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How A Vietnamese-American Military Doctor Gives Back

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Dr. Mylene Tran Huynh was only nine when she, along with her family, made a harrowing escape from Vietnam. Her family was amongst the first to leave Nha Trang as a part of the “boat people.” After a short stay in the Philipines, they finally settled in Dale City, Virginia in 1976.

Huynh joined the military after graduating from medical school in 1985, her way of giving back to the country that helped her so much. She has since retired from active duty with the rank of colonel and now works at the Walter Reeds National Military Medical Center in Maryland where she does integrative pain management and teaches young aspiring doctors. In her private practice, TruPoint Health, she actively encourages her patients to live a healthy lifestyle, which she believes to be fundamental to preventing and curing illness.

She recently spoke to Culture Magazin about her life as a Vietnamese immigrant, her career as a doctor serving in the American Air Force and her stance on health and wellness.

You left Vietnam at a very young age; how did you stay connected to your culture while simultaneously adapting to a new country?

My parents enrolled my siblings and me into a Vietnamese summer school called Vietnamese Youth and Students Association (VYSA). It’s a local group in Virginia. I would go every summer, and they would teach us Vietnamese. Later on, I became one of the teachers there. I remember when we first immigrated, my dad said, “We should keep what’s good about our culture, like our emphasis on closeness to family, and the respect we have for our elders and our parents. But we should also adopt what’s good about our new culture, that of the United States where we could expect love and hope.”

Do you have any favourite Vietnamese customs or traditions?

I think my favourite is just family. Vietnamese culture is very much about the importance we place on our families. I love how we respect our families, loving them, and protecting them, as well as the respect and honour we have for our elders.

My favourite holiday, though, is Tet. When our family gets together, it’s a big gathering with about 80 people and this number keeps growing because now I have lots of nieces and nephews. My cousin, my mom, my sister and I would all wear ao dai of different colours to take pictures, pray to the ancestors and eat all the traditional Vietnamese foods. I love the Vietnamese ao dai because it’s so feminine and yet comfortable; plus, it has pants so you can run in it. I also love li xi, red pockets. I don’t receive it anymore, but I love giving li xi to the kids.

How did your identity as a first-generation Vietnamese immigrant influence your decision to enter the medical field and the airforce?

I grew up in Vietnam during the war, so I would often see both American and South Vietnamese military members. When I was little, my dad would take me to the military hospital when he was doing rounds on his patients during the weekend, and my heart went out to them. I’ve always had such great respect for them and the services they give. I felt that if I could be a doctor, I could help these men and women who gave everything to defend us, including, sometimes, their lives. The United States gave our family a chance to start over, and I thought that being a doctor and serving in the military was a way to give back and honour our new country.

We all know of the stereotype of Asians being good at school. How do you embrace your identity as an Asian immigrant without mitigating your own achievements and efforts?

My older sister was a fashion designer. Because she broke away from traditional Vietnamese expectations, I felt like I could do anything I wanted. My parents never told me I should study medicine. They wanted us to choose a career that made us happy.

When I went to college, I knew I wanted to do science and health. I thought that I’d be going into nursing school. But then I realized that I don’t like being told what to do. I felt that I should be a doctor, instead. I spoke to my dad about this when I came home for the summer after my first year, and I still remember his response. He said, “You’re a girl. Medicine is too hard. You should just get married.”

I don’t know if he intended it as reverse psychology. I’ve never asked him, and I don’t even know if he still remembers this conversation.

Regardless, I’ve always had this deep desire to help people. Going to pre-med was hard, but I remember whenever I would pray or meditate, I would say that I want to become a doctor because I really wanted to help people. That was my drive.

I feel that medicine is not just a job, it’s a calling. You’re called to do it because it requires so much sacrifice. I spent most of my 20s in the library or in the hospital, so you really spend your prime years in academia or in training. I never had any second thoughts because it was my calling. It’s an honour to sit in front of someone, usually in their worst state, and have that person trust you enough to share their issues.

Do you have any advice for youth in handling pressure and expectations placed upon them?

I should first answer as a mother then maybe I can answer from a youth’s point of view.

When I had my boys, my husband and I felt that we were blessed to be their guides. They’re their own individual persons, we don’t own them. Our job is to provide for them so that they can discover their own purposes and fulfill that. I truly believe that we all show up on this earth for a purpose, and if we do not fulfill that purpose, the rest of us are missing out. Raising our boys, we want them to really figure out who they are, why they are here, what their gifts are, and how they can use them to serve others.

I know there are cultural differences and challenges that stem from the Maslow pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid is survival – food, water, shelter. As we rise in the pyramid, such as where we are now in Canada and America, where we have incredible freedom, we have the opportunity for self-expression. I think a lot of our parents grew up during a very difficult time and are still thinking about security. That’s why many Vietnamese-American or Vietnamese-Canadian parents want their children to follow certain career paths. It’s about wanting their children to have security. Becoming a doctor, lawyer, or engineer means security. It means that you can provide for your family.

Their actions are based on love but also based out of fear. They’re afraid that their children, as they pursue art or theatre, won’t have that security.

Youths can help their parents by communicating. It is really important to communicate with their parents about what they love, what they’re good at. And share the fact that they’re in a free country, and part of their purpose in living is to express who they are.

