Friday, Aug. 7, 2015
Khanh Le fought to hold back tears as he watched his youngest son, Christopher Le, walking across the stage at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine White Coat Ceremony on the last Thursday of July. The symbolic event signifies the start of students’ medical education and celebrates the doctor-patient relationship. Sitting on the edge of his seat in the back of the Greater Richmond Convention Center auditorium, Khanh was joined by his two oldest sons, Brian and John, and his wife, Nga. His daughter, Katherine, was elsewhere in the audience with her friends from school.
Each of Christopher’s older siblings has attended the VCU School of Medicine. Brian is in his final year of residency in the VCU Department of Surgery, John is an internal medicine physician at VCU Medical Center, Audrey graduated in May and is in her first year of residency at Brown University, and Katherine is starting her fourth year of medical school at VCU. All five siblings are also graduates of the VCU School of Engineering’s biomedical engineering program.
Christopher, slipping his arms into his new white coat, began the first four years of his medical education on Thursday, but that is not where this story begins.
This story begins on the humid jungle floor of South Vietnam, where 18-year-old Khanh is darting through the brush in the summer of 1975, striving toward freedom, education and an escape from the quickly enclosing communist regime. It is the beginning of a harrowing pursuit of a better life.
Growing up in Saigon, Khanh dreamed of attending university in the United States. He earned good grades and was only a few months shy of high school graduation in April 1975 when the communist government overtook Vietnam.
“Everything was good for us growing up,” Khanh says, the accent from his home country still hanging thick on every syllable. “But when the communists took over, it all changed abruptly.”
Everything was good for us growing up. But when the communists took over, it all changed abruptly.
The second oldest of seven siblings, Khanh was raised in an educated family. His father was a teacher before working for the South Vietnamese government. “We were taught that education is the way to open your mind and achieve more,” he says.
His older brother served as an officer in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. As a child living in a major metropolitan city Khanh felt sheltered from the war, but when the communists seized control of the country his whole life changed.
“After April 1975 the government controlled everything,” he says. “From that day on we could see it like night and day.”
Communist police patrolled the city street corners and restricted travel. The government issued rations for food, allowing less for families who didn’t support the communists during the war. The communist party decided where people would work and who could attend school.
“Because of my father’s involvement with the South Vietnamese government, I didn’t have a chance to continue my education,” Khanh says. Soon after his older brother was taken to a prison camp, Khanh started to plot his escape from Vietnam with two friends from school. Against their parents’ wishes, the three teenagers met in secret to prepare for the journey, planning a route that would take them through the forest to Cambodia, eventually ending in Thailand.
With rations packed to sustain them through the trek and a tarp to spread on the jungle floor as they slept, the three friends left their childhood homes under the blanket of night. They walked swiftly with quiet caution, averaging about 15 miles a day for three days.
Then the police caught up with them.
“They handcuffed us with rope and took us to the nearest town,” Khanh says. After a month in a crowded prison packed shoulder-to-shoulder with criminals, former South Vietnamese government officials and fellow escapees, Khanh was transferred to a prison camp where he was kept captive for almost two years.
Speaking softly over cups of green tea in the den of his modest brick ranch house in Richmond’s Willow Lawn neighborhood, Khanh recalls the living conditions he endured in the communist prison camp. Christopher leans in to listen closely, periodically asking questions as Khanh shares details of the camp with his family for the first time. “He is very humble,” his wife Nga says as she looks over and smiles at her husband of 34 years. Their 14-year-old Jack Russell Terrier, Rocko, sleeps peacefully curled between them on the aged leather couch. As he recollects memories from the camp, Khan studies the tea in his cup.
“They used us as labor,” he says. “We were clearing the jungle by hand.”
The prisoners were forced to clear tropical forests with axes and shovels, making way for communist government farmland. At night Khanh was locked in a cleared area of the jungle that was surrounded by high barbed-wire fences. They would work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. under the watch of guards and were kept on a starvation diet. Khanh received a boiled flour patty that was about the size of a tea saucer in the morning and a quarter cup of rice at noon and night. He would supplement the rice and flour patty with crickets that he dug from the forest floor.
Khanh saw at least one or two people die every month from starvation or disease. Standing 5 feet 7 inches, he maintains a slim build at 135 pounds now, but at the time he estimates he weighed well under 100 pounds.
“I was a kid during the war,” he says. “I didn’t fight in the army. I innocently believed that one day I would be released, but after a year I didn’t see any chance, so I started to plan my escape.”
Khanh ripped a swatch of fabric from his pant leg and wrapped it around his waist. For seven months he saved a few grains of rice every day to sustain him during the escape.
