2017 Citizen of the Year: Dr. Nhi Pham
Even if her volunteer service weren’t extraordinary, Dr. Nhi Pham, WSDA’s 2017 Citizen of the Year, has lived a remarkable life by any measure. Born in Vietnam, her family fled with 2-year old Nhi along with her aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents when Saigon fell in 1975. The route was treacherous, the family was separated and finally reunited in Guam, but not before her father thought he’d lost his wife, daughter, and relatives to the sea. The U.S. military brought countless families like hers to the country: first to refugee camps, and later to local municipalities through sponsorships spearheaded by churches and civic organizations.
Although she spoke barely any English when she started kindergarten, Pham went on to become salutatorian of her high school graduating class, receive a full academic scholarship to Seattle University, and attend the University of Washington School of Dentistry. Pham lives an auspicious life that belies her humble beginnings. By any account she’s far more than just a dentist and scholar. Pham has dedicated her life to the service of others, and through her good works has become something of a legend in Snohomish County.
Jessica Dietsch works with Hope Creek Charitable Foundation, an organization that runs a dental van where Pham has been a regular for the past four years serving the homeless and underserved population in downtown Everett. She explains Pham’s appeal, “What I love about her is that she really cares about the patients. It’s scary enough to get on a random van in a parking lot when you’re in pain. She’s friendly and warm, and instead of getting right to work, she takes the time to talk with (patients) first and find out their stories. It’s amazing how many real connections she makes. Everybody loves her. She’s genuine and kind.”
Because of the welcome and help she and her family received when they arrived in the States, Pham has made giving back to the community part of her core identity. Pham was chosen as this year’s Citizen of the Year because of the depth of her commitment. She currently volunteers with more than 10 organizations, including the Medical Teams International Dental Van, the UW Urgent Care Dental Clinic, Project Homeless Connect, Seattle Stand Down for Veterans Dental Clinic, Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, and Seattle-King County Dental Clinic. Additionally, she serves on the Medical Relief International (MRI) board, an organization that provides dental, medical, and humanitarian aid to people in need around the world. (If the good work of MRI sounds familiar, it’s because two former Citizens of the Year, Dr. Mike Karr and Dr. Loree Bolin, both have been involved with MRI.)
This year, Pham will be the lead dentist on MRI’s first trip to Greece to help Syrian and Afghani refugees on the Island of Lesbos. Dr. Jeff Parrish, former WSDA president and Citizen of the Year, worked with Pham through MRI in Haiti and at a homeless outreach event in Everett. He says, “Nhi is a wife and mother first, a dentist second, and a humanitarian third. Yet she has a ton of room in her heart to be that humanitarian, and makes room in her life to do that.”
But running a successful practice at Mukilteo Dental Center, and performing scads of volunteer service isn’t all Pham does, Parrish notes. In addition, she’s raising three young daughters Kayla (14), Heaven (11), and Kovi (7) with her husband, Christian, teaches at the UW, Lake Washington Institute of Technology and Shoreline Community College, is a regular on the ski slopes and golf greens with her family, and performs in a hula group, Hokulani’s Hula, in her spare time. She explains with a smile, “I thrive when I’m busy. I grew up with six younger siblings that I helped care for, so my life seems easy now in comparison. I’ve changed so many diapers in my lifetime and prepared years of lunches for my mom and all of the younger siblings. Once my youngest daughter was out of diapers, I was like, ‘What am I going to do with all this free time?’”
Getting to America
Her family’s perilous journey to the United States had to happen. Pham’s father and grandfather had been allied with the American military, and their only choice was to flee or face persecution. Her uncle had been in a prison camp for more than 10 years, and those working under her grandfather were forced into labor camps, so they knew the realities first-hand. Her family planned their escape route traveling from their home in Ba Me Thuot to Nha Trang (where her grandfather, Huu Dac Bui, was Chief of Police) to Saigon. They joined the mass exodus of people on the South China Sea desperate to be pulled aboard one of the American military ships. Initially, they were all in one fishing boat, but the sea was littered with thousands of abandoned vessels, making passage impossible. With no anchors and little fuel, people tied boats together and jumped from one to the next, trying to find an American ship that would allow them to board. Pham’s family was large, and in the confusion, became separated. “My mother saw many people fall into the sea while trying to make it onto the American ships,” Pham recalls. “Finally, a net was thrown down to my father, and he was strong enough to hold my sister and get pulled up. He told my mom to do the same, but she knew she wasn’t strong enough to hold onto the net while carrying me, and she felt it was too dangerous. Had she gone with my dad, she would have had to have left my grandmother behind with six other children under the age of 9.” For a week, the nine floated in the sea, unsure if they’d ever get rescued, running low on food and water, until Pham’s grandmother, Xanh Thi Nguyen, risked her life to jump onto an adjoining boat in search of anything to feed the hungry children. Fortunately, they were rescued soon after by an American Navy ship and taken to Guam, where the entire family was miraculously reunited.
