Where Are They Now?

War-Torn Dreams Lead Brothers To Become Physicians

Dr. Tri Phung

Dr. Tri Phung

When Tri Phung was a young boy, he and his brother Vu visited a local Vietnamese orphanage with their mother. While his mother delivered money she had collected for food and clothes, Tri gazed at hundreds of children with birth defects and deformities. One skinny girl with bruised skin and tousled hair, wearing old pajamas, stared at him every time he visited. Though she always seemed to have her face turned in his direction, it was as though she was looking through him. Eventually, Tri learned that she was blind and deaf, and her bruises were from falling. Her image and plight haunted him.

“She had probably never seen or heard anything. As a young boy, I decided I wanted to be a doctor because I wanted to help,” Tri said.

Today, Tri is an anesthesiology resident at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. After attending Collin College, he earned a bachelor of science degree in biology from the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) and an MD from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Medicine.

“Collin College made a big impression on my life. If you want to go to medical school, I would recommend Collin College. I would recommend that my own children go to this school,” Tri said.

The Vietnam War almost took Tri’s dream away. During the war, Tri’s father was the director of the financial department for the Exxon Saigon Division. After the war, he was incarcerated for several years. His family’s property was taken, and they had to pay rent to live in the home they previously owned. His mother was left alone to care for six boys.

“They threw everyone educated in jail; they called it reeducation camp. Our whole family was blacklisted, and we could not find jobs. They took everything—every grain of rice,” Tri said.

Tri’s oldest brother escaped by boat to Australia. His mother tried to arrange an escape by boat for the rest of the family, but the government learned of the plan and confiscated everything again. Two years later, two more sons tried to escape by boat, but they were never heard from again. Eventually, Tri’s uncle sponsored the family to come to the U.S., and by the time they arrived in America they were able to receive political asylum.

Dr. Vu Phung

Dr. Vu Phung

Tri and Vu came to live with an aunt in Texas, while their mother and father stayed in California. The brothers could speak very little English when they first took classes at Collin College.

“The classes at Collin College have fewer students. You get a lot of attention, and you have the opportunity to ask questions. For example, Dr. Fred Jury’s organic chemistry classes are good because he teaches you to think; his tests are not multiple choice. They allowed me to understand complex concepts, which I have been using repeatedly in research studies and in medical school. Even now, as a physician, when I am reading drug study papers, the technical discussion part usually involves organic chemistry,” Tri said.

According to Tri, Professor Peggy Breedlove’s English as a Second Language classes were very helpful. He learned mathematics from Professor Denise Brown and says he still remembers the mitosis and meiosis lessons he learned in Dr. Nelson Rich’s biology class.

“Collin College made a big impression on my life. If you want to go to medical school, I would recommend Collin College. I would recommend that my own children go to this school,” Tri said.

A Solid Foundation for Lifelong Learning
Tri and Vu performed the very first Center for Advanced Studies in Mathematics and Natural Sciences (CASMNS) project at Collin College. Under the direction of Dr. Jury, Dr. Rich and Dr. Sid Dunkle, the brothers studied the metabolic rates of geckos.

“That research project helped us get scholarships to attend UTD. It was the first time I ever did research. I learned how to collect the data and find information in the library. It also helped me with another research project I completed at UTD,” Vu said.

Though they had different reasons, ultimately Tri and Vu chose the same career. Currently, Vu is a family practice resident at Mt. Carmel Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. This summer, he will begin a geriatric fellowship at the University of Cincinnati. Like his brother, after taking classes at Collin College, Vu earned a bachelor of science degree in biology from UTD and an MD from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Medicine. Originally, Vu wanted to work in computer science; however, when his mother became ill he decided to switch his major to biology and become a physician.

“Mom had Valley Fever, a fungal infection in her lungs. She was hospitalized in the intensive care unit for a couple of months. She did not make it. Not a lot of doctors talked to us and explained what was going on. No one told us how sick my mother was, and I felt so useless and unable to help my mom. I did not want that to happen to any other person,” Vu said.

Vu was born in 1974, the year before North Vietnam invaded Saigon. When his father was in prison, Vu was sent to live with an aunt for financial reasons.

“They had to release my father because he committed no crime. They kept my father in prison for no reason. We waited for eight years to come to the U.S. because so many Vietnamese people were applying,” Vu said.

The wait made Vu especially grateful for the opportunity to attend college. Vu praises the teaching abilities of chemistry professor Dr. Amina El-Ashmawy and microbiology teacher, Hershell Hanks, who he says was like a father to him.

“I learned all of the basics so well that later at UTD I didn’t have any problems. Some people at the university did not have the solid knowledge that I received. At Collin College, the professors gave us challenging problems to help us understand difficult concepts, so I was able to comprehend new concepts easier than other people. Even now, when I am reading medical articles about the latest advances I find that the new concepts are not that difficult to understand because of the solid base I acquired at Collin College,” Vu said.

According to Vu, the professors at Collin College went the extra mile to help his brother and him. Collin College professors offered moral support when their mother was ill. Dr. Rich and Dr. Jury took Vu and Tri to a scientific conference, and Dr. Jury invited the brothers to spend Thanksgiving with his family.

“For me and my brother, those things were important. When we came here the culture was new to us, but Collin College professors opened their hearts to us. I believe we would not have had the success we have today if we went straight to the university. Things that happen at Collin College, I don’t think happen at other places,” Vu said.