Full Circle: Former Refugee Gives Back as U.S. Doctor

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    Dr. Anthony Phan has come a long way after fleeing Saigon as a young boy, leaving both parents behind and hoping not to starve before he reached a U.S. ship friendly enough to take him and his brothers aboard. Today, Phan is a local physician and doctor of internal medicine, geriatrics and integrative medicine. He has a long list of credentials and accomplishments — including studying under Dr. Ben Carson — and a passion for prevention and longevity science.

    It’s a kind of miracle that Phan made it out of Vietnam alive. 

    His father was a general in the military, and when Vietnam fell to the communists in April 1975, his mother fled with Phan and his brothers, fearing for their lives. They escaped to an island in South Vietnam, hoping to find passage on a U.S. Navy ship to America. But at the last minute, their mother decided to return to Saigon to try to convince their father to come with them. Before she left the boys, she gave Phan’s older brother a jacket lined with gold and told him he was responsible for it. She made Phan, who was eight years old, responsible for his little brother, who was two years old.

    She gave them a cryptic command: listen for a certain song, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” and when they heard it being played, Phan’s mother said it meant “get out (of Vietnam) now!” The boys had “no idea” at the time what “White Christmas” was, but when they were playing on the beach after she left, and heard a song playing over and over, Phan realized it must be the one. They ran for the Navy ship as quickly as possible.

    “My little brother couldn’t run very fast, “said Phan, “so I picked him up and carried him on my back.”

    They weren’t fast enough, and the ship took off without them. But an old fisherman who was nearby invited them into a fishing boat, and so they went.

    “It was pretty rough,” Phan recalls. “We would go out into the South China Sea hoping an American Navy ship would pick us up, but it didn’t happen.”

    They hopped to different islands in the region and sometimes a ship would give them food. 

    “I experienced starvation and dehydration,” said Phan. “It was a kind of desperation combined with fear.”

    At one point, in a refugee camp somewhere in Malaysia or Thailand, they were standing in line for food and water when a military police officer came up “and started to beat me and my little brother with a baton for standing in the wrong line,” Phan says.

    Finally, after about a year of nomadic survival, they made it to Subic Bay, Philippines, which was controlled by the U.S. Navy, and there, their situation improved.

    “We experienced the blessing of God there,” Phan said.

    A U.S. military doctor treated Phan for dengue fever, which he had contracted fever in the refugee camps. 

    He “treated me kindly, sensitively, explaining everything,” Phan says. Just as importantly, that doctor encouraged Phan to become a doctor when he got to America, and the idea became “imprinted” on Phan’s mind.

    After his recovery, the boys eventually arrived at Camp Pendleton, San Diego, where they experienced “the goodness of America,” Phan says. They were placed in the section for missing children, and one day a Marine came over to their tent and asked if they wanted to eat ice cream and watch cartoons. Although Phan was naturally cautious and in “defense” mode, he eventually said yes and joined the people lying on the grass in front of a large screen at the base, watching cartoons at night.

    “That was my first experience of American kindness,” he says.

    Every day, the boys stood in a big auditorium where escapees from Vietnam came to look for their missing children. One day a woman asked to see Phan, and though Phan was afraid, a Marine comforted him and urged him to go.

    “This lady knelt down on her knees and said, ‘I am your mother,’” Phan says. “But I told her ‘I don’t have a mom.’”

    He had been an orphan for so long, he didn’t recognize her. But they were reunited, and Phan began his new life in California. At age ten or eleven, he told his mother that he wanted to become a doctor.

    “It became my drive to become a physician,” he said. “It was do or die.”

    He eventually went to medical school at the University of Kansas, graduated with honors, then attended Johns Hopkins for his residency, studying under renowned infectious disease experts such as Dr. William Greenough. Phan found the academics easy, but was challenged when at Johns Hopkins by the presence of people from Oxford, Harvard and other top institutions.

    “I realized that with my background, I was a nobody,” he said, and he sought help from Dr. Carson who encouraged and mentored him, saying, “Never give up what God called you to do.”

    Carson warned him that the medical community would eventually merge with big pharmaceutical companies and would “control 90 percent of what you can do” as a doctor. When Carson ran for president in 2016, he quoted Lenin as saying that “the key to a socialized state is socialized medicine.”

    “[Communist Vietnam leader] Ho Chi Minh took it even further,” says Phan, “when you control the health of the people, you control the people. And we’re seeing it today.”

    When COVID-19 hit, Phan was on a business trip to Vietnam, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Although COVID was new and spreading a great deal of fear, Phan, who practices preventative medicine with a focus on enhancing the immune system, was not afraid for himself or for his elderly mother who accompanied him.

    “I knew my immune system was strong,” he explains, “and my mother was on the same [health] regime I was, so I told her to go enjoy Vietnam.”

    When Phan returned to the U.S., Phan began to treat COVID patients with a medicine with which he was very familiar: hydroxychloroquine. Quinine, a component of hydroxychloroquine, was commonly used throughout Asia for over-the-counter treatment of malaria, as well as for rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and other diseases Phan saw in the U.S. However, he found it difficult to find big-chain pharmacies to prescribe hydroxychloroquine for treatment and prophylaxis.

    “That’s not supposed to happen in America, “ he says. “Maybe in Vietnam or another communist country.”

    In fact, two doctors from the American Medical Association visited Phan in 2020, questioning his use of the common drug, saying “it wasn’t the norm.” When asked what “the norm” was, they replied, “take Tylenol and aspirin and go home, if you can’t breathe, go to the hospital and get ventilated.”

    Phan persisted, and placed long-term patients on a preventative regime with vitamins and supplements, zinc, iodine, and good nutrition to strengthen their immune systems. Very few acquired COVID, and for those who did, it was “very mild,” he says. He also treated some patients with hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin and ivermection.

    Phan believes that physicians “should be talking about how to make our immune systems stronger, and how to protect them.” He believes that God created wonderful immune systems, and that “we can fight cancers and viruses, including new variants.” 

    Phan has seen this approach work throughout his career, and as a Christian physician he feels “called by God” to give back to the community, sharing his faith in the immune system and what we can do to strengthen it and treat disease.

    “I went into medicine because I was sick and somebody took care of me,” Phan said, “and that’s what I want to do for my patients.”

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