Tri Nguyen, M.D. was 6 years old when he finally escaped from war-ravaged Vietnam in 1976. The exit route: his parents paid a French-Vietnamese woman leaving for France to adopt him. After a year in Paris, he was reunited with his family, who ultimately settled in the United States.
Growing up in what he calls "the greatest country on earth," Dr. Nguyen, nonetheless, always held firm to the Vietnamese ideal of giving back to the community. So, some 30 years later, he began returning to his homeland as a physician dedicated to helping people who suffer from some of the world's most debilitating skin diseases and deformities.
"At first glance, dermatologic surgery seems incongruous with the needs of this third-world country," says Dr. Nguyen, a Mohs surgeon who is currently director of dermatologic surgery at Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. "But in reality, it is desperately needed," he says, noting that although leprosy is very rare in the United States, it remains a prevalent disease in Vietnam that often leads to limb and facial deformities.
Dr. Nguyen completed his fifth mission to Vietnam in March 2005. Now, in addition to treating leprosy patients, he focuses on training Vietnamese doctors in the latest techniques in Mohs, cutaneous and reconstructive surgery and helping to update the rusty medical infrastructure by securing new supplies and instruments.
Although he has always been welcomed with open arms by the Vietnamese, his charitable actions have faced opposition from fellow Vietnamese-Americans.
"The older generation, which includes my father, feel that if you go back and help, you are supporting the Communist government. I have a different perspective. I want to change things from within by influencing the younger leaders - bringing them here and sending them back. In a small way, affecting one by one."
Becoming an M.D.
Dr. Nguyen always knew that he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps to become a physician.
"When I went off to France my parents recorded my voice, not knowing when or if we would see each other again. On the tape, I said I wanted to be a doctor to take care of my family."
The family had tried to escape before.
"We failed to get out during the chaotic evacuation in 1975, then we tried via fishing boat but we were caught by the Communists and detained," he says.
The family first settled in Minneapolis, but after four bitterly cold winters, they relocated to California, eventually settling in Sacramento, home of one of the country's largest Vietnamese-American communities.
"Our family was still very traditional," he says. "We spoke Vietnamese at home. My grandfather lived with us and he imparted the idea that you need to do something more than just make a living."
After high school, Dr. Nguyen headed to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he received his BS and his medical degree in a combined six-year program. After a University dermatology rotation at the Cleveland Clinic, he completed his residency.
"I loved family practice, but then I really fell in love with dermatology because it is a consummate specialty. It retains the different niches of medicine - geriatrics, pediatrics, surgery."