TheAnh Nguyen was a year old, so he doesn’t remember the small fishing boat his family squeezed him and themselves onto, with six dozen other people, to escape Vietnam in 1989.
He does remember some of the next six years — his family living in a refugee tent camp in Malaysia, with the young TheAnh peering at automobiles just outside the camp, wondering what they were and what it would be like to ride in one. And with his parents worrying about whether the family would ever make it to where they wanted to be – to America.
They did, eventually. And now, some two decades later, TheAnh is on his way to becoming what his father had always dreamed one of his sons would someday be: a doctor.
“My parents are very, very proud of me,” TheAnh says. “They’re happy.”
TheAnh is in his first year of the OHSU M.D.-Ph.D. program. His journey to this point has been a twisting one, even beyond that fishing boat and refugee camp. There was a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from PSU in 2011, then a few years looking for medical research work. He finally landed a research internship in 2013 with noted medical oncologist and stem cell researcher, Piero Dalerba, at Stanford University. He commuted two hours each way to work 12-hour days at Dalerba’s lab while also holding down a part-time job at REI.
Then, when Dalerba moved to Columbia University, TheAnh moved with him to help him set up his lab, and paid $200 a month to sleep on a Harlem apartment couch for the first couple of months.
TheAnh had applied to medical schools right after earning his bachelor’s degree, but low verbal scores on the medical school entrance exam forced him to delay for a while. When he tried a second time — in 2015 and 2016 — one medical school admission committee official told him she had never seen a student’s application with so many glowing letters of recommendation.
Even with his hard work, that support from others has been vital along the way, TheAnh says.
“I’ve been very, very fortunate to get a lot of help throughout this entire process,” he says.
He got important support in paying for his undergraduate years at PSU by earning the Irving Levin/Stephanie Fowler scholarship, given to PSU freshmen and sophomores with financial need who are also the first members of their family to attend a four-year college. The scholarship is for up to $4,000 per year, renewable for up to four years.
“The really cool thing about the program is they really care about you,” TheAnh says of Levin and Fowler. They have lunch with scholarship recipients once per term, TheAnh says, and have stayed close to him, often giving him support and help outside of the scholarship money. “To me, they’re kind of like family,” TheAnh says. “They’ve definitely played a pivotal role in supporting me through this very long journey of mine.”
Then there was the work with Dalerba, still at Columbia.
“I really enjoyed working with him and learning from him. He is my mentor in medicine, science, and life,” TheAnh says. “He made science cool for me.”
TheAnh had wanted to be a doctor since his time at Benson High School in Portland. But working with Dalerba got him interested also in scientific research.
“Maybe even more importantly, my experience with him served as self-validation that I could overcome the odds stacked again me and grasp opportunities no one in my family had ever had,” TheAnh says. “I was given the best boost anyone can be given: to be viewed as a completely equal peer and be judged solely on the merit of my ideas and my work.”
After a couple years in New York, however, TheAnh wanted to return home to Portland to be near his parents and brothers, who had moved here from California in 1999. So he applied to OHSU’s MD-Ph.D. program in 2015, along with several others throughout the country, and was thrilled when OHSU officials informed him the day before his birthday in February 2016 that they wanted him in their program. He started at OHSU in August 2016.
TheAnh hopes to someday be a pediatric interventional cardiologist while conducting research in fetal cardiac development.
He believes he can also represent something that’s vital to medicine, medical research and public health: that physicians, researchers and public health leaders better reflect the diversity of the U.S. population.
“In order for you to have empathy and better serve your patients as a physician, it helps a lot when you have that background — you can connect with people. You know their needs,” he says. His mom, for instance, who does not speak English, prefers to see Vietnamese physicians so she can understand what he or she is saying. “Some people, raised in a world where everyone speaks English … it would never cross their mind that the language barrier is a huge thing,” TheAnh says.
At the same time, public health leaders from diverse backgrounds “know the needs of that population better,” TheAnh says. “I don’t know very many Vietnamese people in Portland involved in public health and policy. And that just means the voice of the Vietnamese community here in Portland is not heard.”
Increasing that diversity requires support for students like him, TheAnh says. He is grateful for the scholarship and other support he’s received over the years. And he is heartened that the School of Public Health has created its Dean Scholarship Program, which will provide financial assistance to first-generation college students from low-income families and from a range of backgrounds.
“If you want more students from these backgrounds to get into these programs, financial support like these scholarships is vital,” he says.
TheAnh says he thought about that sort of support during the “white-coat” ceremony at OHSU in August 2016, when first-year medical students receive their white coats symbolizing their journey to becoming physicians.
“It’s very poignant for me — Irving and Stephanie’s son is my classmate at OHSU,” TheAnh says. “When I realized that at the white coat ceremony … it’s crazy. My scholarship trustees’ son is my classmate. These people gave me the money to help me along the way … and now I’m a classmate of their son. I think in most other countries in the world, that wouldn’t happen. In most other countries, someone like me wouldn’t be there. That was a profound moment for me.”
Irving Levin says TheAnh has worked for and deserves everything he’s received.
“He’s very tenacious, and he’s never lost sight of his goal,” Levin says. “He was an inspiration to us. And he’s just a wonderful human being.
“And I think he’s going to be a very special practitioner – whether he makes some amazing discovery is the lab, or focuses on his patients, or both. Society will be much better off for him being in that field.”
TheAnh says he hopes so. And he says he still can’t believe that he’ll have the opportunity.
“I could never have dreamed — my family could never have dreamed — for me to be in a program like this. When I was that refugee child looking at those cars … only dreaming of being in a car someday. And that refugee child now being able to be in this program. For me, that’s incredible. It really speaks to there’s goodness in the world.”