburgh well prepared for residency in the Bronx and cherish the friendships made there.)

During this time, my family was having challenges of their own: My father's business was in jeopardy and, knowing this, it became difficult for me to concentrate. To magnify the issue further, my family did not want to distract me from my studies or my goals so I was left out of the family decisions. Little did my family realize that in doing so, they took away what mattered most to me. This was a pivotal point in my life. It marked when my role in the family shifted. I became the one to protect and no longer the one to come to, to solve issues. My mom had made a comment "since you left, home has not been the same." I knew then, changes for me had indeed changed everyone in the process as well.

My biggest obstacle today is finding the balance between my family and my career. The challenges mount daily against women achieving what societal norms allow our male counterparts to do without worry. Worry about the implications for their family at home, about raising children and nurturing their emotional needs, and about whether they are underpaid or well respected. The medical field is no different, despite the fact that nearly half of new entrants into medical schools are female. I am most fortunate in this regard; I have a loving and supportive husband who shares in my commitment to our family, community, and to making a difference. I do not have to choose, but I do carry my guilt.

How do I make a difference?

My contribution to my life's work is being able to provide my patients the opportunity to expose parts of themselves kept private from everyone, sometimes even from themselves, fearing judgment or criticism. Sharing in those moments of discovery with the patient and their families—during times of triumphs and tribulations that affirm the human spirit and the power of faith—translates into what I believe is the art of healing. What others call the dying art of medicine. Today for me it translates into the art of listening and a conviction for advocacy and activism. A visit to your doctor should be much more than an expectation for a prescription. It is an opportunity for mentorship, raising of consciousness, and kinship.

Who was my mentor?

My first mentor was my mother. I was 6 and she was 18 and she was my study partner, not having been afforded the opportunity to attend school herself. My achievements were her achievements. We worked on assignments together until I completed eighth grade. Little did I know that we were teaching one another. She was my rooting section and taught me early that in order to achieve I had to believe in myself, take pride in all my actions, and keep true to myself. Not to allow the definition of others and society to prescribe for me. Challenged me to love myself especially important when others wanted to know when I would marry and wondered what else could be so important. My mother also made sure that our family pediatrician was a woman. Dr. Llano was an unassuming, gentle, caring physician who I wanted to be just like. I continued under her care until I was past adolescence and could no longer fit on the waiting room chairs of the I SPY clinic at Beth Israel Hospital on 14th Street. I remembered not wanting to lose the connection. I didn't have any other role models at that time and would not until my involvement with ASPIRA and health career opportunities programs during my undergraduate years.