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  • Writer's picturemichelledangmd

Growing up as an MD

“No single decision you ever made has led in a straight line to where you find yourself now. You peeked down some roads and took a few steps before turning back. You followed some roads that came to a dead end and others that got lost at too many intersections. Ultimately, all roads are connected to all other roads.” Deepak Chopra, The Book of Secrets: Unlocking the Hidden Dimensions of Your Life

So if you haven't already realized, my initials are MD. So it only made sense that my career path would be that of an MD, right? MD, MD. Well, the story isn't quite so simple.

I'm a first generation Vietnamese American. My parents emigrated to America as young students on academic scholarships prior to the fall of Saigon, Vietnam. My parents both settled down initially in Minnesota where they went to college amongst a small group of young Vietnamese scholars. I cannot even imagine what life was like for them, not to mention what it was like weathering their first winter in America. When my parents tell me stories of their life as college students in Minnesota, I shudder at the thought. My mom, who now cannot stand the cold, actually would drive in the snow! My parents had both completed their respective schooling in Vietnam; however, coming to America they had to repeat their schooling in order to begin practicing. My father completed dental school, and my mother completed pharmacy school, both of them had to pass their respective certifications in their field. My father had to move temporarily to New Jersey to complete his schooling. The tenacity that my parents had to have is something that I will forever admire and respect, and something that I am forever grateful as they have instilled that in me to this day.

They settled down deep in the heart of Texas, where they will never miss the cold harsh winters of the north. My mother named me Michelle because she said she had heard that name and thought it was a beautiful name (it also helps that it is the female name for Michael, which means 'Who is like God'). My Vietnamese name is Mai, and that's the name I go by with my family and most privileged ones. In Vietnamese, 'hoa mai' is a yellow flower that is abundant during our new year, so I always joke that I'm a beautiful God like yellow flower.

From as young as I can remember, my parents always worked hard to be successful and to provide for me. My father worked as an assistant professor at the dental school part time, and started and grew his dental practice full time. My mother worked full time as a pharmacist in one of the largest hospital systems in the city, and later on, opened up her own pharmacy. To say I was surrounded by medicine is an understatement. My parents were the first in their families to come to America, and they helped to sponsor the majority of their family members to the U.S. Those family members were dentists and physicians. On the weekends and during breaks at school, I went to the clinic with my father, or accompanied him to the dental school and took naps in his office. His patients knew me by my name. I went with my mother to her office parties, sat in the car with my dad when he picked her up from work, knew her coworkers. As I grew older, I would answer the phones at my dad's clinic, and practiced my Vietnamese with his patients. My dad's scheduling book was in pencil, and I would write down appointments for them. I still remember the phone number to his dental office, and still remember the phrase I would say when I picked up the phone.

There never really was a question as far as whether I would go into the healthcare field. My uncle was an anesthesiologist and pain management physician, and one of the most distinct memories I had was as a 3rd grader in montessori school. We were assigned to do a science fair project of choice. I decided to do a clay model of the digestive system. I remember thinking, I wanted to be an anesthesiologist. And I was proud of myself (I was a star spelling student) for knowing how to spell anesthesiologist - it was a difficult word for any person, much less a 3rd grader! The only thing that stood in my way was how much I disliked math and science. As a child, I got in trouble for staying up late and reading. I had a reading night light and would bury myself under my covers and read late into the night. I had a hard time putting a good book down, and it could be anything from The Babysitter's Club to Nancy Drew to The Hardy Boys to Sweet Valley High.

The transition from high school to college was tough. I began questioning whether I truly wanted to forge into a career in the healthcare. What I wish I knew then was that there are many ways to arrive at where you're supposed to be. I didn't realize the enormity of a decision as far as what to do 'for the rest of my life'. I was 17 years old when I started college. SEVENTEEN. And yet, I had to decide what career path I would embark upon and what would bring me fulfillment. One thing I knew for certain was that I wanted to do something that would help people.

When I was about 6 years old, I ended up with a perforated eardrum from a bad ear infection. I don't remember much during that time other than my right ear hurting. I ended up having 2 ear surgeries from that time and have since dealt with a chronic ear infection and some mild hearing loss. As a child in the hospital, the only thing I can remember is the funny taste in my mouth from the IV saline. I remember really nice nurses, jumping on the hospital bed, and my parents being by my side. It was this story that I used for my personal statement when I began my applications for medical school. My turning point was in my junior year of college that I realized that despite me not being the most stellar student, there was something in me that wanted to make a difference just as others had made a difference in my life, and that my entire upbringing helped to shape and mold me along that path.

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