This episode features Dr. Quyen Chu, Chief of the Division of Surgical Oncology at Louisiana State University. A prominent surgeon, humanitarian and writer, Dr. Chu shares his life stories, from fleeing Vietnam as a young child, to finding his calling, and giving back through work in impoverished U.S. communities and war-torn regions, including Iraq, Kurdistan and Vietnam.
Air Date: 01/04/22
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PAT LOEHRER: Hi. I'm Pat Loehrer and director of the Center for Global Oncology and Health Equity, Indiana University. And welcome to another episode of Oncology Etc.
DAVE JOHNSON: And hello. I'm Dave Johnson at University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas. Pat, great to have another session today.
PAT LOEHRER: It's good to see you again, Dave. I'm really excited about our guest today. And I think both of you and I were talking about this book that came to mind when we thought about having Quyen here. But it's a book by Abraham Verghese entitled My Own Country. And we hope to have Abraham on in another session of ours. You know, Abraham's story of growing up in Africa, and moving to the United States, and moving to the South in Tennessee in a time of HIV was really an extraordinary journey for him.
DAVE JOHNSON: Yeah, an amazing story, settling in East Tennessee in the Appalachian Mountains, and then going to the Northeast to do additional training, and then returning to that part of the country during the height of the AIDS epidemic-- really a remarkable story. For those who have not read it, we both recommend it very highly.
Today's guests we're incredibly excited about both. Dave and I met Quyen Chu in the Leadership Development program for ASCO. He was in the first class. He's currently the professor of Surgery and chief of the Division of Surgical Oncology and holds the Edward and Frieda Green Professorship in Surgical Oncology at LSU in Shreveport.
He earned his MB degree at Brown Medical School in Providence, trained in general surgery in Massachusetts at Springfield and at St. Elizabeth's Medical Center, and then did his fellowship training at Brown University under the mentorship of Dr. Hal Wanebo, who was a wonderful surgeon and very active in ECOG in the Southeast group. Dave and I knew him. He's authored-- or co-authored more than 178 publications, a number of book chapters, a couple of books, including translating one of the surgical textbooks into Vietnamese.
He has been an extraordinary human being. And one of the things we want to explore is his journey from childhood until now. In 2013, he was appointed by President Barack Obama to the board of Vietnam Education Foundation.
He has worked in impoverished areas in Louisiana but also in the war-ravaged parts of the world, including Iraq, Kurdistan, Vietnam. He is truly a special breed of humanists who-- I think he looks back at his roots. he sees the bright possibilities of the future and reflects on what he can do to make a difference. It's just a great pleasure to have you, Quyen, to join us today.
QUYEN CHU: Thank you very much, Pat, for that great introduction. It is very heartwarming, and I look forward to this podcast.
DAVE JOHNSON: So Quyen, why don't we start a little bit-- I mean, Pat's mentioned your background. Tell us a little about how you got here and about your family and their journey from Vietnam to the United States.
QUYEN CHU: Sure. I immigrated to the United States in 1975 right after the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. My father was a South Vietnamese officer in the army, which means that he fought alongside with the Americans so that when the Americans pulled out, South Vietnam fell. And so because he was an officer, we were-- basically had no choice but to leave the country. Otherwise, he would be in a re-education camp, which might mean that we would never see him again.
So we left Vietnam in '75. I was seven. We left on a ship, and then we also left-- then we transitioned to boats, and then we went to the Philippines for several months. And then we finally got sponsored by a church in Florida. So then we stayed at Eglin Air Force Base for several months before we actually went to our home in Florida.
I grew up there and basically was-- grew up in a very impoverished area. It was-- basically it's a rat-infested home that we lived in. My father was an officer. He was a captain. But coming over to the United States, you have to learn English. You have to try to get a better education.
And he finally realized that he had to support a family of six, and he took on being a barber. So he was a barber for most of his-- the rest of his career, really, raising a family of six. And I was there just to do the very best that we could.
Throughout it at all, we knew that we were in the right place. And we knew that America doesn't give everything out for free, but we also know that it's a great, great land of opportunity. The philosophy is that if you apply yourself, do the very best, follow the rules and regulations or laws, you know, abide by their laws, that you can do great things. And that is a great opportunity. So that was embedded in me and my sisters, and those philosophies have stood the test of time thus far.
