(WESTMINSTER, CA) Vào tối thứ năm, ngày 7 tháng 3, tại sảnh đường của cơ quan truyền thông KPCC (89.3), ở thành phố Pasadena đã diễn ra lễ trao giải New America Media, gọi tắt là NAM dành cho các cơ quan truyền thông, báo chí thuộc các cộng đồng thiểu số đã thực hiện các chương trình chọn lọc cho đủ mọi thể loại với chính ngôn ngữ của mình. Ban tổ chức cho giải NAM gồm có đài KPCC Crawford Family Forum, tổ chức California Community Foundation, và tổ chức The L.A Multicultural Leadership Network.

Trong số các cơ quan truyền thống thắng giải, đài VNCR (106.3FM) với chương trình Sức Khỏe và Bạn đã đoạt được giải thưởng tường trình y khoa xuất sắc nhất. Chương trình này do Bác sĩ Mai Phương thực hiện với sự hỗ trợ của Hồng Vân và Thanh Hương, đã đưa ra các đề tài thiết yếu về luật cải tổ y tế (tức là Affordable Care Act hoặc “Obamacare”) ảnh hưởng đến đời sống của cộng đồng Việt.

Bác sĩ Mai Phương đã phát biểu trong giây phút nhận giải: “38 năm trước, chỉ mới 6 tuổi, nhưng tôi đã chứng kiến cuộc rút quân của lính Mỹ tại Sàigòn, đánh dấu cho sự chấm dứt của cuộc chiến Việt Nam. Gia đình tôi cùng hàng triệu người tỵ nạn của các sắc dân Đông Nam Á khác như Lào, Cam Bốt, và Hmong đã phải tha phương hơn hai thập kỷ để tìm kiếm một quê hương mới, để có thể có sống trong sự tự do. Nhưng tại Hoa Kỳ, cho dù cho chúng tôi có ở lâu hay nói tiếng Anh lưu loát đi nữa, thế hệ thứ nhất như chúng tôi vẫn gặp khó khăn khi gọi đây là quê hương.

…Tại sao? Chính vì các cơ quan truyền thông dòng chính đã không chú ý đến chúng tôi, và có khi còn tệ hơn, diễn đạt sai lạc hay đi đến châm biếm chúng tôi….Việc vinh danh chương trình Sức Khỏe và Bạn, quý vị đã ghi nhận tiềm năng của chúng tôi vả từ đó, không chỉ hướng dẫn và còn tạo thêm sức mạnh giúp cộng đồng người Việt tỵ nạn tìm được chương trình chăm sóc sức khỏe cho chính mình.”

Westminster Mayor Tri Ta's surprise visit

Thị trưởng Tạ Đức Trí thuộc thành phố Westminster đã có mặt tại đài VNCR một ngày sau đó và trao bằng tưởng lục chúc mừng cho Bác sĩ Mai Phương và các nhân viên của đài đã đạt được giải thưởng NAM đem lại hãnh diện cho cộng đồng Việt.

Được biết, đài VNCR là cơ quan truyền thông Việt Ngữ phục vụ  trên 500,000 thính giả cư ngụ tại quận Cam, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside và San Diego.


Pasadena, California —  March 7, 2013.  Việt Nam California Radio’s (VNCR 106.3FM)  weekly Việt language healthcare radio program, Sức Khỏe Và Bạn (SKVB, aka “To Your Health, Friend!”), won the New America Media (NAM) for 2013 Broadcast Award for “Outstanding Reporting on Health and Healthcare.”  This esteemed honor was bestowed upon SKVB for its inaugural 6-part series entitled, “The Affordable Care Act (ACA) and You, Friend!”  which launched in the Summer 2012, shortly after the landmark US Supreme Court’s decision to uphold most of the ACA’s provisions.

Over the course of 6 weeks, “The ACA and You, Friend” distilled  the complicated healthcare law into weekly bite-sized, more palatable 15-20 minute tutorials to empower everyday Viet-Americans to be better healthcare consumers.  The NAM judges deemed the winning series “meaningful, substantive, important … and timely.”  These included deciphering the alphabet soup of the new medical-speak:  IM or “Individual Mandate”, HIE or Health Insurance Exchanges, P4P or Pay for Performance, EHRs or Electronic Health Records, MU or Meaningful Use, etc. which today’s New Americans will need to master in order to get the healthcare they need once the ACA fully rolls out.

Mai-Phương Nguyễn, MD (executive producer of Sức Khỏe và Bạn) commented during her acceptance speech at the Award Ceremony:

“By honoring our Sức Khỏe và Bạn health program, you [NAM] have validated our ability to not only educate but also to empower and to elevate overseas Vietnamese to secure the healthcare we ALL deserve.  My ambitious hope is that SKVB will continue to serve as a prescriptive to heal age-old wounds of war; to bridge East and West, North and South AND … to connect the old and newer generations of Việt-Americans, meanwhile help them better negotiate mainstream American society.”

The Southern California Ethnic Media Awards ceremony was held at the KPCC Crawford Family Forum and was sponsored in part by the California Community Foundation, The Los Angeles Multi-cultural Leadership Network (LAMLN) and KPCC/Southern California Public Radio.  NAM is a San-Francisco based umbrella organization whose mission is to promote the diverse voices of ethnic media outlets in print, broadcast and social media.


