On April 30, 1975, the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front captured Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. The fall of Saigon marked the end of the Vietnam War and began a time of change for the country. The upheaval affected the lives of many people, including one toddler whose family escaped the country that day.
Tien Vu, M.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and practices at Children’s Hospital Colorado. She was too young to remember the event, but stories of the courage, hardship and fear that surrounded her family, and all of the other so-called “boat people,” have become part of the collective history of the first Vietnamese refugees.
“My family was lucky,” she says. “As we drifted in the South China Sea on fishing boats, we were rescued by a French naval ship that took us to a refugee camp in Guam. After that, we were flown to another refugee camp at Fort Chaffee, Ark., and there began our lives in the U.S. We were poor, living on welfare in the ‘projects’ or government subsidized housing for a number of years. These were lean times. We learned that hard work, frugality and education could eventually make us successful, and it did.”
She earned an undergraduate degree in English literature from Johns Hopkins University, then went to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and completed her pediatrics residency training at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. She came to Children’s Hospital Colorado for a fellowship program in pediatric emergency medicine and later became a member of the faculty.
She spends some of her time volunteering overseas, where she helps train and teach physicians, along with other providers, in pediatric emergency medicine and disaster preparedness topics in developing countries such as Vietnam and other parts of Asia. She is supported by various organizations, including Global Health Initiatives, Project Vietnam and the Academy of Pediatrics; she recently was recognized for her work by a local nonprofit.
“Although I’m not a true Colorado native, I grew up in Colorado and my family is here,” she says. “It’s nice to be home.”
1. Who or what influenced you to choose this career path?
A variety of people and events have led me to this career path. We all have formative life experiences and meet people who affect us in lasting ways. For me and my family, our history as war refugees and immigrants to the United States built a foundation of hard work, perseverance and hope. My parents were huge advocates of education. Despite working multiple jobs and long hours, my parents always had time to drill us on multiplication tables and Vietnamese language lessons, much to our dismay at times. My respect for the medical profession not only came from the usual, overt brainwashing from Asian parents, but from my own experiences as a child. I had suffered accidental childhood injuries that required multiple hospitalizations and surgeries. It was my hope to be able to help other children in a similar way one day, and I’m happy that has come to fruition.
2. You have returned to Vietnam and other countries to provide medical help. Please tell me about those journeys and why you have chosen to go there.
Helping children and families in developing countries is one of the most rewarding things I have done. I dare say they’ve helped me more than I have helped them. I have had opportunities to do medical missions in Kenya at an HIV/AIDS orphanage and at a remote clinic in Belize. More recently, I have been teaching pediatricians and other physicians in various settings in Vietnam and the Philippines. Educating doctors in countries where access to current medical advances and management strategies are limited gives a bigger bang for your buck, so to speak. It propagates knowledge, thus ensuring that better medical care is provided to multitudes of children across the country, much more than any one physician alone can provide. It is a great pleasure to be able to return to Vietnam on occasion and give back to my homeland.
3. Last week, you were honored by Bridging Hope as a local hero. What is your affiliation with the group and why do you support it?
Bridging Hope is a Colorado nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide assistance to indigent, ill and disabled children, women and elderly in Vietnam. The wonderful thing about Bridging Hope is that it not only provides direct assistance through many of its programs, but it also educates and trains women to help themselves and their children. It creates jobs for them. They learn to make handicrafts, sell them, and manage their resources – sustainable assistance that has lasting impact. The executive director of Bridging Hope, Sister Sen Nguyen, is an old family friend of mine and someone who has been doing great work all her life.
4. Who are your heroes and why?
There are so many heroes in my life; it’s hard to just pick a few. My parents are, first and foremost, the biggest heroes of all. Without their immense courage and years of hard, hard work to lift their family out of poverty in a country that was completely foreign to them, I would not have the opportunities I have today. When I return to Vietnam on occasion, I often see young women not unlike myself, selling fruit or cigarettes on the side of the road to support their family, and am grateful that I had been given the opportunity of a very good life and great education. I am not really a hero, but I definitely have been lifted up on the shoulders of many.
5. What types of activities do you enjoy in your leisure time?
I enjoy spending time with my husband and look forward to spending time with our new daughter, Emma Linh, whom we hope to adopt from China this month. I also enjoy playing the piano, tennis and oil painting in my free time. I have a feeling we’ll be doing more camping and traveling around Colorado in the upcoming year as we recently bought a small camper. Perhaps I should brush up on wilderness survival skills.
Photos courtesy of Tien Vu