Class of 2020: Former nail salon owner and father of five gets ‘second chance’ with career in medicine

Graduating VCU School of Medicine student Jay Pham, a Vietnamese immigrant, learns on Match Day what’s in store for his future.

Jay Pham standing inside of an operating room.
Jay Pham will continue his medical training at VCU Health in the Department of Radiology residency program. (Thomas Kojcsich, University Relations)

Though VCU will not hold an in-person commencement ceremony this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the university will host a virtual commencement celebration May 8 and spring graduates will be invited to participate in the university's formal commencement ceremony on Dec. 12. In these challenging times, thousands of students will earn their degrees this spring. These are some of their stories.

Match Day at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine this year was unorthodox, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the large in-person celebration to shift online. Still, the moment Jay Pham learned where he would spend his residency was a memorable one, as much for his wife and five children as it was for the fourth-year medical student. Pham, who with his parents and three siblings immigrated to the United States when he was 10, is continuing his training on the MCV Campus.

Pham came to the School of Medicine in 2016 at age 34 after earning his bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington in 2012. Prior to coming to Richmond, he owned nail salons in Seattle that he had to scale back after the recession of 2008.

“I had this crazy idea and told my wife that I wanted to be a medical doctor,” he said, noting his parents had encouraged him to get into medicine years ago. “My wife supported me, and we sold everything and came here. The School of Medicine has given me a second chance in life. For my dream to be recognized, I am extremely grateful.”

His biggest learning curve these last two years of clinical studies has been “figuring out how to navigate the system,” he said. “As students, we are learners and not essential personnel. It’s a privilege for us to be involved with patient care. If an emergency arises, we have to learn to be there as students but not be physically in the way.”

Jay Pham and his family inside their home.
Jay Pham, center, and his family celebrate his match at their home on Friday, March 20. Pham learned he was staying in Richmond to complete his residency training at his first-choice program: the Department of Radiology residency program at VCU Health. (Courtesy of Jay Pham)

Completing medical school with five children has been tough on Pham’s family emotionally, physically and financially. To help with his finances, he receives a scholarship made possible by the Dr. Arthur Kirschbaum Memorial Fund. Pham credits his wife, Pa, for taking the lion’s share of the parenting responsibilities.

“She makes sure I have time to study, and if I have to take extra time, she will take the kids. She also works full time at a nail salon and teaches at beauty school,” he said.

Albeit a challenge at times, Pham’s parents, siblings, wife and children have been his strongest supporters throughout medical school. “Everyone is happy,” he said. “They understand my vision of what I want to do. What they envision for me to do in my life and what I envision line up. My friends and family in Vietnam are pulling for me as well.”

Pham wants to use his skills to help the community. In 2016, he began volunteering at CrossOver Healthcare Ministry under the mentorship of James Darden, M.D., a 1958 graduate of the School of Medicine.

“It takes me back full circle to when I began medical school. I continue to come back to CrossOver to volunteer with Dr. Darden every Wednesday afternoon that I am able to come,” Pham said. “Volunteering at CrossOver allows me to stay true to my vow to help my community.”

A person drawing on a sign that says "I matched in radiology at V C U."
Pham's daughters created a sign for him with his match to celebrate together. (Courtesy of Jay Pham)

In addition to volunteering, Pham is also a tutor for the Premedical Graduate Sciences Certificate Program. He completed the program in 2015 prior to starting medical school. “Being a leader as a tutor to pre-medical and pre-dental students allows me to share my knowledge and story,” he said. “I hope to inspire them and give them hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

On Match Day, all Pham’s hard work in medical school and the years prior paid off. Pham was at home with his wife and children, waiting to learn where he’d be spending the next five years when he got the email with his match results. He had earned a spot in his first-choice residency: The Department of Radiology residency program at VCU Health.

The first person he told was his wife.

“I told her that we matched here, and I think all the little things that we have done in the past four or five years to get here all accumulated to this point,” he said. “And even though we didn’t get the traditional match day, this is the only match day that I have, and it doesn’t take away from the hard work of everyone — myself, my family, my mentors, my professors, other faculty who have been guiding us.

“It’s an amazing feeling, an accomplishment that 10 years ago I dreamt of …, and I’m just so grateful that it happened for me.”

Pham said he feels blessed to continue his training at VCU Health.

“I think the program is one of the best in the South,” he said. “Plus, I have built relationships here that are valuable. These people are my work family, and being with them makes work fun.”

He chose radiology because of his interest in physics, math and technology. He was introduced to radiology in Vietnam when his family had to go through a medical screening for immigration purposes.

“I would travel with my father, who had tuberculosis, to Saigon, which was four hours away from my small village, and the doctor would put his chest X-ray up to study,” he said. “I wondered how it was possible for someone to take a picture of my dad’s chest and then put it up to look at.”

Pham said he likes the fact that radiology is objective and shows the reality of a situation. “It’s a way to gather information.”

From left: Pa Pham and Jay Pham.
Jay Pham is grateful for the support of his wife, Pa. “She makes sure I have time to study, and if I have to take extra time, she will take the kids," he said. "She also works full time at a nail salon and teaches at beauty school." (Courtesy of Jay Pham)

He credits Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, M.D., senior associate dean of admissions, with giving him the opportunity to attend the School of Medicine. “She always tries to seek out students and give them opportunities they wouldn’t have anywhere else,” he said. “I don’t know where she finds the time, but she finds time for everyone. That’s something I look up to.”

When Pham was emailing medical schools asking how he could prepare for medical school, Whitehurst-Cook “was the only one who emailed me back personally and said, ‘Here are some of the things you could do,’” he said in a 2017 interview.

“Other schools sent an auto response, but this school, this person, found time to respond,” Pham said. “It’s like the kind of doctor I want to be. VCU felt like the right school.”

Whitehurst-Cook said Pham is the kind of student VCU School of Medicine seeks, and she looks forward to what he will bring to the field of medicine.

“Jay has what we search for in applicants — a burning passion to help others,” said Whitehurst-Cook, an associate professor of Family Medicine and Population Health. “He shares that passion not only in words but actions. He has had a significant journey to medicine and also was able to prove his academic abilities through his certificate program success. After working with Jay closely over the last four years, he is true to his mission: mature, organized, patient, a great leader and super talented. He will be a fantastic physician.”

Pham admires Whitehurst-Cook’s own ideology of always looking out for people and finding the best in them.

“She has softened me as a person,” Pham said. “I didn’t have those qualities when I was coming in, but I feel like I have them now.” 

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