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Caroline Nguyen

Match Day 2019


The patient was a man in his 40s, who had undergone four surgeries in 100 days to remove a stubborn lung infection. He was facing the prospect of a fifth operation.

Caroline Nguyen met him during a palliative care elective in her fourth year at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. She spent hours talking with him about his life, his illness, and his health goals.

One day he told Nguyen “I feel like I’m being tortured. I can’t do this anymore.” He wanted to discontinue life-sustaining treatment.

“He was a tough guy. I’d gotten to know him, to know that he had struggled all his life and to know that he knew what pain was. So when he said ‘This is too much,’ then it really, truly was too much.”

Nguyen and her palliative care team met with the rest of the team to discuss the patient’s wishes. After more consultations, the medical team removed a breathing machine and he died two hours later, surrounded by his family.

“It’s a hard outcome because part of you wants to say ‘If you can just hang in there …’ Nguyen said. “But he was clear. He was tired of being taken care of no matter the odds of improvement, no matter the surgery that might let him go home. He told us, ‘I understand, but I’m done.’”

The case reinforced Nguyen’s belief that the best medical care requires listening to patients as well as treating them.

The experience also reminded her why she walked away from a potential career in basic science research after majoring in microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics at University of California, Los Angeles.

“I loved everything about research. I loved being able to ask questions in a scientific way and figure out the answers in scientific way. I got to write a paper (on antibiotic resistance) and go to a conference and speak in front of immunologists, which was totally intimidating, but I knew my work would help a patient in the future.”

Teaching also interested Nguyen. She was tutoring students in Watts while attending UCLA when she realized medicine would be a good combination of science and teaching.

“Basic science makes my brain happy. What makes my heart happy is when I sit next to patients and get to know them and help them in a way that makes sense to them. So I chose the path that makes my heart happy. I think it’s more sustainable for the future.”

Not ready to walk away from basic science research entirely, Nguyen joined the research track at CU and studied treatment targets for inflammatory bowel disease.

Nguyen, a member of Alpha Omega Alpha and the CU Anschutz Student Senate, got hooked on primary care during her first year when a returning patient recognized her at a clinic.

“He smiled and said ‘Hey, Caroline, how are you?’ and I realized that it was that connection and relationship with people that made a difference to me. I felt he I trusted me because I knew him and what his life looked like. I knew who he was and could help him the best way possible.”

The daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Nguyen learned to value empathy while growing up in Northern California.

“I couldn’t speak Vietnamese - I couldn’t even speak to my grandparents - so I didn’t fit into Vietnamese culture. In school I didn’t fit in because I didn’t look like my friends, I didn’t dress like my friends, I didn’t eat the same food as my friends. There was always a narrative of non-belonging.”

Her background helped her empathize with a student she mentored for four years through the School of Medicine Breakthrough Program, a student-run program that helps urban underserved students. The girl, a Denver high school student, was born in Mexico.

“She became very afraid that her parents might get deported or that she might get deported. She wants to be an engineer, but she didn’t know if she still had a future in this country. I have no background in something that scary. I couldn’t even imagine what that felt like for her.”

Once in practice, Nguyen, 25, who will serve her internal medicine residency at University of California, San Francisco, intends to spend at least half her time in clinic working with underserved populations, and the rest in an academic setting where she can teach fellow physicians to be empathetic caregivers.

“My focus in medicine is communication,” she said. “People ask if empathy is a skill that can be taught or whether it’s an innate skill that people have. I think that all providers have some level of empathy that can be nurtured and fostered to help bloom. There’s more science to it than just telling people to be kinder.”

She hopes to research methods that will help physicians connect with their patients.

“I’ll probably never get back to the pipette and the mechanical aspects of research. I’ll always miss that. But I think so much of research is asking a question and figuring out how to answer, how to measure and make progress. I will still be able to do that.”