The stories Teresa Nguyen’s parents told her as a little girl growing up in Vietnam planted a seed. They were memories of the day, in 1975, that Saigon fell to North Vietnamese troops, marking the end of the Vietnam War.
“They told me about the droves of people who ran toward American helicopters, hoping to escape the new communist regime,” Nguyen says. Her parents, then children, watched as crowds of people tried to reach American GIs—climbing buildings, even handing up their babies to take to the United States. To them, “the sounds of helicopters signified that hope was leaving.” But to their daughter, who immigrated to the United States with her parents in 1999, the sound of flight sparked something different: excitement. “It meant a chance of hope, opportunity, and a better life,” she says.
The family made a new life in Renton, Wash., her parents eventually working for Boeing, and a sister was born. Nguyen, ’14, MD ’20, studied chemistry in college and then worked as a research scientist at Genentech before returning to Stanford for medical school. The sound of a Life Flight chopper hovering above Stanford Hospital triggered memories of her parents’ stories, and she thought about how much their lives had changed. These helicopters saved lives. That resonated with her, especially now that she was a doctor.
“People say I’m very calm in the operating room during an emergency. I learned that from helicoptering.”
“I just really wanted to learn to fly,” Nguyen says. So when she started her anesthesiology residency at Stanford three years ago, she also signed up for flight lessons. She wanted to become a helicopter pilot.
“When I was living in Ho Chi Minh City, we lived in a very small, meager house [in an area] with unpaved roads. There was a lot of drugs and crime. My aunts were boat refugees who settled in Renton, Wash. My dad tried several times to escape to Malaysia right after the war but never made it. After many years, my aunts became U.S. citizens and started the paperwork to sponsor us. When I was 7, we flew to America. The flight we took was the first plane we had ever been on.
“When we arrived in America, my dad found a job as a janitor and my mom worked in a warehouse. When I was 14, we all became U.S. citizens. I was taught you go to school—that was the thing—and you always try to make your life better.
“I went to Stanford, then got a job in drug design. My personal project was in creating treatments for pain. But I realized I wanted to know more about the patients we were making these medicines for. I wanted to go to medical school.
“There’s a synergy between flight prep and prepping for surgery. You’re constantly scanning, checking the warning lights in a helicopter or oxygen levels in a patient. In a helicopter, if the engine fails, you have 1.5 seconds to respond. You’ve got to remain calm—just like during a medical emergency.
“I chose helicoptering because helicopters save people. I would love to one day fly for Life Flight, but, as a physician-researcher, I may not make the 4,000 hours of flight time required. A dream of mine, though, is to set up the first Life Flight system in Vietnam.
“I took my parents on a helicopter ride for the first time in Seattle on January 22, 2022. When the blades started revving up, my dad [said] his whole heart started beating fast and he was sweating. But after our ride, it was a very different experience for them. It was almost like a marker that we are safe here. As immigrants, you never really feel secure. You’re always worried about losing what you have. I’m so grateful to have helped to heal them in that way.”
Tracie White is a senior writer at Stanford. Email her at email@example.com.