Written by Audrey Cheng
Photos provided by Dr. Phan Nguyen
Edited by Monique Kuo
The weather was just beginning to become cooler in September of 2019. Gathered in the Las Vegas Salvation Army Activity Center was a line of people who are homeless in the area. It was a rare opportunity for them to get their teeth and eyes assessed and treated at no cost. For Tzu Chi volunteer doctors, a relieved smile after helping someone with their medical needs was more than enough payment. Over 100 patients were seen by the end of the day.
As doctors and volunteers were packing up, a patient arrived and pleaded to be seen:
“I have been sleeping in my car for more than four months. I am working in the daytime at an IHOP restaurant, and have a second job at the Hard Rock Café. Life is very tough on me even though I work from 4 AM to 1:30 PM. I ran over here as fast as I could, because I really wanted my teeth to be cleaned for a long time since I think it will help me to find a better job.”
A dentist took the patient to the last remaining treatment chair to examine him. While cleaning his teeth, the dentist shared the story of his challenging childhood in Vietnam. The patient felt the weight of his distress lift away, and found a moment of respite in Tzu Chi’s medical outreach.
“In fact,” the patient explained, “the doctor didn’t need to tell me his story, but he used his own story to cheer me up and encourage me not to be defeated by life. He took not only my physical pain, but also the emotional pain away. It gave me a chance to escape. I was very touched and grateful!”
This dentist was Dr. Phan Nguyen, who strives to bring sunshine to everyone he meets everywhere he goes.
Dr. Nguyen was born and raised in his early years in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. The Viet Cong put his father into a reeducation camp for seven years after the Vietnam War because he was a Naval officer who worked with the Americans and South Vietnamese Navy. During that time, he was raised by his mother and grandma.
He remembered fondly the weekly rituals of attending a Buddhist temple with his grandma. He could still smell the incense burning, and savor the vegetarian food served while listening to the constant chanting and humming throughout the temple. Even though he couldn’t understand what the monks were chanting, he felt at peace.
Constantly terrorized by the Viet Cong even after his release from the camp, Dr. Nguyen’s father decided to escape from Vietnam with his family. Their first four escape attempts failed, each time due to mechanical failure of the fishing boat they tried to use.
They were also shot at, captured, and finally jailed by the Viet Cong.
Dr. Nguyen was only seven or eight at the time. In a fifth attempt to flee, the family’s fishing boat again broke down, and they were left floating on the China Sea for three days, down to their last bits of food and water. Dr. Nguyen recalled praying to Buddha for strength, just as his grandmother had taught him, in the middle of the endless China Sea. His prayers were answered: an American tanker spotted them, and brought them to Singapore as political refugees.
They were later transferred to Indonesia for processing, then back to Singapore to be flown to the U.S.A.
Dr. Nguyen and his family knew they were incredibly lucky, considering how many Vietnamese people had lost their lives in their attempts to seek freedom.
We’re Poor Now
Dr. Nguyen and his family arrived in California with nothing in 1984. Catholic charities provided them with clothes, mattresses, and guidance to public health assistance, however. They were grateful they had made it safely to this land of opportunity.
Dr. Nguyen remembered how much he looked forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas, because a local YMCA would give them food and toys. He and his father often went sifted through rubbish for cans to recycle for money. One time, his father found a tree in the trash, and they decorated it as their first Christmas tree. They lived on what they could find, yet they were very content with what life provided them.
Dr. Nguyen’s family used food stamps and welfare for the first few years living in the States. Dr. Nguyen remembered vividly an experience he had when they were shopping at Stater Brother: he wanted to get his favorite Golden Graham cereal. The store clerk told him in front of other shoppers that he couldn’t buy the cereal with food stamps and he had to put it back. He felt embarrassed and ashamed. That’s when he understood the meaning of being poor, and this experience stuck with him. In high school, free lunch was provided to a few kids who had free lunch tickets, including him. He didn’t want to be identified, however, and he refused the free lunch the entire four years of high school.