The following is the full transcript of the ideal acceptance speech by Dr. Mai-Phương Nguyễn for the award.  If you watch the YouTube video, you will see that her actual speech was much truncated.  While not actually ‘perfect English,’ she managed to elicit laughter, a few tears and accolades afterwards…in under 180 seconds.

Dr. Mai-Phương:

“Thank you! … for this auspicious award.  There are 3 of us on stage, so that means I will keep my statements under 3 minutes…I promise!  {coquettish smile…this, in response to emcee Patt Morrison’s reprimand that the time keeper would be very strict and they would play the Jaws Movie theme song for those who go over the rationed 60 seconds.}

But to give a bit of historical context to the gravity of this incredible, present moment:

NAM Award trophy

38 years ago, next month on April 29th, at the tender age of 6, I witnessed first-hand the withdrawal of the US troops out of Saigon, marking the end of the 2nd Indochinese-American War.  Since that historic “Operation Frequent Wind,”  MY family and thousands of millions of SE Asians refugees thereafter—including Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong—would be displaced for over 2 decades in search for new homelands, so we could live in freedom!  As political REFUGEES, we lost our countries and our entire ways of life.  We had to quickly ‘let go’ of everything we knew and cherished to hurry-up and embrace new languages and cultures to find a new place under the sun, we could claim as “Home.

But in the US, no matter how long we live here, no matter how perfect we master the English language (often times losing facility of our own mother tongues); and even though our taste buds would invariably evolve to crave American flavors and pop culture, all too often, we first generation, NEW AMERICANS, have a really hard time calling this country HOME.  Why?  Because too often, the mainstream media either ignores us, misrepresents us or worse, painfully caricaturizes and baffoons us.

NAM Award Program1

Fast forward 17 years, again on the exact same date, April 29th, in the year 1992, following the Rodney King verdict–as a young medical student living just a few miles from this very Crawford Family Forum while at USC Medical School, except near the barrios of El Sereno in East LA, I had the unfortunate privilege of bearing witness once again to massive violence and trauma.  This time, I watched with horror at the numbers of  black, brown and yellow-skinned bodies I had to help sew up, as they rolled into the ER at LA County-USC General Hospital.  These were brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers who took to the streets in violent outrage–to protest against an America they felt discounted or devalued them…and one that did not protect them against abusive authority figures!

And now, 21 years later…HERE! Tonight, with all of YOU beautiful, diverse ethnic media friends and family, under the generous auspices of New America Media!  How incredible to think that a humble, local radio station called, Việt Nam California Radio (VNCR 106.3FM)–who has made its home in the heart of the most vibrant of Little-Saigons right in Orange County, and who has given voice to our Vietnamese communities in the Diaspora since 1993, is being recognized for excellence in broadcast journalism.

By honoring our Sức Khỏe và Bạn health program, you’ve validated our ability to not only educate but also to empower and to elevate overseas Vietnamese to secure the healthcare we ALL deserve.  My ambitious hope is that SKVB will continue to serve as a prescriptive to heal age-old wounds of war; to bridge East and West, North and South AND … to connect the old and newer generations of Việt-Americans, meanwhile help them better negotiate mainstream American society.

In Vietnamese, we have a poetic maxim, “Một cây làm chẳng nên non, 3 cây chụm lại nên hòn núi cao.”    

Which means, a single tree alone, at best, forms a small mound. 3 trees united, can form a high mountain.”   Or, perhaps a better translation would be to quote my 3 year old son’s favorite superheroes, The Wonder Pets“What’s it all about?  TEAMWORK!” 

NAM Awards_3cay dao

Thank you to SKVB’s co-producers (standing here beside me).   First, is Viet-Franglais translator extraordinaire: the beautiful and talented Vanessa Hồng Vân Nguyễn, who helps me find the right Việt words to articulate my complicated thoughts and ideas in English back into a mother tongue I lost somewhere along my arduous acculturation journey to become “American.”  And second, infinite gratitude to our ever-patient sound editor, Thanh-Hương Lê, who refines the show and makes me sound intelligible and semi-fluent in Vietnamese!

NAM Awards_BoMan

Finally, the other triad whom I must thank for this fantastic moment are my parents: Papa Son Văn Nguyễn, và ma très chère maman, Bạch Mai, whose courage, sacrifices, elegance and eloquence inspire all who know them to live generously, in the compassionate service of others.  And lastly, I need to thank my partner in life: my brilliant husband and best friend, film director Đức Nguyển, whose unconditional love and touchstone support–even when he doesn’t fully understand my impossible dreams–mean the world to me!  Thank you for taking care of the doc, so she can take care of so many others.  Và xin thành thật cảm ơn, New American Media, for this high honor!

Here’s to OUR health, Friends!  (Respectful bows)

In light of last week’s shocking Newtown, CT school mass murders, and in context of yesterday’s NRA press conference, when will we realize that pistols, semi-automatic and assault rifles are WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction)?

