SIDNEY — Ask Dr. M. David Rhee, of Sidney, how many babies he’s delivered and he smiles shyly and shakes his head.
“I don’t know. I didn’t count them,” said the now-retired OB-GYN physician who started his practice more than 40 years ago and left it last December.
A reception in celebration of Rhee’s retirement will be at the Ross Historical Center, 201 N. Main Ave., from 6 to 9 p.m., March 12. The reception is open to the public.
When Rhee was in school in his native Korea, he had no idea he would live in the U.S., no idea he would be a doctor.
Rhee was in the fourth grade on June 25, 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea to start the Korean War. He lived with his parents, two brothers and two sisters on a farm by a village very close to the infamous 38th parallel, which divided the two nations. Two older brothers had already completed their schooling and were working in South Korea, one as a minister.
“We were a Christian family in Korea. My mother brought us into Christianity,” Rhee said. Just a few months into the war, a typhoid fever epidemic killed Rhee’s father, one of his sisters and his grandmother within five days.
“One day, they gave us an order to line up in a certain area. We were camping out in a field. They were going to evacuate the people from the war zone to South Korea. Everyone had to leave on a certain day,” he said, looking back across the years. “Everyone packed everything up, but my mother was sick (with typhoid), so we weren’t going to go. We were in the tent with her. The night before they were to leave, she died.”
He and his older brother found a shovel, fashioned a litter and carried their mother’s body out of the village to bury it in a shallow grave. Then they rushed to pack up everything and leave with the rest of the village. They were sent to a refugee camp south of Seoul.
“I will always remember the first American I saw there,” he said. “Koreans have flat faces with small noses. He had a large nose. I have a place in my heart for Korean War veterans. Without UN help of the Korean situation, I wouldn’t be here today.”
There was no mail or telephone communication with anyone outside the refugee camp. But the orphaned Rhee children gave a message to a passing stranger, asking him to let their minister brother know they were there.
The brother got the message and caught a ride to the camp on the top of a truck carrying goods to the region.
“He didn’t know exactly where to look for us,” Rhee said. “We happened to be” where the truck was to unload. “So we got on top of the truck and rode back. My brother raised us from then on for many years. He is still in Korea. He is 96 now.”
Rhee became interested in all things mechanical and was fascinated by electricity and hydro-electric power when he was still in elementary school. As a fifth-grader, he built a working electric motor out of scrap materials.
“I saw a book about how to make an electric motor. I didn’t have fancy materials to build it. I used a piece of tin that blew off a roof. I found some coils. But I didn’t have a battery to see if it worked. In the sixth grade, the teacher had some motor things. I told him I had built a motor. He said, ‘Bring it over.’ I wired it. I made a switch. I turned the switch and it started spinning like that,” he said, waving his fingers in a circle, still delighted more than 60 years later. “Always, engineering things were interesting.”
He studied medicine at the Kyungpook National University School in Taegu, S. Korea, and passed a test to qualify for an internship in the U.S. But he had to complete service in the South Korean military first. Then, there was the matter of a wife.
“My brother didn’t like me to go away not married, so he arranged the marriage. On June 18 (1968), I married,” he said. He left for Chicago in July, bound for the Illinois Masonic Hospital, now Illinois Masonic Medical Center. Wife Miwon joined him some time later.
The internship was a difficult one.
“I really struggled with communication. That was a hard, depressing year,” Rhee said. It was followed by a pathology residency at Cleveland Metro Hospital. That’s where a friend suggested he apply for an obstetrics-gynecology residency and the course of his professional life was set.
“I spent four years there,” he said. And then he opened a private practice in Ravenna. It didn’t go well, so, when he heard that Sidney had no OB-GYN, he called the hospital and talked with Dr. George Schroer, who encouraged Rhee to visit and check out the area. Rhee liked what he saw and in 1976, he became the first OB-GYN in Shelby County.
It took some time for his practice to be accepted.
“Back then, family doctors delivered babies and if a woman needed a C-section, the surgeon would come do the C-section. Surgeons didn’t like OB-GYNs. It would be cutting into their territory,” Rhee said.
He set up a temporary office in downtown Sidney, planning to move into a new wing of Wilson Memorial Hospital. But after two years of waiting for the extension to be finished, he purchased a house near the medical facility, renovated it to serve as an office, and transferred his practice there in 1979.
“He was the best doctor I’ve ever worked for,” said Amy Monnin, of Russia, a registered nurse who served Rhee’s office for 20 years. “The care he gave patients — he was awesome. He was very caring and compassionate.”
Much of that compassion came from Rhee’s devoutly Christian faith.
“Grace Baptist Church has been a very important part of my Sidney life,” Rhee said. After Miwon died in 1989, leaving Rhee with four children, the youngest of whom was 9, it was through the church that he eventually met his second wife, Shirley, a divorcee.
“His pastor knew of my family,” Shirley said. “My niece had worked for him and told him I was divorced. On Dec. 12, 1992, I was directing a cantata for church. He came to see it. We had a date a week later. The pastor said (to Rhee), ‘You marry her.’”
The wedding was in June 1993 in Grace Baptist. The church gave Rhee an award recently for 40 years of service as a volunteer. Among other things, he has done all the yard work there for decades.
Sprucing up things at home and at a cottage in the country is how he has filled his retirement hours since December. More of the same is on the agenda.
“He’s amazing. He fixes everything, curling irons, everything. He’s spackling the ceiling in the bathroom. He has not stopped since he retired,” Shirley laughed.
Rhee is looking forward to installing shelves in a closet in the cottage.
“I wanted to do that when we bought it. Twenty years go by and still no shelves,” he said.
Golf and travel are also in their plans. They have grandchildren in New York City and Philadelphia. They hope to go back to Alaska and want to visit Rhee’s brother again in Korea.
Shirley, who became Rhee’s office manager, said retiring and closing the practice wasn’t easy for her husband to do.
“His heart is very heavy to have to leave the patients. There wasn’t a day went by that he didn’t pray for his patients. It was almost crushing to him to retire. I don’t know of any physician who loved his patients as he did,” she said.
Rhee, however, acknowledged that times have changed. He couldn’t find a buyer for his solo practice. Doctors engage in group practice now.
“Solo practice — things are fading away,” he said.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.