Theater experience shapes this GloCal fellow’s medical career

December 7, 2017

Huan Vinh Dong graduated from UC Berkeley in 2007 with two majors: Integrated Biology and Theater and Performance Studies.

While the former certainly laid academic groundwork for the budding scientist and current third-year medical student at the Charles R. Drew/UCLA medical education program, the latter will mold him as a doctor.

“Theater has given me the ability to empathize and connect with patients through universal human traits,” said Dong. “That’s what’s helping me become a compassionate physician.”

Dong has traveled the world as a health educator and scientist, drawing from his theater background for each project. As a Kaiser Permanente Educational Theater program performer-educator and assistant production manager, he taught tens of thousands of students in Northern California, and later in Tanzanian villages, about HIV to reduce stigma about the disease.

In his first return trip to his native Vietnam, which he left with his family when he was four year sold, Dong volunteered at an orphanage and was recruited for a medical mission in the country’s rural hills. “Even though I was just assisting and had no medical knowledge, I was touched by the experience,” he said. “I realized how much impact you can have on the life of a person, and that began my path to medical school.”

As a 2016-17 UCGHI GloCal fellow, Dong took a year off from medical school, and his theater background again was crucial as he conducted successful research on another trip to Vietnam.

In Hanoi, he studied how infectious organisms, such as Neisseria gonorrhoeae (NG) – one of the world’s most prevalent sexually transmitted infections – can potentially swap resistant genetic materials with non-pathogenic organisms. When mingled with cephalosporins, a class of antibiotics used increasingly in Asia, these organisms can be a breeding ground for antibiotic resistance. (See story).

For his research, Dong had to interview and collect laboratory specimens from a group that doesn’t open up to just anyone: men who have sex with men, often socially marginalized and thus hesitant to disclose sexual behaviors and drug use.

That he was able to get more than 200 willing and cooperative research participants was remarkable, and it was because Dong is a skilled and persuasive communicator with a gift for outreach. His research has been presented at several international and national conferences, contributing important perspectives and dialogue about increasing antibiotic resistance.

Now, back in medical school, Dong notices more and more how his experience in the arts aids in his interaction with patients. “In school, we are provided with practice modules and different scenarios, but it's hard to learn the complexities and spontaneity of human social interactions and behaviors from books or presentations,” he said.

 “We can never really predict what the patient will say or do, so I think good outcomes usually come from just being very cognizant and responsive to a situation, instead of always trying to control the situation,” said Dong. “I don't find this very different from those improvisation activities we have in theatre where there are no set lines or phrases. You are just supposed to respond to the situation you are given and the dialogue your scene partners vocalize. I think this teaches me to not just hear, but actually listen to my patients or my ‘scene partners.’”

Dong is still deciding a career path to venture, and his GloCal fellowship and medical school education have “opened my eyes to so many opportunities in not only clinical care, but in advocacy, education and academic research.”

“Throughout my volunteer and work experiences in places with vastly different cultures, one thing remained,” he said. “It’s the unwavering human connection with patients, who are strangers when you first meet them, along with our mutual hope, which helps them to overcome or have some relief from their illness.”