A Silver Lining in Every Cloud
After four years of undergraduate study at UC Riverside, Dr. Nguyen went to dental school at the NYU College of Dentistry. He came back to California after graduation in 2002, then moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, where he built his private clinic in 2006. After having two children, and with his clinic stable, he thought about becoming a volunteer.
He was intrigued when he discovered one of his patients was a Tzu Chi volunteer. Each time she came back for her checkup, Dr. Nguyen spoke about his childhood in Vietnam, and how he loved to go to the temple with his grandma – how he wanted to find a place where he would feel a sense of belonging. While his patient had told him about Tzu Chi and the good work they do, the timing never seemed quite right.
Dr. Nguyen’s second child was born prematurely, developing pulmonary hypertension. While in intensive care, his child’s vital signs were weak. His neonatologist told Dr. Nguyen to pray every hour when he went to see his son. He was utterly distressed.
He called a friend whose mother is a member of the local Cambodian Buddhist temple. They hastily arranged a prayer for him and his son. While monks’ chanting and prayers were on, all he could do was cry. His heart sank – he was worried that he would lose his son, and would’ve done anything to change places with his newborn.
After praying, Dr. Nguyen returned to the hospital to be with his son. Miraculously, his son’s vital signs had improved, and then he slowly began to recover over the course of a few weeks. Overjoyed and filled with gratitude, Dr. Nguyen realized the profound love which parents could have for their children, and how Buddha is always there with him to watch over him and his family, especially his son.
Home Sweet Home
One day, in the winter of 2016, sister Tsui Lin Valenzuela, who volunteers at Tzu Chi’s branch in Las Vegas, texted him. It was a message regarding medical outreach information at the activity center for people who are homeless. Even with his wife’s support, Dr. Nguyen still had doubts in his mind about volunteering – he wanted to truly help the people who were most in need, but had not yet found a well-run Asian organization which did just that.
While on his way to the activity center, turning onto the corner of Vegas and Owens, he started to shed tears. He saw men, women, and children sleeping in makeshift tents and shopping carts underneath the freeway overpass. When he saw a mother feeding her newborn child, he cried more. The memory of his own experiences evoked a profound emotional response when it came to underprivileged families and children.
Finally arriving at the activity center, Dr. Nguyen was warmly greeted by Sister Tsui Lin. Immediately Dr. Nguyen noticed how incredibly organized the setup was: volunteers were helping fill out paperwork at the registration area, and nurses and physicians were thoughtfully checking their patients. Haircuts and clothes were also provided for people in need.
When the song, “Love and Care”, came on and images of Tzu Chi’s global humanitarian activities played during the opening ceremony at 8:30 AM, Dr. Nguyen found his peace and sense of belonging.
Tzu Chi’s medical outreach is always from 9:00 AM to 2:00 PM. Much of the equipment was not as easy to work with in comparison to what Dr. Nguyen is accustomed to at his own clinic. Patients’ chairs were not so easily adjusted, the suction for saliva wasn’t very good, and the air pressure for dental tools was rather weak. Nevertheless, Dr. Nguyen was still able to provide exceptional treatment for his patients, and alleviated their pain. Though Dr. Nguyen had no time to take a break and was quite drained at the end of the day, he felt amazing. He felt he made a significant difference in the lives of the individuals in his city who needed help. He felt he truly belonged to this caring, compassionate, professional group which gives back to communities. Dr. Nguyen knew this was the extended family he’d been searching for.
The Compassion of a Team Creates Blessing for All
Since then, Dr. Nguyen has been involved in all the dental outreach events in Vegas. His friends, regardless of religion or profession, have also joined him, showing the very same passion to help others and do good for society and community.
Dr. Nguyen hopes he can raise broader awareness of Tzu Chi’s work, so more people can join this caring family, and safeguard the health of Vegas’ people and communities. With this wish in mind, Dr. Nguyen is currently working with a team of volunteers from Tzu Chi’s Las Vegas branch to raise funds for dental and vision equipment, so they may serve more people and children in need.