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Wellesley Writes It: Dr. Kwan Kew Lai

In my second interview since I started back editing for Wellesley Underground as their Wellesley Writes It editor, I corresponded with Dr. Kwan Kew Lai, Wellesley ’74 and author of Lest We Forget: One Doctor’s Experience with Life and Death During the Ebola Outbreak.

Here’s the beginning of the interview:

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Kwan Kew Lai ’74, M.D., D.M.D., is an infectious disease specialist who has volunteered her medical services all over the world and the author of Lest We Forget: A Doctor’s Experience with Life and Death During the Ebola Outbreak. In 2004, after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, she spent three weeks in India, caring for survivors. She soon left her position as a full-time Professor of Medicine in Infectious Diseases and Internal Medicine at UMass Memorial Medical Center and created a half-time position as a clinician, dedicating the other half of her time to humanitarian work.

Since 2005, Lai has volunteered as a mentor to health workers addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Vietnam, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, Nigeria, Malawi and has provided earthquake relief in Haiti and Nepal, hurricane relief in the Philippines and drought and famine relief in Kenya and the Somalian border. She has also worked with refugees of the Democratic Republic of Congo and internally displaced people in Libya during the Arab Spring and South Sudan after the civil war and treated Ebola patients in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Most recently, she served as a medical volunteer in the Syrian refugee camps in mainland Greece and in Moria refugee camp on Lesvos, Greece for refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and the countries of the Sub-Saharan Africa and in the world’s biggest refugee camps for the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Lai has blogged extensively about her experiences.

Originally from Penang, Malaysia, Lai came to the United States after receiving a scholarship to attend Wellesley, where she studied molecular biology. “Without that open door I would not have gone on to become a doctor,” Lai wrote in her Doctors Without Borders bio

Lai has received numerous awards for her work, which include being a three-time recipient of the President’s Volunteer Service Award. In 2017, she was awarded Wellesley College Alumnae Achievement Award. In addition, Lai is the lead author of many publications and presentations. Her research has included HIV studies, infection control, hospital epidemiology, and antibiotic trials. She has served on many committees, task forces, and boards, including the Governor’s Advisory Board for the Elimination of Tuberculosis in Massachusetts. She is also an avid marathon runner and paints when she is inspired.

Wellesley Underground’s Wellesley Writes it Series Editor, E.B. Bartels ’10, had the chance to converse with Lai via email about Lest We Forget and about her experiences at Wellesley and beyond. E.B. would also like to make note that Lai made time to answer these questions even while busy with her 45th Wellesley Reunion! 

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EB: How did Lest We Forget come about? What inspired you to write the book?

KKL: I first became aware of the Ebola outbreak in March of 2014, I began to follow it very closely. I read about Ebola when I was in my training as an infectious disease specialist. It is a deadly viral infection but it usually occurs in Africa and I knew that it would be unlikely for me to see a patient with this infection. In the summer of 2014 when WHO finally acknowledged the seriousness of the situation, the nightly TV images of people desperate to get into a hospital and bodies lying in the streets because they were too infectious to be touched, moved me. I knew I had to be in West Africa to volunteer.

I started blogging a few years ago when I went to volunteer to enable my family and close friends to keep abreast of my situation and so I did the same when I started volunteering in the Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU). Deeper into my volunteering I was very moved by the courage and resilience of the patients and the dedication and dogged determination of the people who worked alongside me and who risked their lives working in the frontline. After my first stint in West Africa, I was interviewed by NPR international health correspondent, Nurith Aizenman, about my experience and she had urged me to write a book. I had thought about that as well before she brought it up but I was too taken up into my second stint of Ebola volunteer by then. When I was in Sierra Leone doing my second Ebola volunteering, I was also contacted by an agency who wanted to represent me with either writing a book or making a documentary. However just before I left for Sierra Leone, I signed with my first agent about my book on Africa which is about my experiences as a volunteered doctor in HIV/AIDS and my work in the refugee camps. I did not feel it was ethically right to deal with another agency. Nevertheless, writing a book about Ebola became more urgent, I wanted to write this in honor and memory of the people afflicted by Ebola and the frontline bola fighters who put their lives on the line. It took me awhile for me to convince my agent to present my book on Ebola first before my book on Africa.

Go to Wellesley Underground for the complete conversation!

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