PAT LOEHRER: You know, I read a little piece when-- you told a story about arriving here in Florida and a police car pulling up to your house. Can you relate that story?
QUYEN CHU: It's the memory that I will never forget. And in fact, I remember it every Thanksgiving. So it was around Thanksgiving. We really didn't know what it was. We just moved into a new house.
And it's funny because when we drove by the new house, we saw the garage. And we felt, oh, my god, we're going to live in that garage. This is great. This garage is going to be our house. This is great. There's so much space. And I remember when we asked the driver, the driver goes no, no, no, no, that's where you park your car. The whole house is yours. And we were just amazed.
But anyway, so around Thanksgiving, we saw-- a police car drove up to our parkway. And I saw, and I was scared. And then I called out my dad. And I said, Dad, there's a police car here. What did we do wrong? And he was so scared. And he said, Son, you know, I will take care of this.
So the police came and knocked on the door. And when my dad opened the door, he claps his hand, and he just bow, just like this, several times to the policemen and say, we're-- in broken English, we're sorry. We know English. We did not mean to break any laws. Forgive us.
And the police just smiled. And he says, no, no, no, no. We're here to greet you as a new neighbor. And it's Thanksgiving, and we want to give you a turkey.
Then he waved to the other police to come over, and then the other police came out with a big old turkey. And they hand it to us, and they said, welcome to the neighborhood. And we were so happy. My mom-- just about to cry. And we felt that, hey, this is now our new home, and we felt that this is not going to be a strange land, that we're going to create a life for ourselves here.
DAVE JOHNSON: It's a remarkable story, Quyen. That type of story just makes it even more special. You mentioned that you had several siblings. Where do you fall in the hierarchy? And what are your siblings doing?
QUYEN CHU: So I'm a second-oldest. So my oldest sister-- she went to Cornell, and she is now a full professor of biochemistry at Union College. My younger sister, who's a year younger than me-- she graduated from Dartmouth, and she is now working at industry and also, in the medical field. She holds a PhD from Columbia. And then my youngest sister graduated from Oberlin College, and she is now working in the hotel business.
So we're very blessed. We feel very excited about the opportunities. And we look back at our lives every Christmas when we get together as a family, and we reflect back at the lives that we've gotten. And we also feel bad about family members who couldn't make it over here and wonder what their lives would have been like had they come over here. And then we also wonder what life for us would have been like had we not come over here. And through it all, we felt that we really, really hit the jackpot in life and that all of us were very, very lucky to have this life that we have.
PAT LOEHRER: I can't imagine the pride that your parents have of all of you and how much pride you have for him. I mean, it's extraordinary. Can you just because I've never-- none of us have been through this, what you've been through. But what was it like being seven years old in the middle of this war in Vietnam? What memories do you have of that?
QUYEN CHU: Yeah. I remember when I was playing with my cousins. And of course, in Vietnam, we live under a house full of cousins, aunts, and the extended family. I remember leaving them, and I felt very lonely in America. Of course, each family has its own separate family. And I just felt like it was not-- it was very lonely.
But we did have very nice neighbors. We did have great people that really was very supportive. Of course, as a young seven-year-old, the neighbor's daughter was around my age. She was cute, so, of course, I'd find every reason to visit them and say hi to them.
But other than that, it was a very nice place to grow up. They have their challenges, obviously. What I remember as a second grader-- I saw all the boys. To me, I thought they were all brothers because they were all Caucasian. They all have blond hair. I couldn't tell the difference who's who, but I thought they were all related. But they were very nice, of course.
There were curiosity between us. I've never seen African-Americans until I came over here. And I befriended a Hispanic guy, as well as an African-American, as well as my best friend. To this day his name I still remember. It's Jeff. He was very friendly.
Of course, I experienced some racism, but I think that's expected because I look very different. There were a lot of mixed messages coming out of the Vietnam War. But I think that through it all, the challenges, I realized, that there are more good people than there are bad people and that people who were bad-- probably because they were insecure, or they just didn't know me.
