Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and San Francisco
What made you decide to pursue a career in the medical field?
When I was 11 years-old in Vietnam, I wanted to get into medical school to help alleviate the pain of the patients, especially children. I’ve always wanted to be a doctor, and I wanted to help the kids, so that’s how it started. I was working as a doctor at the children’s hospital in Vietnam. When I came to America, I re-did my training in pediatrics in Chicago. I didn’t feel as needed as I did before in Vietnam, because most of the male doctors were in the concentration camps, so I was helping the children more.
Why public health?
When I came to the U.S. as a refugee from Vietnam in 1979, I was redoing my medical residency training in Pediatrics at Rush Presbyterian Medical Center in Chicago. I realized that my knowledge and professional help would fit a larger population if I moved into a medical and public health perspective. Cultural and linguistic issues are barriers that hamper our community of refugees and other minorities to access much needed health care, not to mention low socio-economic status, the foreign-born low English proficiency and the still rampant discrimination/racism that adds to the health status of our Vietnamese fellow country men/women. I then pursued a Master’s degree in Public Health at the University of Illinois School of Public Health and moved into this arena in 1994.
Helping the community on a much larger scale was much more worth my time. That’s why I made the switch and got my Master’s in Public Health. I wanted to understand the system to help the community. Then I learned that discrimination still existed, and I learned how to understand certain minorities’ frustration, from one refugee’s perspective to another. I wanted to be an advocate for those who didn’t have a voice. That’s how it shaped my career path.
What have been some of the biggest challenges/lessons you have learned?
It hasn’t been easy, because I came here when I was 30 years-old. The language was a problem. You feel misunderstood and rejected.
What do you hope you achieve as President and CEO of National Council of Asian & Pacific Islander Physicians?
To build a strong and powerful advocacy voice of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander physicians to advance better health for our people. To be the policy organization on health for AA, NHPI from a providers’ perspective.
You recently wrote a book called “Faces on a Journey,” and it is actually a biography of your own personal journey after the Fall of Saigon. What made you decide to write the book, and what do you hope people take away from it?
I lost one of my children during our journey leaving Vietnam. My son died on the boat from dehydration on the 6th day. That’s the reason I wanted to write the book–to keep his memory alive. I forced myself to write in English so that the younger generation could understand. I tried to put accurate pieces of history together so that the younger generation could learn about history. I wanted to keep alive all those stories of all the people I met along the way, and that’s what inspired the title. I used myself as the backbone, but each story ties into different perspectives of life. That is why I wrote the book. To keep the memories alive and remind our younger generations of Vietnamese the reason why we had to leave our beloved and beautiful country, Vietnam. Also, most books were written from men’s perspective. Not enough women have written.
Who inspires you and/or who are your biggest influences?
Everyone who suffers. When I came to America, I realized we have this discontinuity and mistreatment of the minority population, mainly in the language barrier. Being a doctor, you have to have a good grasp of the history. You cannot make a diagnosis, and the quality of care can’t be as good if you can’t speak the language.
Our culture does not change overnight, but we adapt and assimilate. But the system does not change to those immigrants. I want to make the system sensitive to the culture in which we live. The healthcare system they’re used to over there is different from here. And if you don’t understand it here, then you cannot use it.
What is the most important lesson/advice you would give?
Have ambition that translates into big dreams to serve humanity. From that standpoint, persevere, never doubt your capacity. Be truthful. Always open your mind to learn and appreciate the negative as well the positive. That is the message I want to give to everyone. If I can do it, anyone can. It’s patience, persistence, confidence in yourself, learn, learn, learn and ambition that will lead to sucess. Having ambition is to build your dream. It is hard, but the reward is great.
I was not born special. I came to the U.S. thirty years ago and could barely be understood by anyone. And now, thirty years later, I’m invited to shake hands with the President and am nationally known. Refugee and immigrants evolve. I was that refugee thirty years ago. And there will always be someone there in need.