Vietnamese doctor finds new career in PA Program

Photo of Thuy Ho with clipboardWhen uprooting a life and immigrating to a new country, many things get left behind. For Thuy Ho, it was more than just things that didn’t fit in a suitcase; she had to leave behind her medical license. In her native Vietnam, Ho had earned a medical degree and had years of experience as an internist, but did not qualify to continue practicing medicine in the United States. Undaunted by the task of starting over, she enrolled in Union College’s Physician Assistant Studies Program.

Now in her second year of the graduate degree, Ho has qualified for the National Health Services Corps Scholarship, a highly competitive and prestigious full-ride scholarship for physician assistants willing to practice medicine in less prestigious locales.

Life in Vietnam

Raised in postwar Vietnam by Catholic parents, Ho decided to pursue a medical career early in life. “My father was a pharmacist,” she smiled. “He encouraged me to be a physician so I could help them by opening a clinic nearby.”

Upon high school graduation, Ho entered the University of Medicine and Pharmacy of Ho Chi Minh City where she completed the six-year program of basic and clinical science and emerged with a medical degree in 1994. Like many Vietnamese medical students, she also studied the French language while in medical school. After taking a position practicing internal medicine at a nearby hospital, her knowledge of French allowed her to take additional classes offered at her hospital by French physicians. This training led to a one-year endocrinology residency in France in 1999.

By this time, Ho had been married for two years to a high school friend who had been living in the United States since graduation. Mihn Phan returned to Nebraska right after the two married in 1997 to gain U.S. citizenship and bring his new bride to America.

Ho waited four long years, but finally in 2001 she joined her husband in Lincoln. Then she had a child. When her daughter, Bau, was old enough, Ho, now a U.S. citizen, refocused on her medical career. Unable to get into a residency program, she worked in health care related jobs and volunteered as a translator at the People’s Health Clinic in Lincoln. The medical director, Dr. Dave Paulus took an interest her and tried to help her get into a residency program.

Finding a Different Road

 “Dr. Paulus told me that I couldn’t get into a residency because I graduated from medical school too long ago,” said Ho, then more than eleven years removed from graduation. Paulus mentored her whenever he could. “I followed him around because I didn’t have a license,” said Ho. “Sometimes he let me help him diagnose the patients. Medicine changes every day, so I learned new things. They practice medicine differently here than in Vietnam. It was a great chance to learn and I really appreciate it.”

Ho considered going back to medical school. “But I had a child to raise,” she said. “My husband had a job here and there are no medical schools in Lincoln.”

When Paulus suggested Union College’s Physician Assistant Program, Ho found the three-year master’s program suited her well. She lived close to the Union’s southeast Lincoln campus and the class schedule didn’t heavily interfere with parenting duties.

Physician Assistants are licensed by states to practice medicine under the supervision of a medical doctor. Trained to diagnose and treat patients, PAs often work alongside doctors in hospitals and private practices but can also be the primary care provider in rural or inner city clinics that do not have a full-time physician on staff.

Now in her second year in the program, Ho has become the sixth student in the program’s 10-year history to earn the National Health Service Corps Scholarship. This U.S. Department of Health and Human Services program pays the tuition and some living expenses for PA students who demonstrate financial need and agree to work in medically underserved communities after graduation. For Ho, this requirement isn’t a burden, but a reflection of her core values.

Serving the Underserved

The desire to help people guided Ho’s life and mission long before she volunteered at the People’s Health Clinic. “My country is very poor,” she said of Vietnam. “Most patients don’t have insurance. They came to the hospital and had to pay cash. Many people couldn’t afford health care at all because they live far from the city and had no money.”

At her hospital in Vietnam, the chief of medicine organized trips into the countryside and local businesses funded supplies to provide medical care for the poor villagers. “I enjoyed those trips serving the underserved,” she said. “Their happiness was one of the most precious rewards of my professional life.”

Here in Lincoln, she gained a realization. “When I came here and volunteered at People’s Health Center, I realized that everywhere there are people who can’t afford health care.” She saw how the clinic worked to serve low-income people by offering sliding fee scales based on income.  “I decided I wanted to serve the underserved because they need us the most,” she explained.

Union College has helped reinforce this goal. Although she grew up in a country dominated by Buddhism, Ho’s Christian family helped her feel the call of God in her life. “At Union College they teach that the job is not just a job,” she said. “We have a healing ministry inherited from Jesus.”

Building Relationships

Ho’s family has been very supportive, but she’s not the only student in the house. Her husband, a laser technician at Lincoln’s Kawasaki manufacturing plant, has also returned to school part-time, working towards an engineering degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “I have lots of help,” Ho said. “My husband is very supportive both emotionally and financially.” Together they raise their seven-year-old daughter and eleven-month-old son with the help of Ho’s mother who provides babysitting during the day.

Even though she doesn’t have time to translate for the People's Health Center any more, Ho still serves on the board of directors. She believes that building relationships with patients holds a key to health and hopes to work in primary care upon graduation. “I think primary care is very important,” she said. “With regular checkups we can discover problems earlier and help prevent disease. Primary care doctors and physician assistants aren’t just medical providers. We can develop a relationship with the patient. That is what I enjoy.” 

Read a recent Lincoln Journal-Star article on Thuy Ho here.