What have been your biggest difficulties and achievements?

Like any other full-time working mom, it’s been balancing family and work. I would say it’s just balancing being a mom, a wife, an airforce officer and a doctor while making sure I sleep enough, eat healthy, and exercise. It’s just constant juggling.

I wouldn’t say it’s a difficulty, though. I was very blessed that my husband did a lot and continues to do a lot at home. He fully supported me. Our family is an airforce family. It wasn’t just me serving, it was my family as well. My husband does most of the cooking and caring for the boys. He coaches soccer, drives them to school, picks them up, helps them with their homework. He served on the home front so that I could do my job.

My greatest achievement is my family. I’ve been married for 30 years to a wonderful man who loves me so much, and I have a loving home. I also always stay true to myself. When I entered medicine, I knew it would be hard. There are a lot of women in medicine now, but when I went to medical school, it was still a very male-dominated field. The military definitely is so too, but I stayed true to myself and did not let difficulties change me.

What inspired you to return to bedside medicine after you retired from the airforce?

In the military, as you rise in rank, you start to do more administrative work instead of direct patient care. At the end of my career, I was mostly in a directing position.

When I retired, I took some time off and went to a silent retreat where I spent a lot of time meditating to figure out my next chapter in life. The memory that came back to me was when I was in college. Every night, I would pray and meditate, and I would say, “help me become a doctor because when I become a doctor, I can help people.” When I remembered that I realized I needed to go back to helping people directly. As soon as I remembered my prayer and the promise that I made to myself, it was really easy.

You incorporate acupuncture as a part of your medical practice, despite it being, like many other Asian medical practices, considered “alternative medicine.” What inspired you to do so?

It was my dad. When I was in high school, I used to work at my dad’s medical practice, where he also did acupuncture. I would sit there in the front desk as the receptionist, and I would watch patients come in, sometimes with a cane, a wheelchair, a walker, or with backaches, all bent over. They would always walk out feeling so much better. Sometimes they would even forget their cane. My dad actually told me that when he was a physician for the South Vietnam army, he felt the acupuncturists on his team could do more for the troops on the battlefield than he could as an MD. He actually learned acupuncture in the United States when we first came over.

During my first assignment as a family doctor at Hope Airforce base, I was taking care of a lot of fliers, air force pilots, crew members, and they would come in suffering from pain. If I gave them medication, they wouldn’t be able to fly. We call it, DNIF, Duty Not Including Flying, and fliers do not like being DNIF-ed. My patients would always ask me, “do you have anything doc, anything besides pills?”

That’s when I remembered acupuncture. I had seen it growing up, but they never talk about acupuncture in medical school. I had forgotten about it, but then I asked my commanding officer if I could get acupuncture training and they allowed it. However, they did not fund me. I had to fund myself. When I came back, they were very hesitant to give me the credentials to practice acupuncture. But in the military, like everywhere else, if you do the basic things well, then your leadership trusts you. I was a young captain, right out of residency, but I volunteered to be the head of the committee, HIV committee, and First Response. I did those things well, so when I asked to do acupuncture, my group commander at the time had had acupuncture when he was stationed as a pilot in Japan. He allowed me to start doing acupuncture. This was back in 1996, and I’ve been doing acupuncture ever since. The U.S. military now has really embraced acupuncture because it’s such an effective way to address pain. Everywhere else, in the rest of the United States, the opioid crisis is a huge issue, but gratefully, the U.S. military had started embracing acupuncture. They now send a lot of physicians to do either full or battlefield acupuncture, which is a point in the ear that can be used to reduce pain very quickly.

Can you explain your attitude to “wellness”? How does preventative medicine fit into your practice?

I really believe that the body is capable of healing itself, but it requires a healthy mind, a healthy spirit, and a healthy lifestyle. I incorporate a lot of healthy nutrition, exercise, stress management, and adequate sleep into a regimen that I provide to my patients to help them adopt a healthier lifestyle. Because illness, especially chronic illness, doesn’t occur overnight. It’s usually months or years of the body trying to heal without being able to.

With most of my patients suffering from chronic illnesses, there is something that they are doing, whether they realize it or not, that contributes to their chronic illnesses. It could be excessive stress or lack of exercise or eating too much fast food or poor sleep, all that contributes to chronic illness. I am a huge proponent of using a healthy lifestyle in supporting your body to heal itself.

It also aids in prevention. In my private practice, I would see wealthy patients, who would trade all their wealth for good health. I think health is so much more important, and it requires investment: investment in time, in awareness of what we are doing every day.

You are a mother, professor and doctor, so you must be very busy. How do you maintain your healthy lifestyle between all these responsibilities?

Having a good husband is how I do it. But also, by balancing my priorities. I have a lot of hobbies and interests, too, but right now my priority is family and the boys and being at home and available as much as I can for them. You know like Stephen Covey’s paradigm about big rocks which encourages us to prioritize things in our life. Family, serving patients, exercise, healthy eating, and spiritual development, they are all such big rocks. Those are most important, and if you do the most important things, the other things will be okay.

By Vy Trần

This content is also available in: Tiếng Việt

This content is also available in: Tiếng Việt