Mansfield, OH,
21:52 PM

Secret Lives: From child refugee to Ivy League physician

Secret Lives is an ongoing series that shares the unusual past careers and unique hobbies of OhioHealth associates, physicians, and volunteers.

Long before he became an OhioHealth associate, Dung Nguyen, MD, a radiation oncologist with OhioHealth Mansfield Hospital, lived formative experiences in far-flung corners of the world. 

Those experiences continue to influence his life.

Dr. Nguyen was just 13 years old when communists invaded Saigon on April 29, 1975. As the South Vietnamese capital erupted in chaos, Dr. Nguyen and his family were trapped, with no means to escape.

While Dr. Nguyen’s father desperately searched the city for options, an open-topped barge miraculously pulled up outside the family’s house along the Saigon River. Dr. Nguyen, his mother, five of his siblings, a brother-in-law and niece clambered onto the barge along with almost 200 other people. His father and a sister were left behind.

The refugees soon found themselves abandoned on the open sea. They floated for days, with no food and only rainwater keeping them alive. “The sky was dark gray. You couldn’t tell the horizon or where the sky ends and the water begins; the grayness was just fused together,” Dr. Nguyen recalls.

Eventually, a U.S. freighter called Green Forest rescued the refugees and took them to the Philippines. From there, they went to the island of Guam, then to Pennsylvania after three months. A sponsor family in Springfield, Va., took care of Dr. Nguyen and his family until they moved into their own home. His family was later reunited with Dr. Nguyen’s father and — after 15 years — the sister they left behind.

Despite this traumatic experience, Dr. Nguyen excelled in school. He earned a scholarship to Harvard, where he graduated Magna Cum Laude with highest honors, and went on to Dartmouth Medical School to obtain both a medical degree and a doctor of philosophy degree. He then went on to Yale for his postdoctoral fellowship, internship and residency, and spent a year in Denmark as a National Science Foundation-NATO fellow. Declining offers back east, he chose to work as a physician in rural Minnesota, Oregon and Kansas before joining Mansfield Hospital eight years ago.

Now married with twin boys, Dr. Nguyen says his time as a refugee still impacts him.

“When I see a patient with cancer, I understand what it feels like to have the uncertainty of tomorrow. It taught me what really is important in life,” he says.

“Taking care of people, helping people the same way the sponsor helped us, or the way the Green Forest gave us hope.”