And then there were those who did finally get to know me. They turned out to be great people. I've learned throughout my 53 years on this earth that people have so many things in common that when we do have conflict, it's probably stemmed from insecurities rather than pure hatred.
DAVE JOHNSON: Yeah. You went to undergraduate at Dartmouth. Is that right?
QUYEN CHU: Yes. sir.
DAVE JOHNSON: So I seem to recall-- maybe you told us this in the LDP program, but you had an interesting experience when you showed up on campus at Dartmouth.
QUYEN CHU: Yeah.
DAVE JOHNSON: Can you relate a little bit of that to us, as well?
QUYEN CHU: Sure. So, again, coming from a family where your dad is a barber, I had limited means. So I basically had, I think, one tote bag that I packed together. I took a Greyhound two day's trip to Dartmouth.
And I got there on the campus. It was a beautiful green campus. And I was a little bit hesitant, a little bit reserved because there were a lot of Caucasians and whatnot. And I was a little bit, you know, introvert somewhat.
And when I got there, I saw a Frisbee flew by me. And I grab it, and then the guy goes, hey, you want to come and play with us? And I'm like, well, sure. And next thing you know, we hit it off like a bunch of 18-year-old kids-- no worries in our mind, just glad to be on campus. And we hit it off.
And I realized that, hey, you know, my reservations were basically based on my own biases rather than the reality. And then I've realized that the reality is that a lot of the kids there are just like me-- just want to find friends, just want to hang out, just want to have a good education. And they weren't being judgmental about anything, and that made me really-- it felt really good.
DAVE JOHNSON: Frisbee diplomacy, I guess, is we should call it. Maybe we should throw a Frisbee to Putin. I don't know.
QUYEN CHU: That's right.
PAT LOEHRER: Tell us a little bit about your journey to become a surgeon.
QUYEN CHU: OK. So my dad and mom instilled with me the importance of education. They told me, now listen, you have a choice-- either be in the same rut as us now, or get a good education and get out of this rut. So I really didn't have any choice but to study hard.
And I studied hard, and I got an opportunity to go to Dartmouth. I felt very, very lucky with that. They gave me a full scholarship. They believed in me. They saw something in me that I was very happy that they saw.
And then I applied to medical school at my sophomore year at Dartmouth, and I got in. I was very excited about that. And I started off wanting to be a pediatrician, but then I realized that what I had to turn in my sheet of the patients that I saw, everything had to do with procedures and techniques. I wrote down there I did a spinal tap, I did a chest tube, I helped intubate, I did all of that.
And it was really my pediatric mentor who says, it sounds like you should be a surgeon, not a pediatrician. And that kind of got me thinking about it. And then I rotated a service with Dr. Wanebo and really fell in love with surgery. It was tough. It was rough. But I felt that this is my calling.
I felt very fortunate looking back at only the number-- maybe they admitted 100 students. And I felt very fortunate that I was among those. And I knew that it was an opportunity that I did not want to waste, that I did not want to take for granted. I wanted to do everything I can to make sure that I learn as much as I can and hoping that in the future, I would give back to the country, the community that gave me a life.
DAVE JOHNSON: Yeah, my mentors suggested that I should be a forest ranger as opposed to a physician. [LAUGHS]
PAT LOEHRER: Yeah I think I shared before I got, on one of my medical-school applications, they not only rejected me, but they said, good luck in whatever career you decide to go into.
I was going to be a pediatrician, too, but I envisioned all these kids just laughing and having a great time. But they were all crying, and the parents didn't like me either. And so I decided to find a different life.
You have had this extraordinary journey of giving back, as I mentioned at the onset, and not only going back to Vietnam but also, going to Iraq and going to many other countries here. And about five years ago, you received the ASCO Humanitarian Award, which was so deserving for you.
DAVE JOHNSON: Very deserving.
PAT LOEHRER: But tell us a little bit about these efforts. What has pulled you or driven you to do so much of your humanitarian efforts around the world?
QUYEN CHU: Well, first of all, I want to credit my wife Trina, who's been there for me. She's basically the backbone of my life, allowing me the opportunity to pursue my passion. She's a lawyer. She put her career in the back seat so that I can have a successful career. So I want to make sure that I acknowledge her sacrifice and her love.
