Wai-Yee Li, M.D., Ph.D.: Helping Patients ‘Pick up the Pieces’
June 22, 2017 | by Travis Marshall
Wai-Yee Li, M.D., Ph.D., was nine years old when her grandfather had a stroke, and she saw how cultural and language barriers created stress and confusion as her family navigated his care.
“I remember thinking it would be nice if there was someone in the family who understood what was going on,” she said. “That was the first time I realized I wanted to be a doctor.”
Li would go on to study pathology, as well as medicine and surgery, at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. After internships in internal medicine and surgery, she continued her training in general surgery at the Royal Marsden and St. Heliers hospitals in Surrey, and plastic and reconstructive surgery at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, earning membership in the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 2001.
While getting her Ph.D. in wound healing and craniofacial development from the University of Manchester, she came to Los Angeles to do her lab work at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
Today, Li is a distinguished and award-winning plastic surgeon at City of Hope, an assistant professor in the Division of Plastic Surgery. But rather than Hollywood-style nips and tucks, Li specializes in postcancer reconstructive surgery.
“As a plastic surgeon in a cancer hospital setting, we’re here to pick up the pieces after lifesaving operations,” she said. “I’m really passionate about caring for women and working with the Asian community — a lot of immigrants don’t understand what their options are.”
Breast reconstruction following mastectomies make up around 70 to 80 percent of the patients she sees, with another 20 to 30 percent from skin and other cancers, including lower extremity sarcoma. She also does complex vaginal reconstruction for women who’ve had pelvic exenteration for recurrent cervical cancer. “It makes them feel like a woman, like they’re whole again,” she said.
As a surgeon who can speak the language of many Chinese immigrants, Li also acts as a bridge for these communities. Not only can she explain the options in their own language, she understands the cultural concerns they face. “In general, people from Asian cultures are resistant to getting surgery,” she said.
She described attending a recent event for the Herald Chinese Christian cancer group in the San Gabriel Valley to speak about breast reconstruction surgery. “I wound up seeing several patients from that group,” she said. “One woman was 74 years old, and she thought she was too old to get breast reconstruction after her mastectomy.”
Li says she was thrilled when she was offered a job at City of Hope two years ago. She had spent three months there as a plastic surgery chief resident while training at University of Southern California, and James S. Andersen, M.D., chief of the Division of Plastic Surgery, recruited her to join as faculty. “It’s such a collaborative environment,” she said. “The nursing staff are great, and the OR people really work well as a team.”
One key factor in her decision to work at City of Hope was the ability to work directly alongside some of the best cancer surgeons in Southern California.
“In many places I’ve worked, breast cancer patients have a mastectomy, then go to a plastic surgeon a few weeks or months later for reconstruction,” she explained. “We have an excellent partnership with our breast surgeons here, and due to our confidence in the mastectomies performed, we are often able to provide immediate reconstruction on the same day as the mastectomy. The patients get a better-quality reconstruction without having to go under anesthesia a second time.”
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