Dr. Van (Mimi) Chau began working as pediatrician in January at the Key Center Medical Center where her colleague, Dr. William Roes, said she is the first pediatrician ever to practice on the KP. Chau, meanwhile, said it is her dream job: She loves her work, has always been interested in getting to know a community and connecting families with local resources, and the office is practically around the corner from her home.
Chau grew up near Boulder, Colo., with her younger brother. Her parents were both refugees from Vietnam. “They were boat people,” she said. Her mother’s family lived in a refugee camp in Thailand before moving to their sponsor’s town in rural Oregon. Her father and his family arrived in Los Angeles from a camp in Indonesia. Her parents met when her mother’s family moved to L.A. to find work. The couple married and moved to Boulder when her father found a job there as a jeweler, using skills he had learned in Indonesia.
Chau did well in school. “I had great mentors and teachers who believed in me,” she said. She now serves as a mentor with the program that helped her in high school. After graduation she went to Stanford.
During her orientation weekend on campus she met another freshman, Chris Rurik (KP News staff member). They hit it off, but both had other serious relationships and it wasn’t until their senior year that they began dating. He grew up in Gig Harbor and spoke of his love for the family property on the Key Peninsula where he spent many happy days. He told Chau that he wanted to settle there.
Chau always loved science and the lifelong learning it entails. She considered pre-med, but “as a first-generation immigrant and college student I didn’t really know that there were other things to study, that I could be something other than a doctor,” she said. She discovered anthropology.
“I was the only Asian woman in my high school. I knew race affected my life, but it was hard to put words around it and talk about it,” she said. “Studying anthropology was a way to learn the vocabulary around social forces that you don’t even realize affect you, but they do.”
For her thesis she studied skin whiteners in Vietnam. The project allowed her to visit and explore her family’s country of origin and to meet relatives who had remained there. She lived with her grandmother and went to beauty salons with her cousin, where they got their hair done and talked with customers — Chau speaks Cantonese and Vietnamese. In Vietnam, “whiter skin means you take better care of yourself, that you don’t have to be outside in the sun. It’s a class thing,” she said.
During her senior year, she returned to Vietnam and worked in a girls’ shelter. “I spent time with them, ate with them, taught them English,” Chau said. “It was transforming. I realized I didn’t want to sit in an office and write about them or other subjects. I wanted to be with them and do things with or for them.” To her that meant going to medical school.
Chau returned to Boulder for a year to do her pre-med requirements. She and Rurik maintained a long-distance relationship for a while, until he followed her there. He found work and she entered medical school at the University of Colorado. She chose pediatrics, although she briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a surgeon. “I liked the satisfaction of getting in there and fixing things,” she said. But she loved the integration of care, the teaming with parents, teachers and others, that is a part of caring for children.
After medical school came a three-year residency. She and Rurik, now married, wanted to be on the West Coast, and she decided to enter the program at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
When it came time to look for work, she focused on jobs in the area. Chau interviewed with Community Health Care, a clinic network based in Pierce County. The interviewer noted that Rurik had grown up in Gig Harbor. He said they were in the process of buying a building and taking over a practice nearby. “Have you heard of Key Center?” he asked. Chau and Rurik nearly fell out of their chairs. “It felt like everything was aligning,” she said.
The residency training at Children’s is highly regarded, but Chau said that being a new mother — her son George recently turned 1 — has made her a much better pediatrician. “I give so much more credit to parents now. I am so much more graceful,” she said.
Chau works in the clinic Thursday afternoons and every other Wednesday morning. She is available by phone when she is not in clinic to answer questions and is at other CHC clinics the rest of the week. She hopes to spend more of her clinical time in Key Center as the practice grows and staffing allows, and to become involved in community programs. She said that she has felt welcomed both by the clinic and by the community, but “George is the star. The librarian and the postmaster love him.”
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