We need to demand of our leaders to break the gridlock and do something to change the tide? As a physician who has lived and worked in some of our most violent, beleaguered neighborhoods, GUNS AND promoting combative, WAR-mongering MENTALITY are NOT the answers to this grave problem.

Listening to Wayne LaPierre, Chief Executive of the NRA, I was truly, clinically convinced that such people who make thoughtless statements as “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” should NOT be influencing national policy impacting our children and society at large. We adults who live in this really complicated, violent world know better than our 5 year-olds that discerning ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is quite a hard task.  By reducing the conversation to very arbitrary simplistic dichotomies such as ‘good guy’ vs. ‘bad guy’ this man shot his credibility in the face. We also know that there are many dysfunctional members of society who retaliate against society and their tormentors by seeking powerful, armed positions in the police and armed forces.

If we want to descend into ‘hell on earth’ and turn this freedom-loving nation into a police state, we could continue this dialogue to turn schools into public spaces ruled by MARTIAL LAW. For those of us who have born witness to war (real war with real tanks and ferocious military might destroying families, villages, whole countries, not to mention the environment and ecologies of those nations at war–think: Agent Orange whose ravages are seeped into the soil, air and sea of SE Asia), we would not be so quick to flippantly promote a state of martial law upon this great nation that hasn’t seen bloodshed nor battle on its own soil in over a century (except for in its concrete ghettos and inner cities).

I hope and pray in the new year and the post-Mayan ‘doomsday of 12/21/12’ era, that we can rise above this elementary school conversation and look beyond “bad guys vs good guys with guns” to impact reasonable, sustainable policies to ensure a safer, healthier society.  For the sake of our children, we MUST!

My first prescriptive is to put as much energy and funding into promoting mental health and teaching tolerance and acceptance in our schools. Support Mental Healthcare programs and teachers: 2 social programs that are first cut in any fiscal battle to balance state and federal budgets.

With a Public Health perspective,


Najim Mohammady, now 3rd year Medical student in the rigorous and innovative UCSF/Berkeley Joint Medical Program had me at “I was a child refugee from war-torn Afghanistan” when he spoke at the the 2008 Network of Ethnic Physicians Organizations (NEPO) Leadership Summit on the student panel.  Afterwards, in-between sessions, he and I spoke briefly and instantly, our friendship was sealed when he so insightfully proclaimed, “you and I are refugee immigrants…I don’t have to explain myself to you…we just get each other!”

And that is how it’s been over the last 4 years: our paths would intersect in organic and easy ways.  We would meet up in San Francisco, Oakland, or Garden Grove and Anaheim–at various CMA (California Medical Association) or NEPO events.  I like to think we have such good karma to connect in seemingly happenstance ways.  Whether at Yoshi’s Jazz club in Oakland by impromptu invitation of our iconic mentor, Dr. Frank Staggers, after an Ethnic Health Institute lecture for a cocktail and live music; or on a yacht in San Francisco marina circa Christmas 2011, at the invitation of my former patient and medical practice consultant guru to high profile CMA members, Debra Phairas–my professional mentorship and my personal friendship with this dynamic, young physician-in-training is now a cherished part of my life.

[Najim & Dr. Mai-Phuong Nguyen at 2012 XL Spring Mixer at OCMA (Orange Co. Medical Association) in Irvine, CA]

Our profound connectedness and ‘ease of just being’ whenever our lives would intersect fuel my passion for growing and ensuring the sustainability of the nascent CMA/EMOS eXchange Learning (XL) Mentorship Program.  Because every time we reconnect, Najim shares with me his hopes, his dreams and his ongoing struggles with the contemporary medical educational system that is still plagued with disparities and lack of support or guidance, not unlike the one I endured 20 years earlier.  Truth be told, it was in hearing the testimonials of students like Najim and now Dr. Brenda Oiyemhonlan (USC-Class of 2012 and fellow XL 2009 cohort who was profiled earlier in the Summer NEPO newsletter) –both of whom I met in leadership conferences sponsored by CMA Foundation and CMA–that inspired me to found XL Mentorship Program in 2009.

For clearly, their resounding pleas were that, as first generation immigrants or children of first generation immigrants, most of us did not have anyone to help guide us on the path to gaining elitist entrance into medical school, let alone how to navigate our way to success upon earning our coveted medical school admissions.  As minority medical students with less access to resources and clinical mentors, we are constantly confronted with socioeconomic and healthcare disparities throughout our lives and careers.  And as such, our medical training experiences are markedly different from those of our colleagues for whom poverty and displacement issues are just abstract, distant concepts and ideas, not deeply personal–oft-times deeply painful–realities.

In Najim’s case, the fact that this brilliant young man was accepted to one of the most competitive medical and masters in public health programs in the world, is indeed a miracle.  Because as a 6 months old infant, Najim’s parents, maternal grandparents and paternal aunt and uncle fled on foot over the mountains of Afghanistan (with Najim and his older sister, Freshta, in tow), through Jalalabad, to end up in Peshawar, Pakistan, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1982.  With the assistance of ‘coyote’ guides, his grandfather (who was a former mayor of a rural province outside of Kabul and well educated at Kabul University) was able to arrange for his family’s escape during this tumultuous time of war.