From there, the family was taken to Fort Chaffee, Ark., where they lived in a refugee camp. Pham says, “I remember being in Arkansas, and thinking that it was awesome being with all of my aunts and uncles. It felt more like a summer camp.” At that time, however, states became overburdened with the responsibility of caring for refugees and finding them homes. Washington’s then-Gov. Dan Evans felt a need to help, and encouraged local churches across the state to sponsor refugees. Father Michael O’Brien from St. Michael Catholic Church in Snohomish took the Phams in, and overnight they had a home, a place of worship, and strangers willing to help them.
The family’s arrival in Snohomish was heralded in the local paper, and although they spoke no English, church members and townspeople rallied to ease their transition to American life. “My father had a lot of opportunities to work in Seattle and other places, but he chose to stay and raise us in Snohomish,” says Pham. “It’s a community that has continued to keep its small-town appeal. I faced challenges, of course, but I have always been more appreciative and thankful than bitter. People from the community came to help my mom learn how to cook American food, parishioners gave us clothes to wear, and even donated a Christmas tree to us.” St. Michael became important to the family, and Pham recalls that much of their life centered around the church.
Life in Vietnam, especially at the end, had been so chaotic that her parents sought to control whatever they could. That meant an emphasis on hard work, education, and faith. Money was especially tight for the Phams. She explains, “My parents taught us to be thankful for everything that we had, and in the early ’80s, the economy was awful. Everyone felt the pinch. From gas rationing to high unemployment and high interest rates, the nation as a whole struggled. It was really hard for my family. My dad went to Everett Community College and got a degree in electronics, but he really struggled to find work due to the economy and the language barrier. My parents raised us to be thankful, though. They taught us to save and to send money to help family back in Vietnam, even though it was tough for our family of ten to survive in the U.S.”
Still, assimilation was not without its challenges, especially as Pham grew older. Snohomish was a small community with very little diversity thirty years ago when Pham attended high school. “I struggled with my identity and my role within the community for a while,” she says. Pham’s core and extended family instilled the traditions and values of the Vietnamese culture in the children. “I searched to understand how to marry the two cultures, American and Vietnamese, in my life” recalls Pham. It wasn’t until she attended Seattle University and experienced the big city and the wealth of diversity that she finally found peace within herself. “Initially, I had wondered what my true identity was? What my role in the world was? Was I Vietnamese or American? I thought I’d have to sacrifice one for the other, and I learned that this wasn’t so, that I could embrace both. We all worry about being judged by others. I find that people appreciate and enjoy hearing about other people’s culture. I’m raising my children the same way. They’re learning about their Vietnamese culture and their Korean culture.” (Pham’s husband is Korean.)
Becoming a dentist
Pham went into dentistry and her sister became a physician against their parents’ wishes. Her parents hoped both would become engineers like their aunts and uncles, and at one point, Pham imagined she would, as well. “I thought for sure I would become a engineer and own a Toyota just like all of my other relatives.”
While in high school, Pham ended up working for a physician, Dr. Leeon Aller, and an orthodontist, Dr. Daniel Taylor. Pham was responsible for typing up the dictated tapes of Dr. Aller’s medical mission work in Guatemala. It was her first introduction to mission work, and she was fascinated by it. She assisted Taylor at the front desk and chairside, and says it was when she first considered dentistry as a profession. “But when I went to my parents and told them I wanted to go into dentistry, they said, ‘No!’”, she recalls. “They didn’t understand it because no one in my family had gone into dentistry or healthcare. Even my older sister got an associate degree in engineering before she went on to medicine. We were raised to obey our parents’ wishes, and so it was out of character for me to tell them that I wanted to pursue dentistry. Finally they relented, but told me if I failed, I could always become an engineer.”
Pham excelled academically and received numerous scholarships, including Seattle U’s Sullivan Leadership Award, a full scholarship. Father Jerry Cobb, Pham’s advisor, recalls, “When Nhi won it was only open to Washington state, but now it is open to the entire country. Students came to campus to write an essay, and some were invited back to interview. Of that, five students were chosen to receive the award, which provided tuition, room and board to Seattle U.” Pham also received the Washington Scholar’s award from her legislative branch that allowed her to attend any college in Washington State tuition free. She chose Seattle U not only because of the scholarship, but also because the school closely aligns with her faith. She explains, “I wanted to understand my faith better, and I wanted to learn the Jesuit values of St. Ignatius. My faith and the Jesuit teaching have a lot to do with where I come from and how I practice dentistry, and how I live my life.”
