Pictured from left to right, Meon Yu, Wing Tong and Ching Wong. Photo courtesy of ICHS.

A routine medical exam led to a life-saving diagnosis for retiree Wing Tong. His story, he says, speaks to the value of regular and affordable health care from a provider you trust.

The 71-year old sees Winnie Lee, family medicine physician assistant, at International Community Health Services (ICHS) clinic in Bellevue, a 30-minute drive from Tong’s home in Renton. From the first meeting, Tong was impressed with Lee’s attention to detail. His last doctor didn’t write things down, he says, and her careful questions and close monitoring was reassuring.

Even better, Lee speaks his native Cantonese. Tong and his 64-year old wife, Ching Wong, were both born in Hong Kong. Like them, more than half of the patients at ICHS need language assistance and are immigrants or refugees. As a result, ICHS offers free interpretation services in more than 50 languages. Staff represent a diverse array of languages and backgrounds, and are nuanced in the cultural beliefs that might shape patients’ opinions about health care.

Bridging these cultural gaps – whether through a common language or a ready ear – is part of Lee’s approach to patient care. She says good health care is built on trust and meeting her patients “where they are at.”

“It’s a relationship,” said Lee. “You figure out who people are, who their supports are, where they are in life, what their goals are, what motivates them and how you fit into all that. You’re not the captain of the ship, your patient’s the captain of the ship and you bring the map. You journey together.”

Tong credits Lee with saving his life. He was a smoker for 40 years but quit a decade ago. Lee suggested a chest scan as a precaution. The CT scan is still a relatively new recommendation for former smokers, so the two talked pros and cons before Tong agreed. It turned out to be a timely decision.

“They noticed that one of the blood vessels in the heart was enlarged,” said daughter Meon Yu, who has since transferred care from her previous doctor to Lee. “After a follow-up scan, they confirmed it was urgent. We met with the surgeon and she said if the vessel burst and my dad wasn’t treated within two hours, he could die.”

After a three-hour surgery Tong spent the night in the ICU and was discharged the next day. Normal life resumed after a few days recovery and he was back at work in three weeks. Since then, whenever Tong meets with Lee, she reminds him to keep exercising and to eat better.

The difference, his daughter says, is now he listens.

“Having a personal relationship with patients is often the first step,” said Lee. “Maybe they won’t do half of what is recommended, but you take baby steps.”

“Life is fragile, but if there are people like Winnie to provide health care for our community, I feel optimistic and supported,” said Tong. “I’m grateful from the bottom of my heart for Winnie and ICHS. I am lucky to have met her.”

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