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A Vietnamese Whirlwind Vanquishes the Bureaucrats

The bureaucrats in Sacramento who have taken on Dr. Quynh Kieu during the past 4 years should first have been told how she got out of Vietnam. They might have had second thoughts.

First impressions are misleading. She’s youthful, tiny, enthusiastic, friendly and full of gratitude to be in this country instead of the prison that awaited her in Saigon. But she is also tough, determined, resourceful and quite capable of going on the attack if she thinks an injustice has been done.

And she definitely felt that way when the state of California chose to cast doubt on the integrity and efficiency of all refugee Vietnamese physicians in the state on the basis of charges against a few.

It all started with the arrest in 1984 of several dozen refugee physicians--mostly Vietnamese--on charges of fraudulent billing of Medi-Cal patients. “It’s the only time in history there were mass arrests of physicians,” Kieu says indignantly. “They came into their homes and offices and handcuffed them.”

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Although most of the physicians were exonerated, the damage to the Vietnamese community, especially after the story was broadcast on TV’s “60 Minutes,” was profound. “I had patients calling,” Kieu recalls, “who said: ‘You’re all liars and frauds who are taking advantage of the country that gave you a home.’ ”

Kieu, a pediatrician who practices in Fountain Valley, was not one of those charged, but a number of her Orange County associates were. And a week later, she became directly involved when all Vietnamese physicians--including herself--were suspended from giving medical care under WIC--Women, Infants and Children--a federally funded nutrition program designed primarily to provide proper prenatal care to indigent pregnant women.

Kieu was outraged. “I knew,” she said last week in the living room of her spacious Santa Ana home, “that I had done nothing wrong and that someone in Sacramento had simply decided that all Vietnamese physicians were not to be trusted. And I swore to get to the bottom of it.”

She did. No one had ever explained American bureaucracy to her, so she started at the bottom with local health officials and worked her way to the top. “I found no tangible evidence to support their charges,” she says, “but when I wrote that to the people responsible, I got no answer.”

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So she flanked them by going to elected public officials, where she got a sympathetic hearing, especially from state Sen. Edward R. Royce (R-Anaheim) and then-Rep. Jerry Patterson, a Democrat from Santa Ana.

Royce talked to the director of the WIC program in California, who looked into Kieu’s complaints and reinstated her the next day. But that wasn’t enough for Kieu, who wanted the same treatment for other suspended doctors who were innocent of any wrongdoing. As a result, more than half of the suspended Orange County doctors were quickly reinstated, with the lame explanation that their suspensions were the result of a “clerical error.”

It had been a lonely fight--and it wasn’t over. Several months later, the state Board of Medical Quality Assurance suddenly stopped licensing Vietnamese physicians because of lack of original documentation, and Kieu was back in the trenches--still fighting virtually alone.

“I got very little encouragement from other Vietnamese doctors,” she said. “Our culture is very fatalistic. After the first charges in 1984 were resolved, they just wanted to withdraw and lick their wounds. They told me, ‘We’re lucky we’re here and safe and free. We can’t fight bureaucracy, so let’s not make any further waves.’ But the state was overturning a process that had worked well for 11 years, and I couldn’t remain silent.”

Although Kieu’s husband, Than, an anesthesiologist, supported her strongly, he, too, stayed out of the trenches. “My husband jumped into the jungles of Vietnam with airborne troops and he has many wounds, but in matters like this, he’s not as outspoken as I am. But he told me to go ahead and fight, and he encouraged me all the way.”

This time, it took almost 2 years. Kieu inundated the authorities in Sacramento with documentation proving the quality of medical training in Saigon. “The American Medical Assn. (had) worked very closely with our teaching program since 1965, and we had many American medical professors. The AMA also helped identify and recommend Vietnamese refugee physicians because they knew our system so intimately. But after 18 months of submitting this material, I knew from the questions being asked me that it hadn’t even been read.”

So Kieu, now familiar with the system, went back to the Legislature and got action. Last year, a bill carried by Sen. Royce and sponsored by more than 30 legislators of both parties was signed into law, restoring equity for qualified Vietnamese physicians who cannot provide all the required documents.

