Growing up, Dr. Monica Rho says she remembers waiting for her mom's nursing shift to end at a suburban Chicago hospital where she worked. She would do her homework in the waiting room and recalls observing the culture of working in a hospital — how someone could dedicate his or her life to helping others.
“Looking back, I was probably influenced more that I realize,” she says. “The most visible career field I saw growing up was medicine.”
Today, Dr. Rho is the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in Chicago and associate professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. She’s also the physician for some of the best female athletes in the world — the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team — treating players like Megan Rapinoe, Julie Ertz and Carli Lloyd. She was with them in France as they won their fourth World Cup title in 2019 and plans to be with the team in Tokyo for the 2020 Olympic Games.
“There's a lot of joys for working with the team,” Dr. Rho says. “One of the best things about working with them is these are consummate professionals and so it really is wonderful to be trying to support people who are trying to be at the top of their game.”
Dr. Rho’s parents are immigrants from South Korea that came to the United States in the mid 1970’s with a dream of a better life for themselves and their future children. In addition to her mother working as a nurse, her father was an accountant. “It was very important to my parents that we develop into well-respected professionals in America,” she says.
Initially, her parents spoke to her and her two siblings in Korean, but eventually they stopped after a teacher suggested they should enforce English at home. “It made sense at the time, but it’s the complete opposite today,” Dr. Rho says. “Now everyone is all about kids knowing as many languages as possible.”
Another cultural change Dr. Rho’s parents had to embrace was girls playing sports. They let her play whatever sport she wanted as long as her grades were good. “And so I played a lot of sports – soccer, basketball, tennis, figure skating, track and field, ice hockey, and Tae Kwon Do – and I got great grades in school,” she says. “My career is where it is today because they didn’t confine me to what they knew, but let me grow into my opportunities and towards my passions.”
This summer, Dr. Rho is traveling to South Korea to be the keynote speaker at a conference hosted by the Korean Society of Sports Medicine, and her parents will join her. She says of all her accomplishments and accolades, they are perhaps most proud of this opportunity. “To see me go back there to where they consider home, they are just very excited,” Dr. Rho says.
It will be a busy summer for Dr. Rho, as she’s also preparing to travel to her first Olympic Games in Tokyo. Looking back, she never thought it was possible to attend the Olympics as anything but an elite athlete or spectator. “I've always wanted to go to the Olympics. That had always been a dream of mine,” she says. “But I didn't actually think that there would be a path to get there as a physician.”
This story appears as part of “Changing the Games: Women in STEM at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics & Paralympics,” a 10-part video series produced by NBC News Learn and NBCSports in collaboration with Lyda Hill Philanthropies. To view the series, go to nbcnewslearn.com/changingthegames.