Physician's journey concludes on inspirational note

When she was 9 years old, Thuy Le and her family fled Vietnam in a fishing boat that nearly sunk during a perilous journey that took them to a remote Chinese island, then to Hong Kong and, ultimately, the United States.

The UT Southwestern alumna, inspired by educational opportunities, her father's medical struggle and the desire to make a difference in her adopted homeland, has chosen a career helping patients suffering from deadly types of cancer.

Originally, Dr. Le planned to follow in the footsteps of her father, Tuyen Le, who worked as a college math professor in Vietnam. But witnessing her father's agonizing battle with pancreatic cancer instilled in her a desire to become a doctor as well as find a cure for cancer.

While making rounds during her hematology/oncology fellowship at UT Southwestern, Dr. Le would routinely walk past the room at UT Southwestern University Hospitals where Mr. Le spent the last days of his life in June 1994. It always evoked memories of her father.

"It's a very deadly cancer," Dr. Le said. "I was at the hospital for three months to comfort my father. Sometimes I slept there at night. Only 20 percent of patients, like my father, are surgical candidates. But even if you completely resect the tumor, the five-year survival rate in these patients is only 20 percent.

"I thought I could use my education, my talent, and give cancer patients the care and compassion they need the most. They need somebody to understand what they are going through."

After her father's death, Dr. Le said she felt a vocation to take care of patients with the most aggressive cancers.

The young Vietnamese native has come a long way since arriving in the United States in 1982. She had to learn English after her family settled in Dallas.

Hard work soon followed. Her father worked two shifts at a 7-Eleven; her mother took a job as a seamstress. The parents, meanwhile, encouraged their six children to take full advantage of the free public education in the United States. And all six excelled.

One sister became a manager for an engineering firm, one sister earned a doctorate in pharmacology, another sister is an internist, one brother is a neuro-radiologist and Dr. Le's youngest brother is doing his residency in family medicine in Houston.

She was valedictorian of her class at Dallas' Bryan Adams High School. She studied biochemistry at UT Austin where she graduated summa cum laude. Scholarships financed her college education, and the Harold B. and May E. Sanders Scholarship Fund helped pay for medical school. She graduated in 1999 and went on to do her residency and a fellowship at UT Southwestern.

Dr. Le will join the practice of Texas Cancer Associates in Dallas in January, and two UT Southwestern mentors expect her to become a sought-after oncologist.

Dr. Carlos Becerra, a colorectal cancer specialist and assistant professor of internal medicine, said the death of Dr. Lee's father has prepared her in a unique way to assist her patients. "It offers much insight into issues patients and their families are confronted with when the diagnosis is cancer," he said.

Dr. Robert Collins, director of the Hematopoietic Cell Transplant Program, met Dr. Le when she was an intern and he was her attending physician in internal medicine.

"I encouraged her to get into oncology," said Dr. Collins, holder of the Sydney and J.L. Huffines Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research in Honor of Eugene Frenkel, M.D., and the H. Lloyd and Willye V. Scaggs Professorship in Medical Research. "I found her as a fellow all the things I'd expected her to be -- intelligent, well-read, conscientious, very caring.

"Some of our cancer patients told me that they felt lost until she walked in. She brought peace and hope to them. It was a wonderful experience working side by side with her."