Because of her love and her understanding, I was able to pursue my passion, which is giving back. My colleague, Dr. Gazi Zibari is from Kurdistan. And one day, he showed me pictures of the Kurds, and he gave me the history of the struggle the Kurds. And it was reminiscent of the struggles of the Vietnamese, so it resonates with me.
And I said to him one day, hey, listen, when you do go, I would love to join you. And so I did. And from that point on, I returned, I think, four or five additional times. We did not return last year or so because of COVID, but we're planning to return again to Kurdistan and Iraq.
But it was an opportunity for me to really give back what I wanted to do all along, which is to render care to the less-fortunate individuals of our lives. I also went to Vietnam, Nicaragua, Honduras, and also on those different mission trips. And, you know, Dr. Zibari and I have gone together for many of these trips. And we come to realize, you know, what-- the great thing to do is capacity building. In other words, we should visit these countries not just once but several times to make sure that the surgeons there feel comfortable with the procedures that we taught them and that, hopefully, that they will also teach the other surgeons the procedures, the techniques that we taught them.
And we were very pleased when we went back to see that these surgeons were very adept in what they were doing-- Whipples, liver resection. They were doing phenomenal things. In fact, I think the greatest sense of pride in me was to see a young surgeon in Kurdistan who did a laparoscopic right-liver resection bloodless.
We felt very proud because-- I was looking at Dr. Zibari, and I said, you know what-- I can't even do that. And it's amazing to see how they have not only learned our skills, but they exceeded us. And isn't that what we all want, that our mentees to be better than us? And so to me, that was a great sense of pride.
At the end, the young man came up to me and says, mentor, I hope I did it right. Did I make any mistake? And I chuckled. And I said, no. I could not have done what you've done. You have done amazingly.
And he was so happy. He was so proud. He says, I'm so glad that I make you proud of me, Dr. Chu. So to me, that's probably the greatest thing is to see your mentee better than you and still see that respect that you got from them.
DAVE JOHNSON: We're really happy you mentioned that because one of the themes of our podcast has been mentor and mentor relationships. And you had a remarkable relationship with Dr. Wanebo. Would you like to expand on that somewhat or tell us about that relationship?
QUYEN CHU: Sure. Dr. Wanebo-- I always joke around. I said, Dr. Wanebo, you're a gifted surgeon with an internal-medicine demeanor. He is just so nice. He never loses his cool.
And the great thing about him is that every time I have an idea, he would always push me to pursue it. There's never been a, no, it can't be done. No, that's not how-- you will never get it done-- never like that. It's always, this is a great idea, Quyen. Why don't you pursue it. And in fact, he would give me deadlines and say, why don't you get back to me in two weeks and see where we go with that.
I remember visiting him in his very busy clinic. And his PA would always trying to brush me aside because they were so busy. And he would always say, no, no, no, come on, Quyen. What do you have for me? What do you need?
He would always make time, even in this busy clinic, to help mentor me. And then whenever I'd write a paper or abstracts, he would look at it. He would fix it, and he would send it back to me and ask me to work on it. So he's been a great mentor, just a great person all around.
PAT LOEHRER: Quyen, if you could think about a young professional or young student right now and give them some advice, what would it be?
QUYEN CHU: I think the best advice is that you pursue your passion. I know it sounds so trite, but pursue your passion. Seek out mentors who believe in you, and avoid those naysayers because I think that young people have so many insecurities. And they're great people. They're so naive, and they're so fresh. They're not tainted with all of the flaws of the world.
And I always worry that when they encounter negative people, it fills their mind with negativity. And that, to me, is not very constructive. So I would advise young people to seek out optimistic, idealistic people to be mentors. And then I think the rest will follow.
And they will learn what can be done, what can't be done. Obviously, you need a mentor to advise them so that they don't fall into your trappings of making major mistakes. But I think that mentors should be someone who is inspiring, who is positive, who can tell them that, hey, you can do it. And if you fail somewhat, it's not the end of the world. Seek out your passion, and never give up.
DAVE JOHNSON: That's great advice, Quyen. I have just one more question I wanted to ask and perhaps should have asked a bit earlier. How did you end up in Louisiana?
