Steven Pham is biochemistry and pre-med student at UCLA.  Last year, he wrote about M.E.M.O., an organization that does medical outreach in Vietnam here.  This is a follow-up on his experiences with M.E.M.O, their operations, and the lessons learned from it.


My father calls it a “goose bump” moment, a moment in your life when everything just seems to make sense.  The epiphany can come at any time, and when it does, it brings with it a renewed sense of passion and purpose.  Mine came when my friend and I found a large cancerous growth in a patient in rural Vietnam.  My father’s wisdom burst from its mental shackles at that moment, and my fears and doubts melted away: I fully understood what M.E.M.O. was about—I understood my purpose and found the catalyst that gives me strength.

Medical, Educational Missions and Outreach (M.E.M.O.) is an organization created by a doctor and his family about five years ago.  Humble in its beginnings, M.E.M.O. has met amazing progress and continues to change every year.

M.E.M.O’s mission is to help the impoverished people of Vietnam through financial, educational, and medical means.  Throughout the year, we organize fundraisers to help raise money for the programs that M.E.M.O. focuses on during our annual two-week trip to Vietnam.  These programs include conducting surgeries, holding free clinics, visiting orphanages, and giving scholarships.

For the surgery program, doctors from the United States travel with us and teach Vietnamese medical students innovative surgeries at hospitals.  Every year, we provide up to four heart surgeries for children with congenital heart disease.  Without the operation, most of these children would probably not live past the age of five.

During our visits to the orphanages and elementary schools, we provide scholarships, toys, and school supplies to promote an active and academic lifestyle.

At the clinics, doctors and dentists provide screenings and medicine for patients.  For many of these people, this is their only opportunity to be examined by a health professional.

With each program, dozens of touching memories resonate in my mind, but I could never explain all of them in a single essay and do them justice.  One story does, however, emerge from my sea of thoughts.  For clinics this year, we implemented ultrasound and EKG screenings and detected many more illnesses than ever before–including one my teammate and I found.

It was a sweltering hot day and we were provided a small room, just enough to contain a bed and two chairs—one chair to hold the ultrasound, and the other to seat a student.  The rest of us huddled in a corner and peered over while a doctor scanned patients for growths.

A young woman walked into the room and asked for a general check-up.  We went through a routine check up of the kidneys and liver and found no abnormalities.  However, through a spark of whim, I began talking to the woman and asked her about her lifestyle.  She complained about urinating often without drinking excessive amounts of water, so we decided to do an ultrasound on her bladder and see if there were any abnormalities.

After we scanned it in layers, the final slides revealed a large growth on the side of her bladder.  We called the doctors over and confirmed our results.  After evaluating the images, the doctor told her that she needed to go to the hospital as soon as possible: she had an unknown growth invading a quarter of her bladder.

But, with a glint of fear in her eyes, the patient told us that she did not have the funds to get to a hospital.  Through the rest of that week, our students and doctors found many more patients who had growths, heart defects, and other illnesses, but did not have the funds to get the treatment they needed.  With no treatment, some of the patients did not have much longer to live.  Abandoned by the system, they needed medical attention, and we were at a race against time to save them on our own efforts.


My father once told me that it hurts him to see our people divided, for it is the poor and the needy who are hurt the most.  A war veteran, he watched the division of our people and watched a new generation of Vietnamese-Americans grow into adulthood.

Since the war, our people are still torn apart.  The past refuses to let us move on as a community.  While we argue amongst ourselves about politics, our people continue to die from negligence back at home.  Today, he wishes for cohesion: deeply entrenched in the past, we must uproot ourselves without forgetting the ground we are from.

There is a glimmer of hope that has been growing stronger these past few years.  Today, the young generation has grown a voice, and a number of us are working together as a people to help each other.

With every action I do, my father’s words push me forward: regardless of your background, whether you were born in America or Vietnam, we as a people can remain strong, and those we left behind can live full, healthy lives. Forgotten by the people whose duty was to protect and care, the impoverished citizens of Vietnam need us, and I personally hope that we can make a difference ourselves.

Today, M.E.M.O. still fights to raise money for those we met in Vietnam.  With the clock ticking, we push ourselves with the image of the patients in our minds.  In the years past, we have provided many life-saving surgeries, but only to a fraction of the patients who need them.  While very young, I can feel our organization and OneVietnam picking up momentum. I just hope the rest of our generation is swept in its current of change.

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    1. Do you know Hop Cao Tran? He went to UCLA a while ago, a very bright student who at the time (must be about 12-15 yrs ago) was the President of the Vietnamese Student body at UCLA.

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