My name is Tracy Nanthavong. I am Lao American and current work as an oncology nurse. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I went to Carlow University for my Bachelor’s in Nursing and worked there for two years. When I decided that I hated winter, I moved to San Diego, California and it has been three years since I joined Sharp Memorial Hospital.
My parents are from Laos and came from a rural area called Savannakhet, one of the southern provinces. They were in the same refugee camp in Thailand but they did not know each other before they got married. My mom was living with her aunt in the camp and my dad was living with his mom. However, my mom’s aunt was selected to come over to America through sponsorship by her family already in the States, but my mom couldn’t go with her because of the preference system, which favors immediate family. Therefore, worried that my mom was going to be all alone in the camp, her aunt went over to my dad and asked, “Do you want to marry my niece because I won’t be able to take care of her.” My dad agreed. So my parents have such a funny story of how they met, but they have been together since and their marriage is still going strong!
My dad had been in the refugee camp since he was little and even to this day, he doesn’t really talk about how he got there, though I think it might be because he doesn’t really remember. From what it sounds like from his childhood memories, he may have spent the majority of his childhood there.
My mom arrived in the refugee camp during her teenage years, when she was around 14 or 15 years old. My grandfather had been hiding for awhile because of the war, and when he went back home to my grandmother, he wanted the whole family to escape. However, my grandmother didn’t want to leave and neither did my oldest aunt since she had just recently gotten married. So my mom, the second oldest daughter, ended up being the one to leave with my grandfather, leaving everyone else behind. They both don’t talk much about how they made it to the refugee camp, but from the bits and pieces I’ve gathered from other relatives, I think they spent quite some time in hiding before making it to the camp, and that overall it was a very traumatic experience.
My parents landed in Pittsburgh in 1987. My uncle, my dad’s brother, was sponsored (possibly by a church) to Pittsburgh and he was able to sponsor my parents. They have never wanted to leave Pittsburgh since, and still live there to this day.
Did you know today is World Refugee Day? My parents came to the States in the 80s with little education and had to learn a whole new language and culture. Growing up, I heard stories of having to leave family behind, having to cross the Mekong river in the dark to escape their country, and living in the conditions of a refugee camp. I learned about how they struggled to make a life in the US and how people who had love instead of hate in their hearts helped them along the way. This is a picture of my parents when they got their citizenship. They're some of the lucky ones. There's still refugees out there who aren't so lucky. Instead of hate, have some love in your hearts for those who have lost so much. #worldrefugeeday #laofamily #laorefugees #laotianrefugees #daughterofrefugees #withrefugees
A post shared by Tracy (@misslaonurse) on
There was not really a Lao or Southeast Asian community around me. I grew up in a little suburb east of Pittsburgh called Penn Hills, and growing up, we were the only Lao family, or Asian family for that matter, there— I was the definition of “Token Asian.” Outside of my family, there was an Asian community in Akron where there is a Buddhist temple, and we would make the 2.5-3 hour drive once or twice a year; it’s also where we would be able to go grocery shopping for Lao food. We’ve also driven to Connecticut and Virginia for community or family events in those places, and I believe there is also a Lao community in Philly.
Being far from centers of community made my upbringing different from that of many other Lao folks I know. Even in the big Lao community in San Diego, I feel kind of disconnected sometimes because I have different points of reference considering how I didn’t have a strong connection to my cultural identity growing up. When I was little I learned to speak Lao, but once I started school, I stopped because I wanted to fit in and because English became the dominant language in my life. I started to relearn it a little bit in high school and college on my own, and now I try to make an effort to answer in Lao if possible when I speak to parents. And now that I work as a nurse in a city with a bigger Lao population, I do get Lao patients so it helps to be able to have the ability to communicate with them.
When I was in the beginning of tenth grade, we got a call from Thailand, where my paternal grandmother lived at the time, telling us that she was really sick and asking if there was any way if we could fly over because my family was worried that she didn’t have a lot of time left. My dad and I were the only ones who could go, and luckily we got to spend around three days with her before she passed. My dad and I were at her bedside the entire time, caring for her.
I had originally wanted to become a history teacher but my teachers had always told me to aim for something in the medical field. When I came back to the States, I was talking to one of my counselors about my experience in Thailand and witnessing how poor the medical care was in Thailand and Laos, especially in the rural villages. The counselor suggested that since I didn’t have an interest in becoming a doctor, what about a nurse, a path that would center more heavily on patient care? That’s when I decided that I wanted to be a nurse.
