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So this Vietnamese refugee walks into the room and you know it’s where you’re supposed to be


God works in mysterious ways with a wicked sense of humor, I mused last week. God the Father, with the long white beard and big index finger.  Damn straight, I’m driving to Spencer last Tuesday — don’t go to Spencer, the authorities warned, it’s submerged by the raging Little Sioux River. Good one on me, old man!

I have prostate cancer. I am scheduled to meet an oncologist at the Spencer hospital, where half the toilets don’t work. Apple Maps gave me two choices, east or west, from Storm Lake. I chose east because the hospital is on the east side of Grand Avenue/ Hwy. 71.

Cruising up north and Siri or Alexa or Ms. Chevy or whoever she is tells me, “Holy moly, we got floods ahead! Changing routes, poor boy. You’re going gravel.”

Suffice to say I turned off the map and went with the Iowa instinctive navigation system of taking left turns and right turns until you get to M54 on the east side of Spencer.

I had never seen anything like this in Northwest Iowa. We are upstream. This is supposed to happen in Des Moines, not Spencer.

I’m thinking as I approach the Abben Cancer Center that this is the last place I should be. God is playing dirty tricks here. I could die in a washed-out culvert and nobody would know.

I get to the front desk and a man ahead of me says he got a letter that his data may have been breached by a third-party vendor. Uh-oh. I take my seat. “Gerald?” That’s me. I sit in this exam room and look at the carpet under fluorescent lights thinking of my opening line: “Doc, it is a pleasure to meet you. Could you give me directions to the Mayo Clinic? I think you have your hands full here today.”

The nurse asks questions. She is smart and nice. Something’s happening here. The doctor will be in shortly.

I stare at the carpet. Knock knock. A short man wearing a smock and a big smile walks in. “It is my privilege to be your doctor,” says Dr. D.B. Nguyen. That is a fine how-do-you-do.

Turns out he is a Vietnamese war refugee. He was from North Vietnam, where he said his father knew Ho Chi Minh. The family moved to Saigon. As Saigon fell and the choppers took off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy, the Nguyen family floated on a barge down the Saigon River. They were out to sea for days, 200 refugees without food or water, when they were rescued by a US freighter.

He spent his nights in a Guam refugee camp dreaming of being in the place he saw in pictures with trees and lakes and blue skies. It was Minnesota.

The family made it to Virginia. The young D.B. had learned German, and was thrown into American English classes to sink or swim. He swam. German was the foundation to learn English.

Then on to Harvard, Dartmouth and Yale. And NASA. And other places. For real.

What the hell is he doing in Spencer?

He was practicing radiation oncology in Minnesota and filled in at the Abben Center in 2019. He decided he wanted to raise his children in a small town like that. So he moved there in 2022.

He asks me about my life story and tells me his, and I was blown away.

We talked for what seemed like an hour. He makes you feel like you are just shooting the bull but afterwards you realize he carefully scripted the conversation. They do grow them smart in the Ivy League. He wanted to check some things out, given our family cancer history and other stuff, and some more diagnostic scans were ordered. His nurse set everything up perfectly and called immediately to confirm.

“You wanna do this chemical castration thing before zapping up my patoot with radiation, go ahead. I’m with you, Doc,” I am thinking, but say it differently.

This refugee just turned my world inside out.

I went in feeling sorry for myself, but with full recognition that rural health care and its administration combine the worst of capitalism and socialism, and that I will die sometime. I came out certain I was in the right hands, and the toilets on this side of the building flushed. I don’t know what happens next. I’m still scared because you just never know what is going on down there. I do believe that Dr. Nguyen will figure it out, because he made it this far.

Our newspaper was bailed out during the pandemic by a Chinese immigrant, John Tu, who learned English by first learning German and is something of a genius. He did it because he believes in America. It was my privilege to sit behind closed doors with another Asian refugee who thinks he is here for a reason. “How does that happen?” the manic-depressive mind asks.

Roll with it.

Editor's Notebook, Art Cullen


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