It is suspected that the coyote guides contrived to split Najim’s mother and grandmother from the rest of the family during the trek, in the dark of night for more ransom money.  For 2 days they were separated until Najim’s grandfather promised to pay the coyotes more money, which they were to get from Najim’s maternal family back in Kabul.  Eventually, his family would reunite and they would live in exile in  Pakistan for 3 years.  By 1985, a different paternal uncle living in the US (and a Fulbright scholar) sponsored his family to California.  Najim is not clear of many of the details of his childhood nor of his migration story.  When asked why he doesn’t just ask his grandfather or mother for the details, he plainly answered, “We just don’t talk about it!  We just don’t talk…period.”

Najim’s immigrant-American story parallels that  of my family’s chaotic escape out of Vietnam on April 29, 1975.  As a foreign press translator for the President, my father knew ahead of time, that the end to the war in Vietnam was imminent, but no one anticipated just how imminent.  During our abrupt and improvised evacuation out of Vietnam with Operation Frequent Wind when the US troops withdrew “out of ‘Nam”, in the chaos, my mother and 2 sisters were pushed onto a different ship and they eventually landed on the Pacific Island of Wake.  My father, older brother and I were pushed onto the famous USS Midway, and we arrived to Guam.  It wasn’t for several months later that all 6 of us would be reunited on Guam, thanks to the auspices of my father’s “Australian brother”, my gringo godfather, Tony Paul, an award-winning Indochinese war correspondent who was then the Editor-in-Chief of the Reader’s Digest in the Pacific Rim.

Najim and I share so many uncanny parallels in our personal journeys in search of identity, purpose and home.  Recently I learned that Najim’s very first childhood memory doesn’t begin until he was 11 years old, as a 5th grader at Rancho Alamitos High School in Garden Grove.  (In comparison, my first, techno-color, high definition memory was the day we escaped Vietnam, in all its hyper acoustic and frightful details at the young age of 6.)  We suspect that this late age ‘beginnings’ of Najim’s childhood memories is due in part to deeply suppressed childhood trauma, on so many levels.

Knowing this makes me even more appreciative of this young man’s resilience and tenacity.  To know that he is the compassionate and eloquent man and scholar that he is today, despite being a byproduct of war in a homeland often villainized here in the West, makes me respect and admire Najim all that more. The fact that Najim is so viscerally committed to serving the Afghan-American community and upholding his ethnic culture, language and identity, despite not knowing his homeland nor ever having revisited it as a conscient adult, is truly remarkable.

Earlier this year in February, he defended his Master’s thesis at Berkeley School of Public Health elucidating the Physical and Mental Health of Afghan Refugees in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Through health surveys exploring diasporic first generation Afghan-Americans’ self-reported assessments of their mental and physical health, he documented the overwhelming correlation between his Afghan-American communities’ collective traumas living in war-torn Afghanistan, their subsequent traumas in their arduous journeys to freedom, plus, the added traumas of living in exile in first asylum countries like Pakistan and India  and finally, compounded by the traumas of assimilation (or lack thereof) in final asylum countries like the US.

Najim’s landmark research is only beginning to scratch the surface of the PTSD, depression and anxieties that run rampant in our ethnic communities, arising from very complex histories of war and displacement.  More so, he is helping the healthcare profession identify and define cultural competencies on how to interpret his people’s expressions of pain and physical ailments, not well explained by the usual pathophysiology and mechanisms of action in Western textbooks taught in allopathic medical schools and residencies.

As a fellow war-child refugee, just ½ a generation his senior from war-torn Vietnam, I can relate all too well to young Najim’s search for identity, purpose and healing.  This summer I launched a mental health series on Viet Nam California Radio (VNCR) 106.3FM here in Little Saigon, Orange County (home to the largest population of overseas Vietnamese, outside of Vietnam).  Beyond FM radio broadcast, VNCR reaches over 100,000 overseas Vietnamese in the diaspora via its online webcast: www.radiovncr.com.

My bilingual (Viet-English) program, Sức Khỏe và Bạn (To Your Health, Friend!) has been well received by Overseas Vietnamese who are ever grateful for a forum to express their fears, hopes and concerns.  More than 3 decades after the North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon, marking the ‘end’ of the Viet-American War, the overseas Vietnamese people are just now starting to open up dialogues about their post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), domestic violence, traumatic refugee experiences, sexual traumas, etc.  We are only beginning to unravel our well-kept family secrets that have gotten in the way of  our “Model Minority” mythic image and pursuit of comprehensive, lasting wellness here in the U.S.  I launched this program with the strong belief that only by effectively healing our deep-seated wounds of war, can we in refugee minority communities, truly find “health, happiness” and “thrive” in future generations .

As for me and Najim, we reconnected at this year’s 2012 NEPO Summit in Los Angeles in early September.  After enduring a 48-hours shift in general surgery rotation, he caught a flight down to LAX-Westin to support the latest 2012 cohort of eXchange Learning (XL) mentees.  Najim couldn’t stay for the special Wells Fargo sponsored dinner the second night of the summit because he had to rush off to Orange County, to tend to his beloved 94 year-old grandfather whom we lovingly call Baba.

