A Need to Serve Rooted in Life Experience: Phan Nguyen’s Story

Written by Audrey Cheng and Ida Eva Zielinska

Dr. Phan Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee who came to the U.S. as a child, has experienced hardship, which heightens his compassion for his patients and others. Photo/Audrey Cheng

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I don’t have much time, but I’ll make time for Tzu Chi. I think what I get in return is the spiritual growth, the sensation of ‘I can do good in the world.’

Dr. Phan Nguyen, a dentist, is a member of the Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) Las Vegas, Nevada, chapter. Since 2016, he has been deeply committed to participating in the Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation’s free dental care outreach in the city for the underprivileged and those struggling due to homelessness. 

On the surface, with its bright lights and towering casinos, Las Vegas is the picture of fun and games. And yet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2022 estimates, 14.9% of residents live below the poverty line, potentially forgoing health care to make ends meet. With the help of doctors like Nguyen, Tzu Chi fills this needs gap.

Finding His Path

When I first was in dental school, my professor asked me, ‘Why do you want to be a dentist? Do you want to save the world?’ I said, ‘Yeah, one tooth at a time.’

Nguyen recognized that dentistry can get people out of pain while cosmetic work can make them smile again, helping them regain their confidence.

After earning a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from New York University’s College of Dentistry, Nguyen moved to Las Vegas, where he opened his private clinic, Town & Country Dental, in 2006. The website states, “WELCOME TO OUR FAMILY,” and he’ll give his cell number to his patients in that spirit. Nguyen calls his practice a labor of love, built with the help of his wife and supported by valued staff. And yet, as the years went by, he gradually began to feel that something was missing.

Nguyen felt a calling to serve his community beyond the sphere of his stable business but didn’t know where to turn. Fate intervened, as one day, a patient who turned out to be a Tzu Chi volunteer opened a door. 

Nguyen is known to converse openly with his patients. “Every time I’d see her, we’d talk, and I’d talk about my grandma and how growing up in Vietnam, we’d go to a Buddhist temple,” he explained. He also expressed his desire to volunteer, although he had not found an organization he trusted. “Why don’t you come volunteer with us,” she asked. “I kept saying, no, no, no. But eventually, I said, ‘You know what, let’s give it a try.’”

For Dr. Phan Nguyen (top right corner), volunteering as a dentist for Tzu Chi’s free dental care outreach in Las Vegas, Nevada, is a heartfelt calling. Photo/Peter Simmons

Discovering the Joy of Volunteering

“In 2016, when I first volunteered with Tzu Chi, that outreach was at the Salvation Army near downtown Las Vegas. We’re so used to the glitz and glamor of how new and beautiful things are here, and then I saw these encampments of homeless people; it was a little shocking. As I was driving, I saw more and more tents and shopping carts. I saw moms and kids…” Emotions choked Nguyen’s voice as he described the scene.

Arriving at the Salvation Army, lines of people experiencing homelessness were waiting. Once he went inside, Nguyen found a well-organized oasis of holistic care, as Tzu Chi would be offering dental services alongside haircuts and the availability of clean second-hand clothes for the taking that day. Learning about Tzu Chi moved him even more.

What got to me was when we watched a video of Tzu Chi around the world. I saw images of how Tzu Chi volunteers give their all. I couldn’t help but cry.

That Tzu Chi is a Buddhist organization also resonated with Nguyen’s childhood memories. During the outreach, he witnessed how the volunteers treated each care recipient respectfully. “Even a guy coming in unwashed, dirty, smelly, with a shopping cart. They welcomed them with open arms,” Nguyen remembered. “It was very impactful to me in my heart, realizing that there are people out there who truly care.”

He shared how his patients might ask nervously, “Where do I pay?” He’d answer, “No, it’s free.” “Are you sure?” they would counter. “This is free for you,” Nguyen would say, relieving their mounting anxiety. We’re helping because we care.”

Nguyen had found what was missing: “The opportunity to take care of people and help without thinking about how much it’s going to cost, that was life-changing, and that’s why I keep coming back. It’s almost like a selfish thing; I get so much out of it every time I volunteer.” 

