Meet Dr. BichLien Nguyen, who was among 22,000 refugees assigned to a resettlement camp at Ft. Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania in 1975. Then 20, she was tasked with bathroom cleaning duty as she waited for a sponsor family. BichLien went on to become one of the most widely known and respected Vietnamese-American oncologists in the country. Now living in Orange County, California, she is married with two children and a grandson. She is co-founder of the Vietnamese American Cancer Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing cancer, improving patient quality of life, and saving lives through cancer education, research, advocacy, and services in the Vietnamese community.

The Fact Sheet

Hometown in Vietnam: Saigon

Current Location: Orange County, California

Current Job(s): Medical oncologist, specializing in breast cancer; Medical Director of Breast Cancer Clinical Research at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and Orange Coast Medical Center; Co-founder and active board member of the Vietnamese American Cancer Foundation.

Education: Three years of Pharmacy College in Saigon (1972 to 1975) ; University of New Mexico (1978-1980); University of California, Irvine (1980-1982) with B.S. degree in Biological Sciences; Medical school at UC Irvine (1983-1987); Internal Medicine Residency (1987-1990) at UCI Medical Center; Hematology/Oncology Fellowship (1990-1993) at UCI Medical Center.

Awards / Recognitions:  State of California Legislature Woman of the Year Award 2009; Golden Wave Award by audience of Little Saigon Radio, Hon Viet TV and Viet Tide; CalOptima Awards.

The Interview

1. What was your first paying job?

When we first resettled in Albuquerque, New Mexico in July of 1975, I got a job at a Levi Strauss factory sewing back pockets onto jeans.  It was very difficult at first since we had to sew very fast.  The machine was powerful and ran so fast that I thought the needle would run over my fingers.  Somehow, it never did, and I was able to meet the monthly goal to deserve my hourly wage of $2.30. Not only did I have to be fast, I had to sew very accurately and beautifully, too.  In making the jeans, just as putting together a car in a car factory, there were so many people involved: my 18-year-old sister sewed the belt loops, my father the inside pockets, my mother the seams, and so on. I learned to appreciate the hard work that many people put into making the most mundane items that we take for granted.  I also learned from that first job experience the importance of team work.  As I went on to achieve my dream of becoming a doctor, these first job experiences helped me find success in my career.

2. Complete the sentence:  The key to success is…

To have a goal, and try your best to achieve it. Even if we do not reach our ultimate goal, we will have achieved some worthwhile smaller goals, and we will have gleaned invaluable experience along the way.

3. One lesson on what not to do.

Do not give up. A popular Vietnamese proverb says it all: “Thua keo này, bày keo khác.” (After losing a round, plan another round.)  However, it is important to be honest with yourself and learn from your mistakes.

4. How has your immigrant background influenced your work?

I always think that I am so fortunate to be an immigrant in a free and enterprising society where I have the chance to develop to my full potential.  I have also been exposed to different ethnicities, backgrounds and cultures in this country. These experiences make me a better doctor and person.

5. The refugee camp you stayed when you arrived in 1975 is having a 40th reunion (on June 27, 2015 at Ft. Indiantown Gap, PA). As you start to reconnect with long lost friends, what emotions do you feel as you learn about the influence and impact the Vietnamese community has made in America in just 40 years? 

I am proud and happy that so many of us are successful in our new homeland.  I believe we will continue the dream of past immigrants to build America into a better place for our children.  At the same time, I realize that many of us are still struggling with this new life.  I hope that those who are more successful will be the inspiration and the support to those less fortunate.

6. How would you spend $1 million to change the world?

$1 million is not going to change the world, but I would be very happy to have $1 million to change a very small part of the world.  I would invest it in an endowment scholarship fund to bring world cancer experts to Vietnam to train young Vietnamese cancer doctors and nurses.  In Vietnam, there is a need for accurate and extensive cancer data gathering, cancer prevention and early detection, and state-of-the-art cancer therapy.  Most patients have died unnecessarily of late stage cancers that are largely preventable or curable in developed countries.  This is a national crisis, and will not be solved by a $1 million.  However, by investing in the development of compassionate and capable cancer care-providers, little by little, patient care and eventually, survival will improve.

7. What’s your favorite Vietnamese dish?

Bánh xèo (a savory crepe) made by my mother.  Bánh xèo is tricky. It can be a heavenly thin, crisp, and fragrant mixture of coconut and rice flour wrapped around a mouth-watering mixture of pork, shrimp, mung bean, sprouts, and scallion. With a tray of fresh lettuce or mustard green and fragrant herbs, dipped in the sweet, sour, and salty fish sauce; it is certainly a dish to be set before a king, or peasant.