QUYEN CHU: That's a great question. So at the end of my fellowship, I had opportunities to stay up north. Then I got a call from my previous partner to say, hey, listen, I'm in Shreveport. Why don't you come by.
In fact, it's funny because when I heard the word "Shreveport," it sounds, to me, Chinese. And I said, why would I want to go to China to practice? I didn't know where it was.
And then they said, no, no, this is in Louisiana. And I really thought about, nah, I don't want to go. But my wife said, listen, why don't you just go down there and take a look so that at least you won't offend the person who asked you to come down.
So I went down there for an interview. And it really resonates with me about the needs, that patients there did not have, in my opinion, good surgical oncology care. There was a huge need. I saw the mortality for esophagus, gastric cancer. They were high. I saw a lot of cancers that were neglected.
And the chair there, Dr. Turnage, was wonderful. And he said, listen, Quyen. Nobody's going to compete against you. We just got a huge need. I think that you would find a niche here, that you can really, really develop a practice here, and then I can mentor you for the academic part.
So I thought about it. And then I talked to Trina, my wife. And I said, this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to give back. I didn't want to be just another spoke on the wheel. I wanted to make a difference. I think I can do this here. And so we took a chance, and I think that we're very happy with that decision we made.
PAT LOEHRER: Well, Quyen, I just, as I reflect on this and think about that leadership-development program, there are many different kinds of leaders, but I can't think of a person who serves as a better example as a servant leader than you. You have given of yourself in so many ways. In this particular past few years. Where there's been so much angst and polarization in this country, and even consideration of isolationism and not having immigrants come into the country, I hope people listen to this, the podcast, and realize what the impact was of a man and a woman who decided to bring their kids over here.
And he became a barber, which is not that prestigious of a job, if you will. But his impact on this country is huge. Mark Twain had a little quote. He said, "The two most important days of your life are the day that you were born and the day you find out why."
And when you guys were born in Vietnam, you had no clue what was going on, but you are one of the fortunate people who know why you're here, and that's to make a difference. And I just want to tell you that you have. Thank you so much for your time with us today.
DAVE JOHNSON: Yeah, it's been great.
QUYEN CHU: Thank you very much.
DAVE JOHNSON: Quyen, this has been marvelous, and we're both great admirers of yours. And I could not agree more with Pat about the impact that you've had.
One thing we like to do with our guest at the end is ask you if there's something you've read recently, or a documentary, or something, a movie or something you've seen that you would recommend to us and to our listeners. Is there something special that you've read recently or maybe seen that you'd like to recommend?
QUYEN CHU: Yes. So there's a book by Mr. David Epstein called Range. It's a phenomenal book. It's a book that contrasts Malcolm Gladwell's philosophy about 10,000 hours to be an expert. Mr Epstein took a different approach. He took the approach that you have to be a generalist. In other words, you have to do many things in life before you can hone in on one particular skill set to become an expert in that.
So to me, that book, Range, is a fascinating book. I'm midway through. And it's just-- it's a beautifully written book, and it just gives a different perspective of life.
I've always loved books that give a different perspective for a particular topic. And I would highly recommend our readership to read Range by David Epstein.
DAVE JOHNSON: Yeah. I also read that, and it is a fabulous book. I couldn't agree more.
QUYEN CHU: Yeah.
DAVE JOHNSON: Well, we've come to the end of our session. And I really want to take this opportunity to thank our listeners and thank Quyen for joining us. It's been a marvelous session.
QUYEN CHU: I appreciate it. Thank you, David, and thank you, Pat.
DAVE JOHNSON: Thanks for tuning in. This is an ASCO educational podcast, where we will talk about anything and everything, really. We really will. So if our listeners have any ideas for our topic or guests that you'd like to hear, please email us at email@example.com.
Thanks, again, and remember that November 9 is National Louisianan Day. And Pat, just so you know, November 16 is National Indiana Day. I'm sure you already knew that.
PAT LOEHRER: I love it. Every day's Indiana Day.
DAVE JOHNSON: No, every day is Texas Day.
PAT LOEHRER: Thanks, guys.
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