In many ways, the incredible story of Dr. Susie Sharpe begins at a turning point in her life. Sharpe was a thriving high school student living with her parents and two siblings in Seoul, South Korea. She excelled academically but dreamt of becoming an artist and of one day studying in Paris.
Life took a drastic turn when she was 16 years old when her parents announced that the family would move to the United States. Threats of another invasion from North Korea were looming and Sharpe’s parents believed America was paradise compared to post-war Korea. With little information on America beyond what they had seen in the movies, and no contacts in the West, Sharpe’s parents spent a fortune on five one-way tickets to New York City.
But after moving into an apartment in Queens, the family realized their new life was a far cry from the movies. “The language barrier was the biggest problem,” recalls Sharpe. “Only my mom spoke a bit of English and although Queens was an ethnically diverse neighborhood, we were still complete outsiders because we couldn’t communicate with anyone”.
This led to Sharpe being bullied at school and her parents, who held professional careers back home as a company executive and an educator, were unable to transfer their skills into similar paying jobs. Sharpe’s father started doing manual labour and later opened a small grocery store in Queens. To make life even more difficult, he was robbed at gunpoint multiple times.
As high school graduation neared, Sharpe still hoped to pursue an art degree. She missed painting and the Korean appreciation for culture, art, and music. Sharpe says, “I was really torn between following my dream and wanting some sort of guarantee in life.” But seeing her parents struggle and realizing that becoming an artist was unlikely to provide an escape from the life she was experiencing, Sharpe made an important decision: “I didn’t want to live like an immigrant – and that I had to find a field where I could study hard and become successful”.
With an innate desire to help others, she decided to become a physician. But this seemed like an impossible dream that she couldn’t tell anyone about – not even her own family.
At Wesleyan University, Sharpe majored in chemistry which required the least amount of English. She taped all her lectures and spend hours listening back in her dorm room, trying to understand and transcribe the lectures. With perseverance, scholarships, loans, and holding multiple jobs, Sharpe put herself through four years of pre-medical studies and later medical school.
In 1990, she earned her M.D. from Yale Medical School, followed by three gruelling years of residency at Yale-New Haven Hospital. In the two decades after that, she was immersed in medical practice while raising two children and it was only after her children left for college that she was able to seriously pursue the art that had been buried inside for forty years.
Fast forward to 2021, Sharpe has an impressive number of awards for her art. With solo exhibits and work currently on display at the Van Gogh Gallery in Madrid, a collection of her work will show at the prestigious International Contemporary Art Fairs in Paris, Brussels, and Luxembourg between June and November this year.
Sharpe still practices internal medicine as a medical director at the Mercy Paul Mueller Clinic in Springfield, Missouri. She treats patients with diabetes, cancer, heart disease, as well as Covid-19 patients over the past year. “Eventually, I ended up loving my ‘plan B’ and every day, I feel like I make a difference to my patients – both physically and mentally,” she says.
Being comfortable with her physician-artist identity, Sharpe sees the two professions as complementary. “The hardship I experienced made me a better doctor – and being a better doctor has made me a better artist,” she says. Her mission as an artist is to share beauty, harmony, and hope through her art. With so much darkness in the world and the suffering she has seen as a physician, she aspires to show the brighter and more beautiful side of life through her paintings.
One of Sharpe’s upcoming works in the art fairs is titled, “Follow Your Dream to the Stars”. It is a culmination of what she could only dream of for decades – following her dream to Paris and other European art capitals. However, her journey as an artist has just begun. She has ambitious dreams of sharing her art and her message of optimism all over the world. In the initial phase of writing her memoir, Sharpe also has dreams of doing philanthropic work to help girls in impoverished countries. As always, Sharpe proves we can choose more than one path in life.