First Person with Dr. Robert Liem: APIDA Heritage Month Reflections

Dr. Robert Liem, Hematology, Oncology, Neuro-Oncology & Stem Cell Transplantation, recognized early on in medical school that pediatrics was the path for him. Now an admired leader in his field, Dr. Liem continues to be inspired by his peers and motivated by the patient populations he serves to advocate for greater health equity and diverse representation in medicine. In this Q&A, he shares more about meaningful professional moments and cherished personal ones in honor of APIDA (Asian Pacific Islander Desi American) Heritage Month and his Chinese and Indonesian cultures.

Q: Can you tell me about an experience that influenced your career path?

A: My first clinical rotation in medical school was pediatrics at the old Children's Memorial Hospital. I just remember being in awe of the fact that everyone, from doctors to nurses to staff, was focused on caring for kids. Although I entertained going into several specialties, I ultimately returned to choosing pediatrics because I couldn't recreate that feeling in my other rotations.

Q: What motivates you in your career today?

A: The privilege of working in a nationally recognized medical school, hospital and division/program. What also motivates me are the people I bump into and recognize (and who recognize me) from having worked here for so many years. I love the little conversations I have (usually while waiting for the elevator) with a fellow doctor, nurse, phlebotomist, tech, etc., who's known me since I was an intern.

Q: Can you talk about the importance of health equity in your work or diversity/representation in healthcare? 

A: Both are really important for two of my patient populations – children with thalassemia and sickle cell disease. For thalassemia, which affects many children who are East, South and Southeast Asian, it's important for them to see providers who look like them and who can understand the cultural context that influences the management of their disease. For sickle cell disease, which primarily affects children who are of African or Afro-Caribbean descent, health equity and all the factors that unfortunately result in healthcare disparities are always top of mind for the providers and teams that dedicate themselves to caring for this population.

Q: Is there anything you wish more people knew or celebrated about your community?

A: We've struggled for years being labeled as a model minority, which comes with a lot of stereotypes and assumptions about the AAPI community. It is unfortunate because the AAPI community is just as rich in its diversity as other communities and should be celebrated as such.

Q: Do you have any words of advice for young people interested in medicine?

A: Since I was a medical student and trainee, the field of medicine has changed tremendously in so many ways, some of which have been challenging but continue to amaze me. At the end of the day, anyone's interest in entering the field of medicine should always be rooted in the desire to improve the lives of people through healthcare.

Q: How do you choose to celebrate APIDA Heritage Month or how do you feel most connected to your culture?

A: Celebrating and eating food with my family have always been central to my identity and heritage. My mom is an amazing cook (both Chinese and Indonesian food because my parents, while they are ethnically Chinese, grew up in Indonesia), and most of my childhood memories are focused on having chaotic loud dinners with too much food that my mother made for my dad, my sister and me. Eat and eat more was our family's mantra.

Q: Do you have a favorite APIDA-owned business in Chicago readers should try?

A: I live in the west part of Uptown so my family's favorite for Chinese food is Silver Seafood on Broadway. It's not fancy, but the food is really good and true to most Cantonese dishes in its flavors and preparation. Their salt and pepper squid or shrimp is delicious. And if you're like me and grew up eating Chinese-American food in a small, central Illinois town, their orange beef is really good, too!

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