Radiation Oncologist Dr. Nguyen Finds Perfect Fit at Abben Cancer Center

posted on Tuesday, December 6, 2022 in Health Connections articles

How did a young man go from being a Vietnamese refugee to become an Ivy League educated and trained physician to serving as radiation oncologist and medical director of radiation oncology at Abben Cancer Center of Spencer Hospital? The answers originate in the pages of a children’s book.

Growing up in the middle of war-torn Vietnam in the 1960s, nine-year-old D. B. Nguyen, now Dr. Nguyen (pronounced ‘Wen’), learned that 1,000 library cards were going to be awarded to children in his city. He had never been in a library and books were hard to obtain. He asked his dad for assistance, so his father woke him early one morning at 4 a.m, before the sun rose, to walk to the library in hopes of being one of the lucky children to be granted a library card. When they reached the library he was disheartened to discover a long line of children waiting ahead of him.

Yet, Zoon, as he likes to be called, persisted. He took his place in line and fortunately received card number 611 of those 1,000 precious access cards. He borrowed science books, written in English, which at the time he could not read, but those books contained pages filled with colorful illustrations of red brick schoolhouses, yellow buses and fields filled with trees, flowers and wildlife. He treasured those books and dreamed of a place with fields, lakes, flowers, crops, birds and butterflies. He dreamed of a place such as northwest Iowa.

Many years have passed and many memories created since that day. At age 13, Dr. Nguyen, his mother, five siblings and two other family members climbed onto an open-top barge near the family home on the Saigon River. His father and a sister were left behind. After days on the open sea with no food and  very little fresh water that was captured from chilly rainstorms, the refugees were finally rescued by a U.S. freighter. Thanks to a sponsoring family in Virginia, the Nguyen family built a new life in the United States.  And, for those wondering, Dr. Nguyen and his family were reunited with his father a year later and his sister 15 years later.

The young book-lover, who had been deemed mentally too slow to attend first grade or to start second grade in Vietnam, excelled in school in America. He was awarded an academic scholarship to Harvard, where he graduated with Magna Cum Laude with Highest Honors. He received a scholarship to Dartmouth Medical School where he earned an M.D. and was awarded a PhD in biomedical engineering for a discovery he made as a medical student. Then, Dr. Nguyen received a post-doctoral fellowship in radiation oncology at Yale, and went to Denmark for one year as a National Science Foundation (NATO) Post-doctoral Fellow.

He returned to United States for a residency in internal medicine and radiation oncology at Yale University School of Medicine. Upon graduation, he was offered an academic position in Boston. Yet, he remembered his childhood dream of a rural area, filled with fields and forests. He choose to begin his career as a radiation oncologist in Minnesota.

Over the next decade, Dr. Nguyen’s career took him to other parts of the county – to the upper northwest to be near to family, back to the Midwest, and then to Ohio. In 2019, as his bright, curious twin boys turned four years old, Dr. Nguyen sought a more flexible work schedule. At that time, he chose to serve as a locum oncology specialist, filling in where needed at various cancer centers and having the flexibility to choose his schedule.

In October of 2019 he accepted his first locums assignment, filling in one week for a vacationing oncologist at Abben Cancer Center of Spencer Hospital.

“I remember thinking, ‘What a beautiful place,’” Dr. Nguyen recalls. He returned for a two-week coverage stint in 2020 and again, was impressed with not only the region, but also the team of health professionals at Abben Cancer Center and the technology available. When earlier this year he learned that a permanent position was available, he contacted cancer center director Mindy Sylvester to express his interest in relocating.

“We had started a nationwide search for a new radiation oncologist, which can be a lengthy and challenging process as this level of expertise is rare,” Sylvester shared. “It was such a pleasant surprise to have Dr. Nguyen reach out to us and inquire about the position. We’re thankful that our paths crossed a few years ago as that crossroad in life has lead Dr. Nguyen and his family back to our cancer center and community.”

Dr. Nguyen’s twin boys are now age seven and enrolled in second grade at Spencer’s Fairview Elementary School. His eyes light up with pride as he shares his boys’ love for science and math, along with how they use their imagination and ingenuity in creating various projects and toys. And, those two boys’ names? Well, remember young Zoon with his prized library card in Vietnam? His favorite book was “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” by Jules Verne. The Nguyen twins are aptly named in honor of that favorite author, Jules and Verne – may their explorations take them far.

Abben Cancer Center Introduces New Treatment Options

Cancer cells are unwanted invaders to a person’s body. The goal for each individual patient and their medical professionals is to eradicate the invasive cancerous cells while sparing the patient’s healthy cells.

Through continued research and technology enhancements, greater precision in targeting cancer cells continues to be possible. Two such treatment options - stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) and stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) – are being incorporated into the array of treatment options available at Abben Cancer Center.

“I have experience in both treatment options and we have the technology at Abben Cancer Center to incorporate these options into our treatment planning for patients,” shared Dr. D. B. Nguyen, radiation oncologist.

Both treatment options are alternatives to invasive surgery, particularly for patients with tumors that are difficult to reach, located close to vital organs, or subject to movement within the body. Both use targeted, high-dose radiation delivered with precision to the cancerous cells.

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