One balmy afternoon in the jungle when one of the two guards on duty was eating lunch and the other was turned away, Khanh snuck behind the side of a steep hill. “They didn’t notice,” he says. “I was very lucky.”
As soon as he disappeared behind the hill, he started to run. He scrambled frantically through the forest, leaping over downed trees and swimming through streams. Within two hours he heard three shots fired into the sky, an indication to the police in the surrounding area that a prisoner had escaped, and a signal to Khanh that he was being hunted.
He continued to run. For about a week he slept only when necessary, warding off starvation with foraged insects and months-old rice.
Eventually he arrived at a small town where a public bus was docked in a marketplace. After eavesdropping on a conversation the bus driver was having with someone at the market, Khanh suspected that the driver was sympathetic to the South Vietnamese government. “I privately asked for his help,” Khanh says. “You had to take risks at the time.”
The bus driver obliged, driving Khanh for the three-day trip back to Saigon, which was now called Ho Chi Minh City, and buying him food along the way.
Khanh tried to escape the country by boat 10 more times over the next three years. He was caught twice and kept as a prisoner for a few weeks at a time. Finally, in April 1980, he successfully secured a spot on a 30-foot wooden fishing boat. For about four days, Khanh journeyed across the South China Sea with 70 people destined for Malaysia.
Also from Saigon, Nga escaped Vietnam with her father around the same time as Khanh in a separate boat. “We vowed not to live under communism,” she says.
Her father had been in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, and after the war he was captured and imprisoned for more than three years. Nga, who is the third oldest of 11 siblings, joined her father on his third attempt to escape. Her two other siblings who had tried to get out before her had been captured and put in prison camps.
“We lived in fear not knowing what was going to happen to us,” Nga says. Though the boat voyage brought fatal threats from storms, disease, starvation and pirate invasions, “we would rather take the risk of dying at sea than live under communism,” she says.
Khanh and Nga met at the Pulau Bidong Refugee Camp in Malaysia in the summer of 1980. Two months later, in September, Nga was relocated to Canada. Khanh requested resettlement there from the Canadian government, and he arrived in Kamloops, Canada, late on a Friday evening in February 1981.
“The first thing I wanted to do after seeing Nga was find the nearest college,” Khanh says. Thompson Rivers University, a small British Columbian college, was only a couple of bus transfers away from where he was staying. “On Monday morning, the first thing I did was go to the college,” he says.
The 58-year-old’s eyes light up and brim with tears as he recalls walking on the small university grounds for the first time. “Imagine the feeling,” he says. “Just walking around, it had been my dream for so many years.”
Khanh got a job as the night shift janitor at a local hospital. He would study for engineering classes at Thompson Rivers from handwritten notes as he scrubbed the hospital floors.
“I had my first child at the time,” Khanh says. The newlywed lived in a 600-square-foot attic with his wife, infant son Brian, father-in-law and brother. “I memorized all of the formulas while I was working because I didn’t have time to study at home. It was a very confined, noisy space with a baby.”
In May 1985 the family moved to Toronto and Khanh transferred to Concordia University in Montreal to pursue a degree in electrical engineering. For two years, Khanh took 24 credits a semester at Concordia during the week and commuted home to be with his growing family in Toronto on weekends. John was born in May 1986 and Audrey was born in October 1987, a few months before Khanh graduated. Less than two years later Katherine was born in July 1989, and Christopher followed shortly after in November 1990.
Khanh continued to work two jobs after graduating so that he could make enough money to support his family in Canada and send money back to family members still trapped in Vietnam.
“We went through a lot of difficulties, but we always believed that by thinking positively we could achieve what we wanted,” Khanh says. “Rather than looking at it from the negative side, we just tried to learn, appreciate what we had and give back if possible.”
Rather than looking at it from the negative side, we just tried to learn, appreciate what we had and give back if possible.
Steering toward opportunity
Christopher’s oldest brother Brian has fond memories of growing up in Toronto.
“It was a pretty small house,” Brian says, adding that various cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles were always coming and going. Each time a family member successfully escaped Vietnam they would stay with his parents while settling into their new country. “I had a great time because there was always somebody to play with,” Brian says. “But when I think about the circumstances under which we lived, it was pretty cramped quarters.”
When their dad wasn’t working, the siblings would go on trips to the science museums in downtown Toronto. “Whenever we had time together I tried to explain the importance of learning,” Khanh says.
They would bike to the neighborhood library every weekend. “We’d stay there for a couple hours,” Christopher says. “Dad would sleep while we read.”
