World Renowned Surgeon Comes Home to The Valley

Dr. Si Pham '79

World Renowned Surgeon Comes Home to The Valley

One of a dozen Vietnam refugees sponsored by Lebanon Valley College in 1975, Dr. Si Pham now heads up cardiothoracic surgery at the Mayo Clinic Florida.

In 1975, eighteen-year old Si Pham fled Vietnam with no belongings and no family the day Saigon fell, boarding an abandoned Vietnamese Navy ship with about 2,000 other refugees. They were picked up in international waters and taken first to Subic Bay in the Philippines, then Guam. Now, the Lebanon Valley College alumnus is chair of the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., one of the best academic health care systems in the country. He recently returned to his alma mater to share his story at the College’s annual Vickroy dinner for leadership donors.

Pham eventually arrived at a camp of 17,000 Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees in Fort Indiantown Gap in central Pennsylvania, seven miles from the Lebanon Valley College campus. He said he knew he would need a U.S. sponsor to be released from the camp, but families with young children, elderly parents, or large numbers were given priority over single men like him. So, he waited and studied to prepare for whatever the future had in store. And that’s when fate intervened in the form of the late Dr. George Struble, Lebanon Valley College professor emeritus of English.

Struble taught English at the camp and encouraged Pham and others to apply for admission after then-president Frederick Sample decided to sponsor a dozen refugees and work with them to get loans and work-study opportunities. Struble also made sure Pham continued to learn English, bringing him to his home every week to watch 60 Minutes.

“At that time, I thought that just four months prior, I had left my country with nothing but a shirt on my back,” said Pham. “I didn’t know if I would survive the trip on the open seas or where I would end up living. Now, I was going to go to college to study chemistry in a free country. What a blessing! At last, I saw some light at the end of a tunnel.”

Pham recalled how so many others on LVC’s campus helped him and his fellow refugees get acclimated to campus life, American culture, and the English language. Among those was Dr. Owen Moe, professor emeritus of chemistry.

“Dr. Moe was a great mentor,” said Pham. “He introduced me to basic science research, a passion that I continue to this day. Through this work, I was included in two research papers, my first ever scientific publications, an achievement I was so proud of. Today, 40 years later and with more than 170 scientific publications under my name, I still consider those two papers we published together among my proudest achievements.”

A 1979 graduate of the Lebanon Valley College chemistry program, Pham went on to earn his M.D. at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and later became a faculty member in the department of surgery. In 1993, he was a member of the surgical team that performed the historic combined heart and liver transplant on the late Pennsylvania Governor Robert P. Casey. As director of heart and lung transplantation at University of Miami School of Medicine, he and his team kept two patients alive on machines without their own hearts for months until donor hearts became available for transplant. As leader of the Heart and Lung Transplant Program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, he performed the first minimally invasive implantation of a left ventricular assist device in Maryland.

“The last 43 years have gone by so quickly,” said Dr. Pham. “I have met and become friends with many people, and received help from many to start a new life in this country. It all started at LVC. I am eternally grateful for the help that I had received at LVC and beyond. I will continue to do what I can to pay it forward.”