“I thought about joining the Navy because I wanted to give back to the service that had done so much for my family, and there was a lot of recruiting for Navy dentists at the time.” There was just one problem – Pham couldn’t swim, so a Navy career seemed like a poor choice. Just before graduating from dental school, she met Dr. Joe Wellbaum, then-head of Community Health Center of Snohomish County. The two hit it off, and Pham expressed her interest in working at a CHC. Facing the choice between offers in the private sector or community health, Pham chose with her heart and decided on community health. “I knew that I could always go into private practice later in life, but I felt that this was my calling.” She joined the National Service Corp to care for underserved populations. Her contract was for two years but she loved it so much she ended up staying for almost four years. She had one day off a week and didn’t know what to do with the time, so she began to teach hygiene and assisting at Lake Washington and Shoreline. Pham explains, “My husband was finishing law school, and a day off is just an opportunity for me to cause trouble. We didn’t have kids yet, so I just took more on.”
Pham has been practicing for 18 years and has owned a successful Mukilteo practice for close to 15 years. In addition, she devotes an extraordinary amount of time to groups dear to her heart: veterans, international mission work, Vietnamese Youth Empowerment groups, the homeless, and students. “My brain is always going. With everything I do, I’m thinking about who I can reach out to, and how I can do more,” she says. “It’s exciting, and it’s the way I live my life. I love dentistry and my patients. Their support allows me to do the volunteer work. I am forever grateful for my Dental ‘Phamily’ at Mukilteo Dental Center. I am blessed to work with an amazing team of people who support and share the passions of my heart for community outreach.”
As we’ve said, Pham’s commitment to others is the stuff of legend, dating back to high school, a time when most students are more consumed with socializing, teen angst, and debates over flame broiling versus frying. While at Seattle U, Pham was a regular volunteer through Campus Ministry and the St. James’ Soup Kitchen and tutored inner city children in the Kids Literacy Project. It’s tough to comprehend how anyone could juggle a practice, family, and the level of community volunteerism that she does. And while Pham says that some of her volunteer work happens virtually now, it’s still a huge commitment of time, expertise, and energy. From dental vans and Vietnamese cultural projects empowering young people, to mission trips in far-flung regions of the world and local neighborhoods, too, Pham gives back at least 10 hours a week to people in need. This year, in addition to her Greece mission, she’ll work on community dental vans with Medical Teams International, with veteran groups and several different veteran events, volunteer at homeless events in Everett, Seattle, and Tacoma, and more.
Bill Mays, Executive Director of MRI, says, “She’s obviously a great dentist, but she’s an amazing relational person. Most of the people who volunteer with us do their work and then return to their practice. When Dr. Pham is working in the clinic or out in the field, she has tremendous empathy for those she meets. She spends a lot of time developing relationships and befriending the local people. It’s not something that she does because it’s part of a personal agenda, it’s part of her DNA, it’s who she is. It’s her heart for providing help and care to people who have no way of returning anything for the care.”
All this volunteer work revitalizes Pham. “I go and perform dentistry in remote areas with no electricity or running water. When I return to my practice, I’m more thankful and appreciative. There were times when I was consumed with mommy guilt while abroad. However, my children became more independent while I was away. My family understands my passion to serve, and that I return happier and more fulfilled. They have volunteered with me locally, they can’t wait to serve overseas with me in the future. On my recent mission trip to Ecuador, Pham was able to deliver clothing, shoes, and toys her daughters had donated to children in need. Her 11-year old daughter is learning how to sew so she can make baby blankets and baby hats for the new maternity clinic in Tanzania.
Part of Pham’s volunteer work is inspiring others to be involved, too. She explains, “Every day I come to work so thankful that I get to do what I do. I tell people that I love dentistry so much I would do it for free. My role in volunteer outreach has evolved and changed. There is only so much dentistry I can accomplish. I go on mission trips, and there are lines and lines of people in need. I came to the realization that I can have a greater impact by networking and recruiting volunteers.” She encourages her staff, patients, community, family, and friends to do their part, too. “There are so many amazing things happening in the community, it’s really awesome. I know that my interests might not be the same as everyone’s, so I support them in their roles and causes, too,” says Pham.
