In 2016, Good Doctor star Will Yun Lee was thousands of miles from home when his son Cash suffered a stroke.
“I was shooting a TV show in New York, and my wife called and said that Cash wasn’t able to hold his milk bottle,” Lee recalls during a recent Zoom. “He was three years old at the time, and he kept dropping it.”
What followed was a grueling, year-and-a-half long journey that sent the Lee family to hell and back in search of an underlying cause. Cash was initially diagnosed with central nervous system vasculitis, for which he received biweekly chemotherapy treatments. But seven months later, he suffered another stroke. It was back to the drawing board.
“There was a lot of testing, a lot of different drugs and a lot of misdiagnoses that led us down this path of eventually finding the right people to save his life,” Lee tells TVLine. That included Stanford neurosurgeon Dr. Gary Steinberg, who correctly diagnosed Cash with Moyamoya disease, a rare blood vessel disorder that can result in cognitive or developmental delays, visual disturbances and paralysis. He required immediate double brain surgery, which ultimately saved his life.
Seven years later, Cash’s incredible story is being told on the small screen. The Feb. 27 episode of The Good Doctor follows Drs. Alex Park and Shaun Murphy (played by Lee and Freddie Highmore, respectively) as they treat three-year-old stroke victim Nathan (played by up-and-comer Ashton Cressman) — a harrowing tale that Lee says “captures the essence” of what his family went through. Below, Lee expands on what it was like revisiting one of the hardest moments of his life.
TVLINE | Can you walk me through the conception of this episode? Did the producers approach you about doing an episode about Cash’s diagnosis?
No. The producers have always been so respectful. They knew my story from Season 1 because we were in the thick of it when I first [joined] the show [in 2018]. I remember walking onto the set of The Good Doctor for the first time, and I just broke down crying because it was too similar to all the time I had just spent in ICUs…. But I thought, if this story isn’t told, I would kick myself. Awareness of this disease is important. Had we heard a story like Cash’s, I think we would’ve gotten to the answer faster, and we would’ve been able to get him proper treatment sooner.
TVLINE | Who eventually approached whom about revisiting this part of your life?
I was on set one day with [executive producer] Garrett Lerner. We just started talking about fatherhood, about our sons, and how we went on similar difficult paths to get our kids to where they are now. I said, “I think it would be great to be able to tell this story one day,” and he said, “I’d love to do it.”
TVLINE | What was it like reading Lerner’s script for the first time?
It was tough. The first read through was very tough. And then as an actor, it was cathartic in the sense that I had to read the scenes over and over again just to memorize them. That process, in and of itself, helped desensitize a lot of things that used to be big triggers for me.
TVLINE | Showing how scary it is, not only for Nathan, but for his parents, really packs an emotional punch. How important was it to show what Mom and Dad were going through?
As horrible as it is, and I can’t even imagine what a three year old could possibly be thinking, having to deal with the pain, the amount of pain and worry and stress that my wife carried during this whole journey — that, aside from my son, was the second hardest thing for me to witness. I had to fly back and forth from New York [for work]… and she became Superwoman.
TVLINE | Without giving too much away, there are several scenes where Park is on the phone with Cash’s dad, who can’t be there when his son is admitted to St. Bons. It must have been impossible not to channel how you felt when you were in New York at the time of Cash’s crisis.
Yeah, that was really hard for me. I felt helpless [at the time] because I couldn’t take care of both of them. But I also knew that if I wasn’t working, I couldn’t take care of them. The actor who played the part played it beautifully.
TVLINE | Do you think you’ll sit down and watch this episode as a family?
I haven’t seen the episode yet. I’m not sure I’ll be back home. I might be shooting on The Good Doctor that night. But I know it’s going to be very difficult for my wife to watch, and I think it will be super difficult for us to sit next to each other and watch it because we were hand in hand, going through this for many years — the [misdiagnoses] and subjecting him to things that, as you’ll see on the episode, weren’t correct.
TVLINE | Thankfully, Cash’s circumstances have dramatically improved. How’s he doing now?
There were many years where the tunnel was just dark, but we’re at a beautiful moment. He’s cracking jokes at his dad, making fun of me all the time, and he’s finding his athletic bone, which Moyamoya took away from [him] initially. To see him on a surfboard is pretty awesome. To see him throwing a fast ball is pretty awesome. So, things are pretty great.
The Good Doctor airs Mondays at 10/9c on ABC. You can learn more about Cash’s story via the 2019 NBC News segment below.