Since early 2012, Baba has been in and out of hospitals suffering the natural consequences of a very harsh life.  Recently, he underwent lower extremity grafts for his peripheral arterial diseases.  While rehabilitating in the local nursing home, Baba suffered complications like hospital acquired and aspiration pneumonias.  Not even graduated from medical school yet, Najim already is functioning as a sophisticated caregiver and healthcare consultant to his mother and extended family, advising on difficult End-of-Life issues and explaining foreign Advanced Directives.  So while we NEPO doctors enjoyed a decadent dinner, Najim texted me this wonderful photo of him and his Baba.  From the photograph, it appears, they were serving up enchiladas mojadas con arroz y frijoles and the family brought in Persian yogurt (ahhh…cultural competent multi-culti East Meets West cuisines! 🙂

Najim tending to his Baba at Garden Grove Hospital, September 2012 during NEPO Summit

I first met Baba this past summer, at Najim’s Master’s graduation party in a local Indian restaurant in Garden Grove, the Rupee Room.  In Dari (considered the Shakespearean  equivalent and erudite dialect of Farsi spoken in Afghanistan), Baba (aka Mohammad Taher Hatef) recited a poem he wrote the day Najim was born.  While I didn’t understand a word of Dari, there was no mistaking the palpable love and hope that this war survivor had for his precious grandson, on that most proud day of Najim’s Master’s graduation and 30th birthday.

Mohammad “Hatef” aka Baba reciting poetry dedicated to his grandson, Najim

Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing grandfather Hatef’s poetry in translation on a Youtube video of Najim’s dissertation defense at UC-Berkeley:

NOTE:  At about minute 9:19, one can hear Najim recite his grandfather Hatef’s profound poem, The Unbound Kingdom.  For us refugee immigrants, this poem resonates so deeply our elusive longing for a place to call home.  Again, Najim teaches me more than I feel I have counseled him as XL mentor.  Indeed ours is an ongoing cross-cultural, inter-generational eXchange Learning sort of  kinship and unspoken connectedness, far beyond that of student-mentee and physician-mentor.

I look forward to bearing witness to the amazing unbound kingdoms to which this young Afghan-American physician-leader–the grandson and bright hope of grandfather Hatef– will soar, in the years to come!

An Unbound Kingdom
–A poem about exile written by Najim’s grandfather, Mohammad Taher Hatef
(His pen name: Hatef, means sound from the unseen)

Abridged, entitled and translated by Omid Sanjideh

When I search for flowers, springtime in my country comes to mind.
Scenes of blood splattered on its arable land comes to mind.

The only beautiful jewel inside a shell to see,
My country of Afghanistan inside of central Asia comes to mind.

All that I see here in exile, appear either similar or different,
From each the wretched and incomplete story of my country comes to mind.

The nightingale sings intoxicating songs in the meadow,
The wailing cries of my home comes to mind.

When a tune strikes the lyre in the corner of my heart,
Nothing can silence the Dari or Lugerian composer that comes to mind.

I enlist forgetfulness to throw the load of grief behind me,
But my heart makes sure that it again comes to mind.

Refusal to talk about it brings me to the precipice of time,
As soon as I utter Vatan [homeland], my heaven and paradise comes to mind.

I, Hatef [the sound from the unseen], became an unbound kingdom,
So sayeth the poet, Bidel, “Any dot, chosen from amongst my poetry, is what comes to mind.”

Los Angeles, California—  On May 12, 2012, I had the distinct pleasure and privilege to attend the 127th Commencement of the USC-Keck School of Medicine’s 2012 Graduation.  As the guest of now Dr. Brenda Oiyemhonlan, I sat in the audience in the same Shrine Auditorium where I marched 17 years earlier, to bear witness to my 2012 CMA/EMOS eXchange Learning (XL) Mentorship inaugural class’s mentee, Brenda, fulfill a career milestone.  Brimming with pride and choked up at the many changes that have occurred in healthcare since my graduation almost 2 decades ago, I took pause to reflect back on the many challenges I faced, which by and large, continue to plague Brenda and medical students of color like us.

USC-Keck School of Medicine’s Class of 2012 Graduates

The obvious improvements in the event: this class got to wear bright burgundy graduation smocks and had ‘cooler, colorful hoodies’ (my Class of 1995 wore gothic black).  The Master of Ceremony was an iconic Haitian-American physician leader with the voice bigger than James Earl Jones’.  Dr. Henri R. Ford, (I learned from Brenda) has paved the way for greater visibility and emphasis on minority health issues by virtue of his auspicious presence and important work in pediatric surgery on the local, national and international stages.

The keynote speaker for this year’s class was the gently powerful J. Nadine Gracia, MD, MHA and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Minority Health.   Dr. Gracia shared her inspiring story of growing up as a second-generation Haitian-American and how her being ethnic minority impacted her career choices.  Specifically, she gave examples of how when it came time to ‘step up’ after the huge earthquake in Haiti, she returned to her island nation to make a difference—a noticeable difference that resulted in her being tapped by President Obama to now head the Office of Minority Health at the US Department of Health and Human Services. (Note: this Office did not exist when I was in Medical School).  What Dr. Gracia underscored in her uplifting speech was that as physicians, at appointed times in history, we are presented with great opportunities to not only serve our patients, but our country and big causes much greater than ourselves.