“We’ve never sought any special favors,” Kieu says. “We just wanted to enter the system the way everyone else did. But many of us had no documentation because we had to get out of Vietnam so quickly and often under terrible circumstances. I didn’t even have my diploma, and the boat people were much worse off. They had to be careful about carrying papers that might identify them if they were caught.”

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Probably no escape was more dramatic than Kieu’s.

She comes from a prominent political family in Vietnam. Her father was a judge in Hanoi, from the same province as Ho Chi Minh. Before Ho declared he was a Communist, people who opposed him began disappearing from Hanoi. Kieu’s father protested the disappearances and was marked for assassination. He was warned and fled to China, and when Vietnam was partitioned, he came home and helped form the first government in South Vietnam. His family, under threat in Hanoi, was allowed to join him in Saigon.

Kieu’s father--then speaker of the Assembly in South Vietnam--died when she was in medical school. She had just completed the rigorous 7-year program when Communist troops broke through the South Vietnamese defense lines and headed for Saigon. By that time, she had married and her husband--a doctor with the elite airborne troops--was stationed near the Saigon airport.

“Since we weren’t working directly with the Americans,” she says, “we were not on their evacuation list. But I knew my family would be thrown into prison because of our past history.”

Only one escape route seemed possible. Two of Kieu’s sisters-in-law had papers signed by American sponsors, permitting them to attend college in the United States. Kieu’s mother told her to do what she could to get out, so she added her name and her husband’s name to the papers.

Then she and her sisters went to her husband’s base late at night, carrying civilian clothes for him. He cleared them into the base, and the four cut a hole in the fence between the Vietnamese base and the American airfield. Then they slipped through and stood in one of the lines waiting to board the American transport planes. There was one frightening moment when a group of Vietnamese MPs approached her husband, but two American MPs intervened and they all got on the plane to safety the night before Saigon fell.

But there were heartaches. Kieu’s mother and brother were thrown in prison by the Communists and languished there for 3 years before Kieu was able to buy their release. It cost $5,000 apiece in bribes to get them out through an underground organization that demanded the money up front. “We didn’t hear from them for 4 awful months,” Kieu says. “The boat they escaped on went inland in Thailand, and they got in touch with us and we got them over here.”

Kieu’s mother lives with Kieu and her husband and their three daughters--Alix, 9, Monica, 7, and Suzie, 5--as does Kieu’s 18-year-old niece, Mey.

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Although they have just moved into a magnificent old Santa Ana home, complete with back yard swimming pool, the route wasn’t easy. Kieu and her husband spent 2 years doing menial work in Palm Springs (Kieu was a seamstress at a local department store) while their credentials were being checked and they were taking all the tests necessary to practice medicine.

But today, Kieu, 38, has a flourishing pediatric practice in Fountain Valley. Her hospital is nearby Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center, where her husband also practices, “so we see each other as often as we can during the working day.”

Kieu says she has always “preferred to practice alone. A pediatrician has such a unique relationship with families. My office looks like the U.N. Besides my Vietnamese and American patients, I have Latino, Afghan and Polish, among others.”

And for the most part, she can talk to them in their own languages. Besides Vietnamese and English, she speaks fluent French and Japanese and has mastered Spanish since she began to practice in Orange County.

Kieu has embraced her new country with a zeal and enthusiasm that would shame most Americans. “In Vietnam,” she says, “I was too young to be an activist, but now as a citizen of the most democratic country in the world, I really want to testify (to) what my convictions are. I want to shout them and work for them.”

To that end, she has helped form a Vietnamese-American Coalition for Citizens’ Rights that she says is “bipartisan but focuses on such issues as the resettlement of immigrants in camps, the needs of refugees and equal opportunity for all citizens.”

“In some ways, this country is sleeping on its laurels, forgetting about what is important. Maybe it can be reawakened by a new group of immigrants with the spirit of the pioneers. That’s happened before in American history.”

If that is possible, Quynh Kieu will be leading the troops. She is one of the few people we meet in the world who eat at the table of life with such obvious zeal and joy and enthusiasm and perception that they lift those about them with the very force of their spirit.

Of her fellow Vietnamese refugees, she says: “We’ve brought our own system of values and motivation, and we’re here to stay. We want to be very active citizens.”


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