Teaching is another way that Pham gives back. When she attended UWSoD, she received a great education, but had few female instructors. “I had a lot of questions,” she says. “For instance, what is it like to raise a family and have a practice? How do you do this? I felt like I was lacking a female mentor, and was determined to change that if I could when I graduated.” Pham wanted to teach, but more than that, she wanted to spend time with students and mentor young women about how to create balance among family, practice, and volunteer outreach. Pham knows first-hand that balance is possible, and she’s happy to be a mentor to the next generation of female dentists. Her responsibilities at UWSoD, Lake Washington, and Shoreline have allowed her to do more than just teach sound dentistry. They give her a profound role in shaping the lives of young women entering the field.
Pham is equally passionate about her work with veterans. As the child and granddaughter of veterans, and someone who credits veterans with saving the lives of so many of her family members, it’s easy to understand why. “I respect the people who made the choice to serve for their country, to fight for their values. Most of us are never put to the test, and those who do should be honored,” she says. When treating veterans, Pham asks about their personal stories, knowing that many, like Vietnam veterans, were shunned when they returned to the States. “I started showcasing the lives of veterans whenever they would give me permission, whether at the dental school or private practice, by taking their picture and telling their story,” she explains. “So many people responded to that. We don’t honor our veterans enough, and though many are flourishing and living great lives, there are also many in need. Telling their story is just one way we can help to honor our veterans and their sacrifice.” Pham has worked with many Vietnamese veterans, too, through her grandfather’s work in the Orderly Departure Program, which helped get Vietnamese people resettled in the U.S. “Their dental needs are pretty intense because many were beaten in prison. It’s been amazing to be able to care for their needs,” says Pham. “Nobody really talks about the Vietnam War, especially within the Vietnamese community. The topic was almost taboo. Now I’m asking questions, and my parents and veterans are beginning to open up. For my parents and others, it was a survival mechanism. But if the next generation doesn’t learn from the past, are they doomed to repeat it? We need to understand the sacrifices our parents and veterans have made that allow us to have the freedoms we have today.”
Last year, Pham became involved with Sebastian Place, a permanent housing facility for 20 formerly homeless veterans in Lynnwood, Wash. Spearheaded by the Snohomish County Human Services Department, the program is operated by Catholic Community Services of Western Washington and its sister agency, Catholic Housing Services. A month after the facility opened, Pham interviewed the veterans, collected their health history, and invited them to come to her office for treatment. She arranged transportation to and from the practice, and as a result of her efforts many of the residents have had dental treatment at her office. Pham also hosts an annual Freedom Day for veterans at her practice (this year she’ll host the third such event). “Last year, we donated more than $13,000 in care,” she says, explaining that she was saddened to learn that only veterans who are deemed 90 percent or more disabled qualify to receive benefits from the VA.
Pham’s energy and ability to take on new projects seems endless. Dr. Mike Karr says, “Besides her community outreach, I’m always seeing Facebook posts with her working with one community organization or another. Recently, she was making sandwiches and supporting the Youth Empowerment Day. She’s very involved with her church and her children, too. I wish I had half of her energy. I don’t know how she does it, but she always has time for her family. Still, she’s becoming more and more involved with efforts taking place abroad.”
The year ahead
At press time, Pham was busy finalizing details for MRI’s trip to Greece. Simultaneously, she was getting supplies in order for an additional mission trip to Tanzania, one that has outperformed beyond MRI’s wildest expectations. For the past few years, Pham has been hard at work with Medical Relief International to make the Barikiwa Clinic a reality in Maswa, Tanzania. Pham has done much to ensure the clinic’s success. From campaigning to raise funds for a clean a water source, to mentoring Dr. Ashley Lucas, a local from Tanzania whose dental education MRI has funded for six years, to funding two of the clinic’s operatories with her husband, Pham’s commitment to the clinic’s success has been unfaltering. “We’re so thankful for our blessings. We hope to create a legacy our daughters will be proud to visit one day.” The maternity center being built in Tanzania is also close to Pham’s heart. While volunteering in Haiti, Pham learned that most women and infants do not survive childbirth in third world countries. Her mother, Elizabeth Nghia Pham, spent more than 25 years as a social worker for Pregnancy Aid/WIC – Women Infants & Children. Pham was inspired to go into Community Health because of her mom’s dedication to social services for women and children.
Pham continues to be active in the Snohomish County Dental Society, something she has done since graduating from dental school. “I remember being in awe of all of the amazing people there. Some of them have become my closest friends, like family to me,” she says. “The camaraderie and support is amazing. I had very little money when I first graduated, but it meant a lot for me to be involved, to have the support system of colleagues, and to give back to schools like the UW and Seattle U. I love coming together as a group. When we stand together, we become stronger. I think being a part of our awesome dental association is so very beneficial no matter where you are in your career.”