Indeed, Drs. Ford’s and Gracia’s sheer presence alone, along with their powerful messages, were signs of progress.  For 20 years after the 1992 LA Riots—a very remarkable event in my life as I bore witness to the mass revolt of minority peoples who were pushed over the tipping point and reacted so violently to overwhelmingly oppressive disparities (i.e. race, class, socio-economics, judiciary injustices, etc) as a first year medical student at USC– it is reassuring to me that this graduating class of 2012 (whether they realize it or not), is collectively benefiting from hard-earned progress.  Albeit sometimes measured in millimeters, not inches, this progress has been shouldered by countless elders who have suffered and paid heavy prices in years past.

At the reception, I was excited to finally meet Brenda’s extended Nigerian family, especially her iconic mother.  For years, I heard humbling stories about her fashionista mom whose struggles and sacrifices are so common in the African-American community.  As a small business owner, Mrs. Oiyemhonlan had to raise her children as a sole breadwinner because her husband lost his job and sense of pride in the down economy.  She, like so many mothers before her, did whatever was necessary to keep her family intact.  Mrs. Oiyemhonlan stood out in the crowd.  She wore an uber elegant, form-fitted, bright pink sequined African dress that was paired with a hard-to-miss stiff and starched turquoise head-wrap.  Surrounded by her 4 professional American-born children (i.e. Brenda, the newly minted doctor; her 2 brothers in science and technology and her baby sister, Etuajie, who’s completing post-baccalaureate studies to pursue medical school), Mrs. Oiyemhonlan (as I) was radiant with pride.  Out of respect for my baby-sister, I wore a traditional, Vietnamese green silk aó-dài (long dress).  Altogether, we looked distinctly ethnic and mahvelous!

(From Left to Right): Matriarch, Mrs. Oiyemhonlan, Brenda, her two younger brothers in science and technology up in Sacramento area, and sister, Etuajie, following her eldest sister’s footsteps and applying to medical school.

For only in this remarkable country of immigrants could this brilliant American-born Nigerian woman, so committed to improving healthcare disparities (i.e Brenda has 2 masters’ degrees: one in public health and another in public policy) have such a bright future.  Not yet a week returned from Ghana where she worked alongside local African doctors who impressed her with their clinical skills, in the face of overwhelming poverty and diseases, Brenda also looked radiant in her peacock colored dress that accented her athletic body.

Amazingly, this young graduate had surpassed her mentor because she won a National Medical Fellowship scholarship to afford her trip to Ghana.  In my 4th year decades ago, I traveled to India to study at the esteemed Christian Medical College for a rural health rotation.  But back then, as a first generation, post-Vietnam War refugee-immigrant, I did not have the wherewithal nor any mentors to advise me to apply for such NMF scholarships.   The priceless lesson both of us learned in our international health rotations was that indeed, the art of medicine is still administered by listening with our two mindful ears, taping into our brain’s intelligence, following our compassionate hearts and touching patients with our two warm, kind hands.  In such rustic settings, both of us realized how very little we needed to rely on the expensive technologies of the West that were virtually inaccessible out ‘in the bush’.

National Medical Fellowship “Changing the Face of Medicine” Gala on 7th June 2012 at the Globe Theater at Universal Studios, LA. Pictured here are power players in Minority Healthcare: (From Left to right) Dr. Robert Ross, CEO of The California Endowment, Dr. Mai-Phuong Nguyen (Founder of eXchange Learning–XL Mentorship); Drs. Cianna Leatherwood and Brenda Oiyemhonlan, both new graduates of USC Class of 2012 as well as 2009 Cohort XL mentees of Dr. Nguyen; and Dr. Mark Smith, MBA, CEO of the California Healthcare Foundation. Dr. Smith was keynote speaker and as always, he was witty, pithy and inspiring!

I can only say that as her mentor for the past 4 years, Brenda inspires and teaches me more than I feel I have mentored her.  Indeed our sisterhood as well as our professional relationship, is the best testimony of the promise and success of CMA/EMOS’s nascent eXchange Learning (XL) Mentorship program.  I have no doubt that the sky is the limit for Brenda as she transitions to the next chapter of her journey to become a great, compassionate physician and healthcare leader.  She starts her ER residency in Brooklyn, New York this summer.


[Pictured above is the microscopic view of what these cells look like:  Hyperplasia means ‘fast or quickly growing’ and atypical because the cells have begun to lose the clear borders of their cell membranes.  Ductal hyperplasia can be seen in both breast and cervical cancer–the 2 most common female cancers that afflict women.  In the case of cervical cancer, SE Asian women (especially Vietnamese have highest prevalence of this disease.) On the spectrum of ‘healthy/normal’ to full-blown ‘cancer’ cells, atypical ductal hyperplastic cells are somewhere in the middle.  Some conservative doctors consider these potentially slow growing and can be ‘monitored,’ others who treat breast cancer with greater fear/respect, would caution: TAKE THEM OUT!]

