Her eyes water and her voice cracks as she recalls the words that have shaped her life: “The measure of a person is how much you can contribute to society.”
Quynh Kieu, 63, lives by the words of her father.
“That has been the guideline for me,” she says. “On how I live and what I do.”
Though her 5-foot-1-inch frame and pixie haircut may make her seem small and frail, her dedication and willpower to help others empowers her to overcome any obstacles she may face—including rejections and delays from Vietnamese government officials when working with them to provide medical care to families twice a year.
Founded in 1996, the Project Vietnam Foundation, a nonprofit, volunteer-based organization, offers medical, dental and surgical help to poor families in rural Vietnam.
The organization has grown from 17 volunteers on its first trip in 1996 to the Vietnamese province of Quang Binh, to 85 volunteers on its 2013 mission to the province of Khanh Hoa. In 2007, volunteer numbers reached as high as 156.
More than 60,000 Vietnamese patients in half of the country’s provinces have directly benefited from the medical care Project Vietnam provides, and nearly 1,500 surgeries have been performed. The spring 2013 medical mission treated about 1,100 people in the district of Cam Lam, Quynh says, and she expects Project Vietnam to see approximately 4,000 more in the summer.
Dao Duc Le, 54, borrowed his friend’s car to have his 2-year-old daughter examined by Project Vietnam physicians. He says he prefers to see American-trained doctors than the Vietnamese physicians available to him. Project Vietnam is well-known there, he says, and so is Quynh.
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Quynh was born in Hanoi in 1950. Her father, Quang Dinh, a jurist and politician, participated in a nationalist movement that opposed French colonialism in Vietnam.
Dinh fled to Saigon with 7-month-old Quynh, due his ideological differences with the North and his participation in the South Vietnamese government. The family reunited in Saigon in 1954, after the North turned communist and the country was divided at the 17th parallel. There, they could practice Catholicism freely.
In Saigon, a visit to a hospitalized cousin left a lifelong impression on 4-year-old Quynh.
“There was this little [sick child] and there were two or three members of the family coming and just crowding the walls and crowding the hospitals and everywhere […] because the health of that child was [...] important for them,” she says. “It’s very impressive to the little girl that I was [...] I wanted to be able to do something, because if you improve a child, the whole family, you give back the smile. So, I wanted to do that.”
In that moment, she decided to become a pediatrician.
Quynh attended a Catholic high school and continued onto college to study pre-med for one year.
While in high school, her mother introduced 17-year-old Quynh to 25-year-old Chan Kieu.
She attended the Saigon Medical School for the following six and a half years and completed her studies in April 1975.
The eight-year difference between her and Chan bothered her at first, but his persistence in courting her was successful. Quynh and Chan attended the yearly Saigon Medical School ball, where she began to find him interesting. She married Chan at 22.
Chan’s role as a doctor and surgeon in the airborne division of the South Vietnamese Army allowed him and his family to prepare for the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.
“[The South Vietnamese Army knew] that the end was close because they were not getting more supplies from the [United States],” Quynh says. “So, if you only have seven day’s worth of military supplies to shoot with, or to defend yourself with, you know that you’re not going to be able to resist very long. So it was evident that we needed to leave — that the end was near.”
The couple and two of Chan’s sisters fled the country to escape imprisonment from the Communist government.
The morning before Saigon fell, Quynh, Chan and his family boarded a U.S. Military air cargo plane. The lack of seats forced the 100 Vietnamese onboard to sit on their luggage.
The government subjected Quynh’s mother and brother, who could not flee the country, to on-and-off imprisonment and re-education camps for three years.
Soon after arriving to the United States, the couple settled in Palm Springs. There, she completed the necessary additional studies to become eligible for post-M.D. training and continue the career she began working toward in Saigon.
Chan worked as a respiratory therapist at a hospital in Palm Springs, but the lack of job openings in pediatrics forced Quynh to seek employment elsewhere.
“I was a seamstress for Saks Fifth Avenue in Palm Springs,” Quynh says. “I had to wait until there was an opening. So, I cleaned houses and did everything that was needed to provide for my husband’s family.”
In 1979, Quynh opened her own pediatric office in Santa Ana. Five years later, she moved her practice to Fountain Valley, where she has worked ever since.
In 1986, the family settled into their current home in Santa Ana.
