Member of the Month: Elizabeth Tran, M.D.
Resident member drawn to medicine through international volunteer work
Elizabeth Tran, M.D., is chief resident for the Baylor Family Medicine Residency Program, northwest health track, in Houston. After graduating from college in 2000, Tran says she joined the U.S. Peace Corps to take herself out of her comfort zone and experience other cultures. She traveled to Guinea, West Africa, to work in rural villages teaching the residents about children’s immunizations and nutrition, perinatal care, and HIV/AIDS.
“Living and working in another culture to learn a different way of life was challenging but it gave me a deep respect for another culture and a deep appreciation for my own life: my family and friends, my health and education. The experience allowed me to develop my own worldview and, in the process, I realized that I wanted to help people improve their lives through improving their health.”
She continues to volunteer with the Texas Children’s Hospital Mobile Clinic, an outreach program providing free health care to uninsured children in Houston, and the Inter-professional Drug Education Alliance, a drug awareness program presented in local elementary schools.
Tran was awarded her medical degree by the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in Rochester, N.Y., and received her Bachelor of Arts in French from Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass.
Tell us about your background. My parents and I were among the many “boat people” who came to the United States from Vietnam in the early 1980s. We settled in Louisiana because my uncle was living in Alexandria at the time. I grew up in central Louisiana, “Cenla” as we call it, and my parents and extended family are still there.
Why did you choose family medicine, and what’s your favorite aspect of it? A good family physician treats a disease within a person’s life and understands that few significantly debilitating conditions exist outside the socio-cultural context of that life. Acknowledging a person’s background and addressing socioeconomic factors such as gender, ethnicity, and education are part and parcel to both disease prevention and treatment. I decided to become a family physician because of this comprehensive view of medicine within primary care and my absolute belief in family- and community-based medicine.
The patients I take care of make all the difference to me. The most rewarding aspect of family medicine is having the opportunity to get to know patients as people in the continuum of care, e.g. seeing an obstetric patient in her prenatal course through to her delivery and postpartum follow-up, having the chance to see her newborn in a well-child visit, then taking care of that mother for her preventive screening for diabetes and heart disease. It’s a wonderful feeling to have that rapport in continuity of care.
Describe your experience with the Peace Corps. What inspired you to get involved? I wanted to travel and do something exciting after college, something that would take me far from the comfortable life I had known. I had the perfect opportunity to do this in Guinea as a public health volunteer. Living and working in another culture to learn a different way of life was challenging but it gave me a deep respect for another culture and a deep appreciation for my own life: my family and friends, my health and education. The experience allowed me to develop my own worldview and, in the process, I realized that I wanted to help people improve their lives through improving their health.
What was one of the most interesting experiences you had when interacting with the local culture? In international development work, you learn that sustainability comes about through change in beliefs and practices. At the local level, you have to affect change in the community by working with people and identifying their knowledge deficits to change unhealthy or unsafe practices.
One of my most rewarding experiences was working with the children in my village, Selouma, the majority of whom spoke the local language, Pular. It is a very complex language, spoken by most and written by the educated few. Much of the success I had in my work in Selouma was because I learned to speak Pular with the villagers. I carried out projects involving basic health education, including hand hygiene. I remember one time, in order to make the lesson more enjoyable, I translated a song about the importance of hand washing into Pular, sung to the tune of Frère Jacques, a French nursery tune: “Soodee juude, soodee juude, ndiyan saabunde, ndiyan saabunde/ Si awadataa dun, si awadataa dun, a nawnay jooni.” (Wash your hands, wash your hands, [with] water and soap/ If you don’t do this, if you don’t do this, you’ll get sick soon.) We sang the song as we washed our hands at the water pump. The kids loved it! Later on that evening, as I walked back to my hut, I could hear some kids singing the song at home in their own huts.
How does your volunteer experience influence/affect your family medicine training? I definitely have an appreciation of multiculturalism and a respect for different beliefs and value systems. The people whom I have met and worked with in my experiences in the U.S. and abroad have shared a common belief in family life, a reinforcing belief for me. This fundamental unit is the foundation of family medicine and my decision to go into this field was a natural extension of my belief in family.
What are your plans after residency? The constant throughout my work and training so far has been my commitment to underserved care and within this area, a reinforcing interest in women’s health. I plan to pursue this interest by applying for fellowship in women’s health and my hope is to have the opportunity to further my training as a family physician in women’s health care.
As chief resident, what advice would you offer first-years? First of all, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions. You may be afraid to show others what you do not know but oftentimes the people around you have the same questions. By asking these questions, you may be admitting you do not know something, but realize that you are also showing that you are willing to learn – and that makes all the difference. Secondly, whatever the challenges you face in these three years of training, try to remember why you wanted to go into family medicine. Some words of wisdom I heard from another family physician: be that doctor that you wrote about in your personal statement.
What is the most important lesson you have learned in residency? Medicine is lifelong learning. There will always be something new to learn or relearn. Even then, information learned is not always 100 percent truth. It is important to have a healthy sense of skepticism and always question what is purportedly known; it is always subject to evolve as our understanding of science and medicine changes.
If you could make your community aware of one public health issue or challenge, what would it be and why? The lifestyle that we have in the U.S. is oftentimes comfortable and convenient which lends itself to an unhealthy sedentary pace and complacent mindset. People should understand how this lifestyle is affecting their health, especially in their weight. I would challenge people to be more active in their lives and proactive in their thoughts, so that we hear not only their words but see their action.
What was the last good book you read? The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
What movie would you recommend? Victoria para Chino is short film about the tragedy of our nation’s deadliest human smuggling operation, which occurred near Victoria, Texas, in 2003. The film provides a narrative of the treacherous journey made by a group of Mexicans crossing the border into Texas in a tractor-trailer that was abandoned by the driver at a truck stop near Victoria. Nineteen of the more than 70 people in the trailer died from asphyxiation, dehydration, and hyperthermia.
TAFP’s Member of the Month program highlights Texas family physicians in TAFP News Now and on the TAFP website. We feature a biography and a Q&A with a different TAFP member each month and his or her unique approach to family medicine. If you know an outstanding family physician colleague who you think should be featured as a Member of the Month or if you’d like to tell your own story, nominate yourself or your colleague by contacting Kate Alfano by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (512) 329-8666 ext. 16. View past Members of the Month here.