The doctor called.  He said “How are you?  I’ve got good news.  You don’t have cancer but you’ve got atypical ductal hyperplasia!”  He didn’t even pause to let me process those big words that once upon a time, I knew so well but in a more academic, impersonal context.  I’m a doctor who’s tended to many breast cancer women–some who survived the deadly disease.  Some who succumbed to it after years of treacherous, painful battles against not just the disease but the war waged against it.  Atypical ductal hyperplasia is NOT good news to hear–I thought?

“Wait a second, Doc..I have what now?”

“Atypical ductal hyperplasia is a condition where the cells of the breast ducts are abnormal and growing faster than ordinary…it’s not exactly precancerous but it’s NOT full-on cancer either.  It’s definitely NOT normal but can sometimes be super slow growing and we cannot know if it will turn into cancer later on in any particular woman.”

“What is my next step: surgical removal or more screening tests?  Breast MRI?” I managed to collect my wits and pose a coherent set of questions.

“Well, some people might watch this with breast imaging.  Breast Ultrasounds would NOT catch this.  Breast MRI imaging would be required.  But if I were you, I’d see the surgeon and get the entire area of abnormal microcalcifications removed.  It’d be harder to monitor your case because you had NO detectable or palpable masses.  Yours was caught on screening digital mammogram,” he replied matter-of-factly.  I don’t blame him, he sees cases like me every week…and he’s a man.  Men are not so fearful of breast CANCER…it’s so uncommon for them and it doesn’t kill them as often.

“Uh…as I recall, there weren’t any such abnormal calcifications on my right breast, right?  When you reviewed with me the digital mammogram last month, the right side looked pretty good, right?  How often should I be screening on the other side, given that there’s increased risk of contralateral breast disease?”  I asked, now having a better idea of what my problems will be.

“Good question.  Yes, we didn’t see anything worrisome on the right side.  But this would make a good case for breast MRI annually instead of simple digital mammography.  You should discuss this with your surgeon after they do the biopsy.”

“Uh…that might be a problem.  MRIs are expensive and I have a very limiting EPO–Exclusive Provider Option–even more restrictive than an HMO plan!  Which breast surgeons in the OC would you recommend?”

“Well, we could word the request in a way that your insurance would have a hard time denying.  This is medically necessary.  As for the surgeon, this too, as you know, all depends on which doctors are in your plan’s network.  But I would highly recommend these 4 women surgeons:  Jane Kakkis (Orange Coast), Michelle Carpenter (Long Beach), Lisa Cuercio (Saddleback), and Jessica Rayahanabad.  Just work with your PCP to see which one your insurance plan covers.”

“And if my EPO doesn’t contract with these doctors…?”

“Well, talk to your PCP and work with her.  She can advise you better.”

I thanked the interventional radiologist who just yesterday took a sliver chunk of tissue out of my left breast with the aid of some very fancy digital breast imaging equipment.  After hanging up on the phone, I brushed this conversation aside and proceeded with my day: Get son off to music class, fix lunch, outdoors playtime after lunch, call the doctor for whom I will start cross-covering tomorrow for extra income this afternoon, etc. etc…the list started to spill out like water.

It wasn’t until I woke up the next morning (today) that I realized, “Holy mierda!”  I could have a precancerous breast disorder that increases my risk later on in life for the mother of all mother F’ing cancers: BREAST CANCER?!

And to think I wasn’t going to get my mammogram for another few years given the latest recommendations by the US Preventative Task Force that found after exhaustive review of the literature that we were over screening women for breast cancer.  There is a trend now to start screening breast cancer in lower risk patients at 50 years old, instead of previously recommended 40 years old.

I thought I just had a slight increased familial risk for breast cancer, otherwise, I would have insisted to start at 50.  I mean, I am healthy, check my own boobs regularly, eat a low fat, plant-based diet, never smoked, exercise 3-5 days/week–I do all the things I tell my patients to do.  My 2 risks: late age at first pregnancy and my paternal aunt had a mastectomy in her 30s in Vietnam.

Back in the 1980s in the old homeland, we can never know for sure for what condition Cô Giầu had in her breast.  Because in poor, developing countries like Vietnam, there just isn’t enough of anything: not enough technology, science nor support systems to make clear-cut diagnoses.  They just didn’t have the chemical reagents or skills to make accurate histologic diagnoses and the treatment options were also very minimal.  I bet, ‘when in doubt, the surgeons took whatever lesions out.’

My beloved favorite paternal auntie ended up dying at 48 years old of a bad asthmatic attack–only a few days after I left her side, to return to the US after spending 2 weeks at Chợ Rẩy Hospital in Saigon.  (Chợ Rảy Hospital is one of the largest community public hospitals in Saigon.  My 3 months at Vellore’s Christian Medical College in Tamil Nadu, India and my 4 years training at LAC-USC Medical School prepared me very well for the challenges I faced to attend to my 2 paternal aunties, Cô Giầu and Cô Sang).

