At the age of 36, Dr. Thien Nguyen has already lived a full life and overcome challenging obstacles. Today, the Medical Director for the Weight Loss Surgery Program at Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue uses his past experiences to teach his patients about perseverance and quality of life.
Nguyen was born in Vietnam in 1974. His father was an army pilot in the South Vietnam army and after the war was placed in a reeducation camp by the government of Vietnam, which made it difficult for anyone in Nguyen’s family to work or go to school.
“We were basically ostracized from the community,” Nguyen explained. “After the U.S. pulled out of the war and the South fell, they took officers and political people and put them in prison camps. My father was in there for two or three years and when he got out he decided to leave because he wasn’t allowed to come back to the city and the kids couldn’t go to school.”
At the age of seven, Nguyen climbed into a wooden boat with his father, older brother and 40 refugees and sailed to Malaysia. The plan was to raise sponsorship once in America to pay for his mother and younger brother to join them.
The boat ride was rocky and long, interrupted by a frightening attack by pirates who harassed the men and abused the women. A helicopter flying overhead deterred the pirates and they finally left the boat Nguyen and his family were on. After a few months living in Malaysia, the father and sons were accepted into the U.S. as political refugees and soon called South Carolina home.
Nguyen’s mother and younger brother remained in Vietnam, unable to get sponsorship to make it into the U.S. It wasn’t until Nguyen and his brother were in high school that fate smiled on them. The two brothers had become dedicated tennis players on their high school team and an opposing team’s coach took notice of their athletic skills. After learning about their story, the coach worked to bring their mother and younger brother to the U.S.
It had been nearly 11 years since Nguyen had seen his mother and younger brother.
“It was emotional,” he said. “It wasn’t until I was older that I really began to understand the sacrifice my parents made for us kids and how much they truly loved us.”
Nguyen continued to pursue education after high school, earning a medical degree from the University of Southern California. Following his graduation from USC, Nguyen went on to complete his laparoscopic and bariatric surgery fellowship at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Nguyen originally wanted to become a trauma surgeon, but after training in weight loss surgery during his residency, he was drawn to the specialty.
“If someone comes in with a collapsed lung you treat them right away. More often than not, you never see them again,” he explained. “When I did weight-loss surgery, I realized it was a really a unique operation and for many, it changes their lives.”
Nguyen added that for obese patients, the procedure solves or cures more illnesses than any other medical or surgical therapy available for this group of patients.
“These patients are basically slowing dying,” Nguyen said. “After the surgery, their quality of life drastically improves.”
Nguyen joined Overlake Hospital two years ago and has been molding the Weight Loss Surgery Program and Bariatric Department to a high level, high-quality provider ever since. He works as the primary surgeon for the Biartric Department and offers comprehensive care for patients including follow-up appointments and ongoing support groups.
“There aren’t a lot of surgeons in this area who are fellowship trained and specifically trained in weight-loss surgery,” Nguyen said. “I’m relatively young in the field, but in terms of experience or volume I am well equipped. During my fellowship I became very comfortable doing weight loss surgeries. It helped me polish my skill.”
Living with morbid obesity correlates with several serious diseases including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension, fertility problems, sleep apnea, heartburn and risk of heart disease.
Nguyen was quick to point out that weight-loss surgery is not for cosmetic reasons or for people wanting to lose 30 pounds. It’s to help resolve some of the serious diseases related to morbid obesity.
“I realize that society treats obese patients different from someone who has lung cancer. I think society needs to care more about this disease and not make it so difficult for patients to get access to care like nutritionists and physical therapists,” he explained.
If someone has lung cancer caused by smoking, Nguyen noted, “society doesn’t say, oh you screwed up now you can’t have surgery to save your life.”
He added that morbid obesity kills more people every year than colon cancer and breast cancer combined.
“I want to help educate the community about this disease and help patients have a new go at life,” he said.
Lindsay Larin can be reached at 425-453-4602.
To learn more about the Weight Loss Surgery Program at Overlake Hospital Medical Center, visit www.overlakehospital.org or call 877.399.4957.