At a time in everyone’s life, we come to find ourselves in a situation where the music stops, and we must go on.  The unfortunate truth about life is that the unexpected will happen. Some of us learn from it, some of us change because of it and some of us find our life’s calling because of it. The latter was the case for me.  After our dad picked us up from middle school, we spent that afternoon like we had every afternoon that month. We went to the oncology unit at the hospital, where my brother was admitted.



I remember him. I remember the man in the dark blue sarong the same way I remember the lines on back of my own hand. He was hunched over next to a column on a dirty platform at a railway station in Calcutta, India in the middle of the harsh summer sun. His hands were withered, his fingers and toes looked like tiny nubs, and he was completely malnourished and alone. He had opaque blue eyes, as if fog had taken place of his irises and pupils.



I studied insects in college; my favorite insects were the bees (I found them diligent and so helpful to humankind).  One of my favorite classes was about medical diseases caused by insects. My professors noticed my interest in the medical side of things and connected me with a professor who did clinical research. Our work focused on a clinical trial for children with intractable epilepsy and exposed me early on to patient care and patients.


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going through extenuating pain along the way from multiple losses to being turned away when asking for help.  As I followed through with many of the same patients, I learned that these sacrifices made their hearts more fortified and even more compassionate.  Likewise, I had begun to look at my own experiences with an intense gratitude of where I am at that moment, and how I viewed my journey to medicine.  My heart not only learned to heal the broken and missing pieces, but to empower myself and others to affirm these pieces as moments to self and community growth.

Today, I am a first-year pathology resident at the University of Kentucky Healthcare program.  Like most budding physicians who are in that time period, I am still learning my role in the vast picture called medicine.  Perhaps this is one of the biggest sacrifices I make each day, and the road is still in construction.  I choose to live with open eyes for opportunities to evolve. The more I learn from what I did not know before, the closer I am to making a positive difference for the autism and disability communities.  No sacrifice made in training, even in the most difficult moments, is ever in vain if it is going to help someone know their own health and wellness from the perspective of someone who has been through such adversities.  Although I may be one of the few and perhaps only one on the autism spectrum to be in medicine, I consider this a blessing in excellent faith to teach about what it means to have lived as a patient and to live as a physician.  Furthermore, for every person who does not know about the many sacrifices people with disabilities make to live, there is someone who needs the compassionate hand to guide them to understanding that any adverse experience deserves acknowledgement, hope, and someone who listens and affirms.

At the end of each day of the journey, I believe that the gift far outweighs the sacrifice, for me, for my mother, and for all of my peers in medicine.  The gift we have received is the opportunity to serve, to lead, and to forge a path that has so many benefits to humankind.  For me, that gift was available even to me with my circumstances, and I believe it is for a reason.  To make medicine and health care a more compassionate and knowledgeable place would not only be beneficial for those with autism, but for everyone.  To the world, we may be a small part of their life, but to one person, we are their universe.  I am proud to be an integral member of the Lexington Medical Society and the University of Kentucky Healthcare, where patient outreach and education are important congruent values for all the goals I have worked and continue striving towards in medicine.    

When I reflect on the sacrifices that I’ve made to study medicine, I also note that my mother has altered her life for me to realize my potential.

Being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder could have been a life-limiting event for me.  However, my mother knew that while the road would be long and full of heartbreaking learning experiences, she was willing to work tirelessly to give me the foundation I would rely on during my path to becoming a part of the medical community.  As I got older, we decided my autism could enhance my life as well as that of my peers, and we hope to increase the level of awareness for autism-related healthcare.

I knew, as a child, that I wanted to be a physician.  I wanted to study diseases and disorders in a discipline where I could use the highly analytical nature of various conditions to spot patterns or characteristics and identify possible culprits.  To do so, I understood, would take a tremendous amount of money, time and courage.  My mother worked hard behind the scenes (even returning to school herself to be able to change careers) and spent countless hours supporting me as I poured myself into academics.  Beyond the education alone was the constant thought that someone such as me was perhaps aiming too high.  Therefore, I thought of nothing else and worked towards nothing else but my dream.

I had to be conscious to never take any step for granted.  Maintaining eye contact and integrating the aspects of my autism into ways


that would potentiate my academic and social skills would require that I could not live carefree as a child, as a teenager, or as a young adult.  So much was at stake.  I could not stay comfortable in my own skin and fall back on my struggles as an excuse.  The bigger picture was that through my sacrifice, I could bring affirmations of humanity through advocacy and awareness of people with autism in health care.

When I started medical school in Detroit, Michigan, I knew no one in my class who had lived with autism.  I was nervous but excited to be an intimate asset to many patients’ lives as I navigated clinical rotations.  I had left the routine cradle called familiarity and home to be an integral part of closing disparity gaps in health care.  If there were people who could not afford to live well due to economic circumstances, then the road to wellness was even more treacherous and burgeoning for those living with disabilities.  I would soon not only help provide preventive and secondary care to multiple patients with autism living in Detroit but also provide services for what they did need to survive each second.  In some cases, I became a resource for those who needed someone who was in their shoes, someone to just listen when hope was far away.  At first, my heart mourned for all who had to hike such mountains, often falling, exhausting, and


Phuong-Lan Nguyen is a first-year pathology and laboratory medicine resident at the University of Kentucky Healthcare.  She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Integrative Human Biology at the University of California at Berkeley and her MD at Wayne State School of Medicine in Detroit, MI.