I returned to my war-torn birth homeland in the summer of 2000 to help in whatever way I could as a recently graduated medical doctor to take care of my father’s 2 beloved spinster sisters who were left behind after the Communist victory in 1975.  Both Cô Giầu and I were tending to her older sister, Co Sang, who had just recently been found to have metastatic uterine cancer (another female cancer)!  But, when I spoke to my then new friend, Dr. Trần Xuân Dại, the director of the Chợ Rảy ICU after Cô Giầu died so suddenly,  he told me that her emergency room Chest XRay showed a ‘lung shadow’ that they feared could have represented a breast cancer metastasis or recurrence.  Who knows?  It could have been a multitude of other things.  We just will never know.  She was promptly cremated and no autopsy was ever done…I don’t think autopsies are offered frequently in ‘Nam?  They are seldomly offered here in the US, only in cases where there is vital need to know a cause of death in mysterious cases or cases of suspected homicide or foul play.

Then I remembered, just recently, my relative here in the Northeastern US had a persistent, painful breast lump that was imaged but I don’t think she ever got it biopsied.  This was several years ago.  Being self-employed too, she had issues and difficulty with good healthcare access.  Shoot! I must call her soon and catch up with her boob stories.  OMGoodness!  This is a real bummer!  I need to get organized and be proactive now.  I need to use my medical education and engage my years of healthcare advocacy–except this time, I need to fight for ME and MY family.  I need to map out my breast cancer prevention roadmap!

Things to add to the already way-too-long To-Do list:

1) Call PCP to schedule surgical consult for MRI-guided resection of microscopic atypical ductal hyperplasia that was not even palpable but detected on digital mammogram!

2) Check with limiting EPO (Exclusive Provider Organization) plan to see which surgeons are contracted and pray that one of the 4 surgeons that Dr. Radiologist mentioned are on the list.

3) Pray…oops!  I need to move #3 to #1 now.

4) Put down the To-Do list and go PRAY/MEDITATE right NOW for the strength to get over this hurdle, on top of all the other hurdles in front of me.

5) Take a few DEEP yoga breaths:

Breathing in… I feel scared and anxious about what I just found out yesterday.

Breathing out… I am letting go of these fears and putting trust to the universe that all will be fine.

Breathing in…I summon my gratitude that the diagnosis was the lesser of two potentially worse possibilities.

Breathing out…I feel grateful for having some health insurance (albeit limited) that will get me through to a healthier place.  I know everything will be all right!  I’ve got too many people who count on me but I also have so many people to count on–to walk this journey with me.

Nam Mô A Di Dà Phật

Nam Mô A Di Dà Phật

Nam Mô A Di Dà Phật


Addendum follow-up on 4/12/11:  My awesome PCP was on top of this one.  She called yesterday and lobbied hard for me to see #1 choice Dr. Kakkis.  The EPO denied it fervently.  She referred me to the contracted surgical group.  I was unable to reach them several times, calling in-between patients to make an appointment.  I will try again today.  Hope and pray this won’t be too hard of a fight…for the journey has just begun and I have to stay strong, keep the faith and keep on trucking.

On this day, April 10, 2012, OCVietAmMD was born.  Being multi-lingual imbued with Viet genetics, I LOVE to play with WORDS: their meanings, derivations,  juxtapositions, fonts, bastardizations, hybridizations and linguistics.  Being polyglottic increases the odds and permutations in which I can PLAY with all these words.

OCVietAmMD is a multi-entendre play on its component parts:

OC = Orange County (every one in Hollywood knows THAT). But it can also mean Oh, See…as in “Oh, I see”.  Or, “Oh, See  ya later”…to mean, let’s TALK or SEE each other somewhere either 1/4, 1/2 or ALL THE WAY!

Viet = relating to the SE Asian country of Vietnam or the Vietnamese (whether indigenous or diasporic) people, culture, food… whatever.

Am = as in, short for American or as in the first person form of  the verb ‘to be’.  That’s because I AM an Amer-I-CAN sorta gal…as well as being Vietnamese OR more accurately: Viet-Am(+ FrancaMexicanAnglais).  Note, while related, all these are NOT synonymous identities…but yes, it’s kinda sorta like MULTI-CULTI Personalit-I-dentities…how COOL (or messed up) is that?

Putting it together, VietAm  as in Vie^.t Ta^m (I’ve GOTTA upload and learn how to use a Vietnamese language app that punctuates and uses the intricate Viet tonals properly…can anyone help out a Viet-Am sista?) means something far more profound.  Ta^m means soul or heart.  Which is to say,  the driving engine behind this blog and in fact, behind everything I think, write, do in life is fueled by my Viet-Am Ta^m (aka heart-soul).

MD = Medical Doctor or Medical Dictionary – I aim to simplify very complex medical or healthcare terms, issues, conditions, treatment, controversies, insurance plans nightmares, etc to shed light, value and service to the reader and community.  WARNING: like it or not, these blogs while giving certifiable facts and information, will nevertheless contain at times, my strong opinions about what’s going on in healthcare 2.1 (as in 21st century US healthcare.)  While we invite creative, constructive and respectful dialogue, we do not shy away from controversies and hot topics.  As a matter of fact, we welcome them!

So for those longing to connect– whether on a light and frilly or perhaps on an even deeper, heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul level–on all things Viet-Am, Vieta^m or VietAmMD  issues, please follow my blog and let’s TALK it out!  I’d love to hear YOUR thoughts on MY thoughts, non?

Here’s to (y)our collective Viet-A^m health!

Yours truly and kindly,