Brian remembers strict rules about doing well in school as a child. If any of them came home with a bad grade they couldn’t watch TV or play outside with their friends. “The value of education was instilled in us early on by both our parents,” Brian says.
Khanh was working on assignment for an electrical engineering firm in Raleigh, North Carolina, around the time that Brian was starting to apply for college. One day on his drive back to Canada he took the exit off Interstate 95 that pointed toward VCU. As he had done decades before at Thompson Rivers University, Khanh explored the campus. In the university’s brochure, the relatively new biomedical engineering program stood out to him as a field he thought Brian would enjoy.
“I went home and searched further,” Khanh says. “I decided Richmond was a good place for my kids to grow up, so I quit the job in Raleigh and I moved here to work for Dominion.”
A VCU education
Christopher was in middle school in their new hometown of Richmond when Brian started medical school at VCU.
“The idea of medicine was very new and it was exciting to everyone,” Christopher says. “Brian would come home and talk about the anatomy lab and the different courses and taking care of patients. I think that was very impressionable on everybody.”
Brian practiced giving physical exams on his siblings. He would use his stethoscope to listen to his sisters’ and brothers’ heart and lungs, asking them to take deep breaths and feeling their kidneys and livers.
“We would hear about Brian’s stories every day when he came home from school,” Katherine says, adding that her family was a big factor in her decision to attend VCU for undergrad. “He really enjoyed his education here.”
Throughout high school, the siblings volunteered at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU every Saturday. They would read stories to patients, play video games or just talk with them about their day. “Since we had no medical experience during the time, we’d usually just play with the kids,” Katherine says. “A lot of their families weren’t able to visit every week, so it was nice for them to see a familiar face come in every weekend.”
Christopher says his parents encouraged him and his siblings to try hard in school, but that they always emphasized the importance of helping others above all else. “We got the engineering aspect from my father,” he says. “In terms of medicine, we’ve always been taught just to be an essential part of our community and to help people.”
In terms of medicine, we’ve always been taught just to be an essential part of our community and to help people.
The siblings continued to volunteer at CHoR throughout undergrad, in addition to helping at the Fan Free Clinic in Richmond, teaching English to non-native speakers, participating in alternative spring break trips in developing countries and shadowing doctors at VCU Medical Center.
“My mom and dad always said that it’s not good enough to be smart, you also have to be compassionate,” Brian says. “While we were going through training we studied hard, but our parents would always ask us how we interacted with people.”
Katherine saw the values of community support and helpfulness reflected on campus at VCU, and she says that is a big reason why she and her siblings chose VCU for their education. “The students here are helpful to each other,” she says. “They aren’t just about individual success.”
Finishing the journey
At the end of the White Coat Ceremony, VCU School of Medicine Dean Jerome Strauss led the assembly of newly appointed medical school students in the recitation of the Hippocratic Oath, together swearing to the ethical practice of medicine. Sitting between their mother and father, Brian and John bowed their heads as in prayer, whispering the promise below their breath as Christopher proudly recited it with his class for the first time. Nga smiled and gazed at her sons as the oath resonated throughout the auditorium.
“It flashed back quickly through my mind that this is the fifth time that we have been attending a ceremony like this,” she says. “But this is the last one. That is my baby over there committing to the journey.”
I could never have imagined one day I would be the father of five doctors.
When he received his white coat, Christopher not only became the fifth in his family to wear the universal symbol of healing, he also completed a dream that began in the heart of a scared and determined teenager living in post-war Vietnam.
“All of our dreams have been achieved with our children,” Khanh says. “I couldn’t believe we could go this far. I could never have imagined one day I would be the father of five doctors.”
Every fall Brian organizes a weekend camping trip with his brothers and sisters. They pile into a van and drive to Skyline Drive or George Washington National Forest. Often, they take a canoe. Nearly forty years ago, their parents risked their lives on a boat to escape captivity, not knowing if they would survive or where they were going, but believing that a better future awaited them on the horizon. Now the five siblings work together to paddle along the rivers that cut through Virginia.
“When I think things are hard for me in terms of studying for a test or something, I always remember how difficult it was for my parents and how they got through it,” Christopher says. “Growing up we always had the mentality of, ‘If you can do it, I can do it too.’ Nothing is different in medicine. I really appreciate that.”
Featured image up top: The Le family at the July 30, 2015, White Coat Ceremony. (Left to right) Katherine, Khanh, Brian, Nga, John and Christopher. Sister Audrey Le not pictured. Photo by Allen Jones, VCU University Marketing.
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