Sacramento dad-daughter medical team gives back

03/18/2012 12:00 AM

03/19/2012 8:44 AM

On a rainy morning last week, 22 patients packed a waiting room across from Florin Mall to see the Duongs, a father-daughter medical team from Vietnam.

Dr. Thuc Huu Duong, a lithe, genial 75-year old general practitioner, treats whatever ails them: diabetes, asthma, hypertension, loneliness.

His pediatrician daughter, Dr. Vicki Duong, 36, handles a range of maladies, from sports injuries to the stress that immigrant kids often cope with, balancing pressures to excel in school while caught between their parents' culture and free-wheeling American values.

The patients include parents, grandparents and children, working people and those between jobs.

"It's first-come, first-serve," said Danh Nguyen, 47, who came in with a cough, congestion and allergies. "I've been coming here 20 years. I like him very much."

Many of the patients are Southeast Asian refugees whose trials the Duongs know well.

They tried again and again to escape Communist Vietnam, walking for days through fields and jungles only to be foiled a dozen times. Once, Vietnamese soldiers captured Vicki and her mom and interrogated them separately for four days.

"They had machine guns. I thought that was the end of my life," Vicki recalled. "I was in second grade. My mom had coached us to say we were going to visit relatives."

The Duongs persisted.

Thuc Huu Duong, his wife, his daughter, her older brother and 26 others finally escaped on a 30-foot boat that was pounded by waves in the South China Sea for five days. "I almost died of dehydration, sea sickness, vomiting and nausea," Vicki said.

They made it to Indonesia, and after a year in a refugee camp, arrived in Sacramento on June 13, 1984.

"I needed freedom," said Duong

"Thirteen's our lucky number," Vicki said of her family's final, successful attempt to escape Vietnam.

The son of framers

A proud Republican, the elder Duong showed off a handwritten card from former President George W. Bush thanking him for his support. "I get a card from them every year," he said.

After a recent lunch of Kentucky Fried Chicken, he related his journey from the fields of Vietnam to his thriving multi-ethnic practice in south Sacramento.

The son of farmers, Duong resolved to become a doctor "so I can help everyone," and graduated from Saigon Medical School.

From 1965 until the fall of Saigon in 1975, Duong served as a medic in the South Vietnamese Army, treating soldiers wounded in the bloody battle to recapture the city of Hue in 1968.

After the Communists took over, they sent Duong to a re-education camp, where he said he spent a year clearing the jungle until his belly and legs became too swollen to work.

"It was a concentration camp," he said.

Duong returned to his family in Saigon, but the Communists forbid the former South Vietnamese army captain from practicing medicine. So he made secret house calls on his motorcycle, and began plotting his escape.

"It cost two ounces of gold per person, but if it wasn't successful, they gave us our money back," he said.

After they finally escaped, Duong's brother-in-law sponsored them in Sacramento. Duong got a job delivering a Vietnamese newspaper, and his children delivered The Bee's advertising sections.

Duong wanted to resume his chosen profession – something many refugees find difficult because of the challenges of getting certified to practice in California.

"It's a major issue," said Debra DeBondt, deputy director of Opening Doors, a Sacramento refugee resettlement agency. "A doctor from Iraq is working at a 99 Cent Store; an engineer is working as a hotel janitor; a pharmacist is working at Walmart."

Duong's secret? "Just work hard and have endurance," he said. "I was 56 when I started here, and still strong."

He would wake up at 6 a.m. and study until midnight, "every day the same thing." He attended Sacramento City College to learn English. "Because of my French education in Vietnam, I can easily read English, but speaking it was very hard," he said.

So wherever he went, he would strike up random conversations to hone his speaking skills.

Sons go into medicine too

After nine years, Duong passed his certification exams and caught a break: One of his former medical professors in Vietnam was at Martin Luther King/Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles and got him a residency. He lived in a dormitory in L.A. and got his U.S. medical license in 1993.

His wife, Dung Nguyen, supported the family by working as a seamstress from 7 a.m. to midnight in her bedroom.

"She worked long, back-breaking hours," Vicki said. "Her work behind the scenes keeping her three kids on track was critical. My parents were very strict – we were deathly afraid of them."

But they never pressured her into becoming a doctor.

"I watched them and drew from their strength," she said.

Vicki graduated from McClatchy High School, UC Davis, and St. George's Medical School in Grenada. She completed her pediatrics residency at the University of Nevada, graduated in 2007 and joined her father's practice.

Duong's two sons are also following in his footsteps. Nam is waiting to do his residency, while Tan, the youngest, who was born after the family came to Sacramento, is applying to medical school.

"Crazy, isn't it?" said Vicki, who must bridge cultures and generations in the family's medical practice.

Some Hmong, Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants practice "coining," a folk remedy where hot cups, coins or spoons are applied to children's backs. The idea is to drive the sickness out of the bloodstream, but Vicki said she's seen many kids with bruises.

"I tell the parents not to be so abrasive," she said.

She also treats children who are depressed because of their parents' high expectations.

"Some come in with bleeding ulcers, and the parents say, 'What do you have to be stressed about?' "

Other kids come from broken homes or have witnessed deaths in the family.

"If the families are somewhat hesitant to get mental help, I tell them, that doesn't mean you're crazy. If you can talk to someone to help you get better, that's a positive step."

Duong is proud to have his children join his practice. "The main thing is, we learn a lot from American people. So we work hard to give back," he said.

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