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More with Dr. Nguyen

I truly believe in the use of robots. There is definitely a cost to it, but if we use it responsibly, it can be a benefit.

Hiep Nguyen, MD

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Hiep Nguyen, MD

By Tom A. Augello, CRICO

Related to: Other Specialties, Physician Voice, Surgery

Former Child War Refugee Now Uses Robots to Fix Kids

As a 10-year-old boy, Hiep Nguyen, MD saw his homeland disappear far below when a helicopter pulled him and his family into the sky over Vietnam while armies moved on the ground.

After a stay in Nebraska with a host family through high school, and then college in California, Nguyen now delivers specialized robotic medical treatment at Boston Children’s Hospital.

From child Vietnam War refugee, to Co-director of Robotic Surgery at a Harvard teaching hospital? Hiep Nguyen (pronounced “Hip Win”), says it’s not as unlikely a journey as it looks.

“My interests in health and medical science, international health, robotics, and technology—all that comes from all these experiences.  It comes from being able to appreciate what you don’t have, realize what you do have, and know that everybody at one time or another feels alienated, feels different, feels underserved, underappreciated. You could be in the wealthiest country and have that feeling. You could be in Africa having that feeling.”


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Nguyen didn’t speak English when he arrived in the U.S., but he found a connection with a new movie series at the time, “Star Wars.” Science fiction offered a universal language for a boy who was seeing snow for the first time in a small Nebraskan town of fewer than 1,000, most of whom had never seen an Asian before.

Luke Skywalker living in a strange desert land where he’s different from everybody else and isn’t understood? Yes, he identified. Robots that talk and help humans? Check.

“The hero always wins in the end, and that really established my love for technology and my imagination for something that is beyond what’s existing now.”

That interest in science fiction carried all the way through college. Nguyen tried to figure out how to blend this passion with medicine, which had always intrigued him because his father was a physician.

As surgical applications for robotics were introduced, Nguyen became one of its strongest advocates.  Robots can grab and cut and tie knots with no human hand tremor. They can also maneuver inside a body in more ways than human hands can.

Today residents in the Urology Department at Boston Children’s Hospital guide robotic arms inside of little children in the OR, while Nguyen stares at a large color monitor and encourages or corrects them.

“I truly believe in the use of robots. There is definitely a cost to it, but if we use it responsibly, it can be a benefit. I believe that, in the long run, when we carefully look at things and design a team approach and design efficient use of these technologies, it’s actually going to save health care more than it is going to cost.”

Nguyen’s enthusiasm rubs off on his staff and colleagues. They mention his gusto for life inside and outside the hospital. His office is loaded with tablets and phones and computers—even two bright white test robots on wheels that follow patients around with their records and orders and games for the children to play.

Nguyen's Zest for Life Spills Over Into His Personal Life

At home are multiple gaming systems. “I used to have an Xbox in the bathroom too.”

In Nguyen’s world, sleep is minimized, so he can play even harder than he works. He strongly believes that physicians have to establish a balance between work and outside interests. To that end, he is also a photographer, painter, chef, potter, scuba diver, and tennis player.

But the fun stuff still has to be squeezed in between work in the hospital and climbing onto an airplane every third weekend to do volunteer mission and international health work. Through International Volunteers in Urology, Nguyen delivers care to the underserved and teaches his craft to other clinicians in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

Then there’s the new baby in his life. Unmarried, in his 40s, Nguyen decided time was running out to find “Dr. Right,” so he recently welcomed a baby boy via surrogate mother.


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“I have a picture of my son as an embryo. How many parents have that?  This type of technology couldn’t exist 30 years ago.  I would never have been able to physically do what I’m doing because the medical technology didn’t exist.  So this scientific sci-fi option is now a reality.  How cool is that?”

Nguyen hopes his son will gain from his father’s world experience. His goal is for his child to see how an individual can impact the world in a positive way and give more than he takes.

As a pediatric subspecialist, having a child of his own also gives him insight into his relationships with patients and their worried parents. Nguyen considers the relationship between physician and patient to be “holy.”

“How do you establish trust in such a short period of time? It’s very difficult. Partly the patient has to do that and you have to be open enough to make them feel comfortable that they can trust you. That’s why it’s holy. Sometimes you don’t know how you got there. It just happens that you and the family connect together and that relationship, that bond happens.  It’s a very special bond that not a lot of people in business may actually experience because how many times in business does somebody you meet for 20 minutes trust you enough to take care of their child, you know?”


December 12, 2012
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