I went to Carlow and my first clinical rotation was in the cardiac care unit. I had volunteered at a hospital during high school and had thought that cardiac nursing was pretty cool, but the nurses in my clinical were so mean to us, and I told myself that I did not want to be like that. Our second clinical was medical oncology, and at the time I was also volunteering on an oncology unit, and I really liked how the nurses treated the patients and they really modeled for me the type of nurse I wanted to be. I fell in love with medical oncology and haven’t looked back since. In terms of end of life care, it often goes hand in hand with medical oncology. With my first job at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), there were two nurses, Kate and Valerie, who went to an end of life care conference and when they came back, taught the rest of us about it, opening the door for me to this field and for helping me become an advocate for death with dignity.
I also credit my parents for everything. They always supported me on my educational goals and dreams, even when my goals were not always something they envisioned for me.
I work in oncology so in terms of the Lao patients that I’ve worked with, there is a high incidence of colon cancer. I don’t know if it is diet, genetics, or what have you, but it makes it much more difficult for refugees because they don’t have medical histories or records. For instance, I really do not know what conditions or diseases my great-great grandparents had, and I still do not know what my grandmother passed away from. Another disease that affects the Lao community (I work with) is diabetes since we eat so much sticky rice, which has a high carb content, but you can’t tell the elders to stop eating sticky rice! So for me, I think it is incredibly important for the Lao patients to follow up with their primary care physicians and to keep an eye on their health. From what I have seen, many of the patients who come to see us are already in the advanced stages of cancer because they did not follow up from their initial appointments or were unable to because of reasons like lack of access or family support. It makes it so much harder to get the patients the treatment they need if they come to us so late. I wish there was some sort of outreach program to teach basic medical care to Laos communities.
I work at Sharp Medical Center and we support patients from very diverse backgrounds, and we have information in languages including Indonesian, Tagalog, and Khmer, but there is nothing in Lao despite the fact that San Diego has a significant Lao population; there needs to be an initiative taken to find someone who can help us translate these documents into Lao. Also, to my knowledge, there isn’t a Lao-English medical dictionary, so when I try to translate for my patients, I do not have the vocabulary to be as effective as I can, though there might not even be Lao words for certain things - is there a Lao word for chemo? I’ve been looking for this dictionary for years now; recently I went back to Laos and my friend and I searched and searched, but we weren’t about to find anything.
So what would be most helpful is to first find someone to help translate all the medical forms into Lao, and then finding a way to get a hold of a Lao-English dictionary. We then should work on building a better infrastructure to provide services to the Lao community: transportation services, workshops, mobile clinics, a resource guide, networking with other Lao communities, etc.
I discovered the the Lao Cultural Community Center when I was trying to find volunteer opportunities for my nursing unit. I wanted to try to introduce them to the Lao community and in my research came across LCCC. I emailed them and ended up connecting with Casey, the Treasurer and Volunteer Coordinator, and Paulette, the President. My unit volunteered with them for a New Year’s event and came back to help with the Dragon Boat Racing Festival. They saw that I kept coming back and asked me to join, as they were looking to bring in younger Lao Americans to bring in a new perspective. I started as the Secretary and now I’m the youngest member on the Board.
LCCC has been around since 1992 in San Diego, and its goal is cultural preservation through community events and collaborating with other similar organizations. Our next big event is September 22, when we will be holding our Lao Dragon Boat Festival in San Diego at Mission Bay.
I think that there was maybe a one-sentence mention in a chapter on the Vietnam War, despite Laos being the most heavily bombed country, but I honestly learned about Lao and Lao American history outside of school: from my uncle, my mom’s cousin, who shared a few articles with me, resources like Legacies of War, and from my parents, who were a bit more open about their experiences once my sister and I got a bit older.
There is currently a CA Senate Bill 895 that will require K-12 to study Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Hmong refugees experiences, but does not include the Lao diaspora. It would be helpful if people could reach out to their local representatives to demand an amendment to the bill.
San Diego Lao Heritage Foundation: They promote the chance for young kids to learn Lao art, music, culture, and dance, and they actually hold a summer camp every year. We are actually a chapter of the larger Lao Heritage Foundation - there are also chapters in D.C., Fresno, Seattle, and a few other cities.