“When we escaped from the [Communists] in 1975, I thought it was just [a] one-way trip,” Chan says. “Starting [about] one month after I came here, I [got] a job working in a hospital with a salary [of] $78 per week, then I [could] spend a few money, a few bucks a week to buy something from Vietnam.”
Chan began building his collection with ancient Vietnamese coins. Over the years, he purchased and installed in his backyard a 150-year-old Vietnamese house that belonged to the chief of a village in Central Vietnam, furniture that belonged to the last king of Vietnam and replaced the house pool with a Vietnamese garden, with rocks eroded by the rivers of the Ninh Binh province.
Chan built a little bit of Vietnam in his home for he and his family to enjoy.
Quynh and Chan became parents in 1979. Out of three daughters, their second daughter, Monica Kieu, followed in their medical footsteps.
Monica, 31, is a resident in ear, nose and throat and facial plastic surgery at Detroit Medical Center in Detroit.
Monica went on her first Project Vietnam mission in 2011. She says that as Quynh and Chan’s daughter, the organization became such an integrated part of her life that she sometimes took it for granted.
“It was an amazing experience,” she says. “Actually seeing it first-hand, it was really profound [...] Everything that they’ve accomplished, everything that they’ve put together — all these people coming from all over the world, you know, all these patients that we’re helping, [....] all because of my parents [...] It was great to see actually everything that was talked about, everything we’ve worked toward come to fruition.”
Quynh and Chan worked on projects even before Project Vietnam, Monica says.
“They’ve always been involved in community projects early on,” she says. “And my mom — before Project Vietnam — was very active in legislation, in politics, [...] and they both have [that] on top of that they both have really busy schedules, really busy careers.”
Through advocacy and a pilot project in North Vietnam, Quynh and Project Vietnam helped establish a national policy in Vietnam in 2004, so every child could receive a Vitamin K injection at birth. Doing so prevents the death of children with hemorrhages caused by Vitamin K deficiency.
Despite their busy schedules, Monica says the couple always found time for their children at home and taught them valuable life lessons.
She says Quynh and Chan taught her and her sisters how to be good citizens and care for others.
“They’ve taught me to have a social consciousness and be aware of the world around you and not just your life,” she says. “ They’ve really taught me how to [...] take a step back and take in everything as a big picture.”
Working in the medical field in the United States allowed Quynh to compare the health care provided to children in the States and those in Vietnam, she says.
“Once I had to leave my country and was able to re-establish myself as a pediatrician in the United States, the more I was learning and practicing pediatrics, the more I found the big gap between what children in the States have access to and what children in Vietnam have [at their disposal],” Quynh says.
With the help of her husband, the couple founded Project Vietnam in 1996 under the auspices of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Chan and Quynh decided they both wanted the organization to exist long enough to “establish something very crucial for the children of Vietnam,” she says.
Tom Tran, 60, a Boeing engineer from Huntington Beach, and his wife Dr. Catherine Pham, a dentist, have worked with Project Vietnam for the past eight years. Tran says Quynh is a very good woman and puts all of her energy into fulfilling her objective.
Andrew Nguyen, 23, a volunteer and logistics planner for Project Vietnam, says that Quynh’s persistence is admirable, especially in working with Vietnam’s government.
“Just to be able to handle all that stress and pressure, in addition to having a job and being involved in so much other stuff, it’s really awesome,” he says. “No one really knows how she does it.”
But, Monica says it’s Quynh’s inner child that allows her to see the best in people and not to give up.
“She has a very innocent view of the world — it’s very much like a child,” Monica says. “She sees the good in people and she just always looks for the best qualities in other people.”
She adds that Quynh’s inner child is what makes her get along with children so well, including her 4-year old grandson, Chan, who was named after his grandfather.
“She plays a big part in taking care of my nephew,” Monica says. “Really important role in that she helps my sister raise him. [...] She’s a great grandmother.”
Besides Quynh also being energetic, funny and lively, she’s a great multitasker, Monica says.
“She’s always got a million things going on at the same time,” she says. “She’s able to do everything so well, and she just balances everything so well. It’s kind of amazing.”
Quynh lives by her father’s words and makes sure that the wisdom continues in her family.
“They’ve taught me so much — basically everything I know; how to be good people, [...] how to be a human being that makes a contribution to society,” Monica says.
Quynh says she has always been the most stubborn in her family, but her father encouraged it.
He would say, “If you feel that something is right, go ahead and stand up for it. Even if most of the world feels differently.”
And that’s what she’s been doing all her life — standing up for what she feels is right.