TAMPA, FLA. – Local residents may remember the Duong family, whose journey to America as Vietnamese boat people in 1978-1979 was supported by the community of churches, teachers, neighbors and friends here in West Michigan.
Hien Duong, the youngest of the six children, ultimately graduated from Whitehall High School in 1995. She went on to the University of Michigan for undergraduate and medical school, and ultimately, Dr. Hien Duong Liu became an oncology/hematology specialist, practicing in blood and marrow transplant and cellular immunotherapy, at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, where she now lives with her family.
The Duong family fled communism in their home country after their father was deemed treasonous for having helped other Vietnamese escape on boats. As they sailed into the South China Sea, they were met by a boat operated by the World Vision organization to provide assistance to boat people during its Operation Seasweep.
The family then spent almost nine months in the Malaysian refugee camp of Pulau Tenga until they received word that they were to be sponsored by the New Era Trinity Lutheran Church for resettlement in western Michigan.
The family’s story is documented in a book called “Becoming Americans: A Vietnamese Boat People Story of Escaping Communism and Finding Freedom in America,” written by Liu’s older brother Robert N. (Ngan) H. Duong, a graduate of the Naval Academy.
Arriving in Michigan, Liu’s parents worked hard to support their family. In Vietnam, her father had been a boat mechanic and was actually involved in building the boat on which they escaped Vietnam.
In America, he ultimately worked for the Kurdziel Iron Foundry in Rothbury, while her mother was a seamstress for a shop in Shelby.
Dr. Liu was only two years old when the family arrived in America.
She started school in Whitehall in fourth grade, and says, “I had great teachers.”
She especially remembers Mrs. Jean Moon, Mr. Ronald Bekius and Mr. Bruce Baxter and adds, “When we came, we really had nothing, but people were very caring. I had teachers who spent extra time with me, and that helped when I went on to college. It gave me confidence and helped me transition.”
She also recalls wonderful next-door neighbors Jack and Jan O’Donnell (now living in Shelby) and how caring they were.
“It was scary to move to a different country and have six kids to raise, and my parents didn’t speak much English,” she noted.
Support from others was, therefore, very important to the family.
In high school, Liu played tennis, which she says was “a big deal,” because she really didn’t know much about being part of a team.
“Our tennis coach back then was Mr. Richard Morley,” she recounts, “and Theresa Rolewicz was one of my closest friends. We were on the tennis team together, and she and her family were always so supportive.”
These days she keeps up with her high school classmates on Facebook and other social media.
After her graduation from medical school, Dr. Liu did an internal medicine residency in Grand Rapids through a Michigan State program, followed by a three-year hematology/oncology fellowship in Cleveland, where she spent seven years, including training and time spent as a Chief Fellow and a physician and on the Cleveland Clinic faculty.
There she met her husband, Dr. James Liu, who is a neurosurgeon specializing in brain tumors.
After Dr. Hien Liu’s parents moved to Florida, her husband was recruited to the Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida, so she interviewed there as well, wanting to be closer to family. They have now been there for three years and have two children, a five-year old daughter Vivienne, and a three-year old son Julian.
When asked if she always wanted to be a physician, Liu outlines her path to her career in medicine and her specialty in oncology/hematology.
“From a young age I wanted to be a physician. As my parents got older, I often went with them to their doctors’ visits. I remember a family physician in New Era who was very caring and compassionate, and I always knew I would want to help in that way.”
Then, when she was a medical student, she spent some time on the leukemia service at the University of Michigan.
“You really get to know them (the patients) and build a special relationship,” she relates. “And I was interested in the science and biology of leukemia.”
She later rotated on the oncology services in Grand Rapids and applied for a hematology and oncology fellowship in Cleveland, where she spent a lot of time on the blood marrow transplant service.
Given this history, her current work at the Moffitt Cancer Center was the next logical step in her career.
The Moffitt Center is a stand-alone cancer center that takes all kinds of cancer patients. In fact, Dr. Liu’s father was treated for lung cancer there, and she became familiar with the Center when she flew to Florida to be with him.
He is now six years out from his original diagnosis, and she gratefully says, “He is a survivor.”
In this time of COVID, Liu says the Moffitt Center continues to screen and provide care for patients, and its work is critical at this time.
“For our patients, cancer treatment can’t wait, and we are worried about how our patients would survive. They are immunodepressed, so fortunately they are already well trained in isolation. Of course,” she continues, “as physicians, we are also concerned about our families, and I am very cautious about what I do outside.”
Concerning her family, Liu comments, “I work a lot; he (her husband) works a lot. So, when we’re not working, we try to spend as much time as possible with our kids and parents and my sister (who is also in Florida). We have before- and after-school day care who comes and drives kids to school in morning, and stays until we get home.
“My workday is 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. and my husband works similar hours. In our family, we have dinner together every night and put the kids to bed together every night. It’s hard, but we make a point to do it.
“Work doesn’t stop when we go home though. After the kids are in bed, we sometimes work at home.”
They also try to take time off when the children are off from school.
In addition to their already busy lives, the Lius are active academically, have residents and fellows working with them, and are involved in a National Society through which they contribute in terms of research and education.
The last time Liu was back in Michigan was in October 2019 for the funeral of a close family friend, Father Norbert Levrita, from the family’s time at St. John’s Catholic Church in Montague. But she still thinks of New Era and Whitehall as “home,” and as very special to her family.
Once travel is again possible after Covid, she looks forward to bringing her children to Michigan to go to the beach and visit other local places her family used to go.
As she thinks back now, she emphasizes, “I really appreciate how open the people were in Whitehall. I don’t know if things have changed much, but it was not a very diverse place back then.
“When our family moved there, we were on the front page of the White Lake Beacon, and we must have been the only Asian family for many miles. There were so many wonderful people, and I’m very thankful for the time I was there.”