Dr. Phan Nguyen comforts a young patient during a dental outreach event. Photo/Audrey Cheng

More Beneath the Surface

Dr. Phan Nguyen connects with his unhoused or financially struggling patients’ fears on a deeper level: He can empathize with their precarious situation through life experience. “One gentleman wanted to get a job and was worried, ‘How am I going to make it work? I’m poor. I’m homeless,’” Nguyen recalled, “so I talked to him about how I came here. I had nothing, but I worked myself up.” He told the man, “Let me clean your teeth, get you better. Let the brothers cut your hair. Get some clothing. Let the Salvation Army give you a shower. This is how we all start. We all need help.”

Dr. Phan Nguyen will talk to each patient, often sharing his life story. Photo/Courtesy of Phan Nguyen

When Nguyen arrived in the United States as a child, he and his family were political refugees who had suffered substantial trauma. “I was born in Vietnam after the war. My dad was put into a re-education camp by the Viet Cong and was there for seven years. My mom, my grandma, and my uncles raised me,” he revealed. 

They tried to escape, “Two times we were shot at by Viet Cong, and twice we were captured by Thai pirates in the China Sea,” he recounted. Reunited with his father, on their fifth escape attempt, the fishing boat the family was on broke down. They drifted for days, running out of food and water, until an American oil tanker spotted them. 

The Nguyen family’s trauma in Vietnam at that point in history is shared by many others, alongside the attempts to escape. Photos/Courtesy of Phan Nguyen

The family arrived in the United States when Nguyen was nine. “That’s when we started our life, basically,” he declared, but “we were dirt poor.” Initially, they depended on welfare, food stamps, and charity help. They even sifted through trash for recyclables that could yield money. “I remember people just looking down on me,” Nguyen admitted, which is why his connection to his oft-destitute patients is so heartfelt.

Doing His Part During the Pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when providing dental care was not possible for safety reasons, Nguyen collaborated with Dr. Rebecca Edgeworth, a community-minded physician and faculty member at Touro University Las Vegas, to procure doses of the COVID-19 vaccine for Tzu Chi USA’s Las Vegas Service Center once they became available in 2021. The Service Center then offered three vaccination events: the first on February 7, the second on March 7, and the last on April 11. “We had students from Touro University who helped us. It was amazing: This is like the whole community coming together to help those who can’t help themselves. And that’s what’s so powerful about Tzu Chi,” Nguyen said.

A volunteer administers a dose of the vaccine at one of the COVID-19 vaccination events in 2021. Photo/Audrey Cheng

Dr. Phan Nguyen was recognized for his efforts as Resident of the Month in Clark County Nevada’s District F Dispatch in April 2021. The bulletin stated, “Dr. Nguyen has brought vaccinations to thousands of hard-to-reach people in District F. The team has focused on providing care for those who are disabled, the elderly, and those who are immunocompromised. Nurses/volunteers at the vaccination events spoke Tagalog, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Korean, and other East Asian languages making services even more accessible. Thank you, Dr. Nguyen, for your contributions to the District F community.”

Motivating Others to Volunteer

Since that first outreach in 2016, Phan Nguyen has participated in all of Tzu Chi’s dental outreach events in Las Vegas. Additionally, he recruits others to join. “I’m so vocal about my support of Tzu Chi and our mission that they just keep wanting to come back,” he said, and sometimes, they get more volunteers than they need for an event: “That’s a good problem, right? Having too many doctors who want to volunteer every time.”

Volunteer dentists treat patients during Tzu Chi Medical Foundation’s 13th dental care outreach in Las Vegas in May 2022. Photo/Peter Simmons

Moreover, Nguyen pointed out, “We provide the best quality dental care possible because we have oral surgeons, root canal specialists, pediatric dentists, orthodontists, and periodontists who are volunteering with us. These are some of the best doctors in town, and they’re there to provide quality care.”

When I watch the news, I don't have much hope, but when I volunteer with Tzu Chi, I know our future will be okay. We'll be alright.

Dr. Phan Nguyen and the volunteer team reflect on their gratitude for the opportunity to serve those in need through free dental care services. Photo/Courtesy of Phan Nguyen

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