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Medical student's past plays a role in his journey to become a doctor

October 27, 2016

2016 VT Engage Peru Trip
Quan Phung, a second-year medical student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, outside the Bradley Free Clinic in Roanoke, Virginia, where he volunteers. Recently, he was able to help an international patient by communicating with him in Vietnamese.

Pieces of his past have shaped Quan Phung’s future, including his decision to become a doctor, which eventually led Phung to the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t have a lot of the bone structure in my mouth. I went to a lot of different doctors when I was kid, getting referred back and forth. No one would address the situation,” Phung said. “Eventually I met a dentist when I was 13, and he stepped in to take care of it. It made the difference and started planting the idea to go into medicine.”

Phung said he also felt a special drive to succeed for his family. He was born in Vietnam, but his family immigrated to the United States when he was an infant. His parents worked hard to give him and his sister better opportunities. Phung completed his undergraduate studies in biology and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

“I thought about going into medicine from there, but wasn’t quite ready to make the jump considering finances, so I took a job in health policy research for a few years,” Phung said. “But I wanted to work with people directly and kept coming back to the idea of medicine. I finally decided to apply to medical school and make the switch.”

After his interview at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, he felt at home.

“I got the sense that I would be pushed the hardest here, but it would make me stronger," he said.

While medical school hasn’t been easy, some of his other anxieties – including the small class size of just 42 students – have waned as a second-year student.

“I think I was worried that we would be in each other’s space all of the time,” Phung said. “But I don’t feel that way. I think we all have our own goals. We are not trying to get in each other’s way or compare between each other. It’s very supportive.”

Being a few years out of school before starting his medical education, Phung had to brush up on some of his study skills, while using some of his on-the-job training in school as well.

“Different parts of my experience come into play in different areas," he said. "Doing interviews for my past job and talking to our standardized patients now, those skills carry over. For research, the mindset of how to approach a problem and be purposeful about what you are trying to accomplish.”

Students at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine are required to do a research project of publishable quality throughout their four years of study. Phung is doing his project with Warren Bickel, a professor and the director of the Addiction Recovery Research Center at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and professor of psychiatry at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, as well as Sarah Snider, a post-doctoral associate.

“Dr. Bickel and his colleagues are finding that people with addictions have measureable patterns of behavior," Phung said. "My project focuses on if we give them a certain prescription, can we change that behavior? If we give a prescription that has an opposite kind of effect, would it have the opposite effect on that behavior?”

Phung is actively involved in on-going study demands, data collection, and analysis, as well as regular reporting of his research progress.

“Quan is an outstanding addition to the lab and is a diligent worker,” said Bickel, who is also the Virginia Tech Carilion Behavioral Research Professor.

Phung is also focusing on addiction through the medical school’s public health club, which he and another student are leading this year. Their goal is to plan addiction-related volunteer service projects with organizations in the community, such as the Bradley Free Clinic, where Phung has also volunteered to assist with patients. Recently, during an international refugee night at the free clinic, Phung was able to use the conversational Vietnamese he is used to speaking with his parents to help a patient.

“After getting acquainted with the patient and his wife, it was easier for me to speak with them in Vietnamese and relay it back to English. I may not know the word for a specific disorder, but I could use other words to describe the condition,” Phung said.

“Quan provided a fabulous service for a recent refugee in our area, including a lengthy discussion with the patient about his treatment plan, medications, and possible side effects,” said Bruce Johnson, associate dean for faculty affairs at the medical school who was the attending physician at the free clinic that day. “The patient was engaged, and I could tell he was getting the information and reassurance he needed.”

“It was nice to feel like I could help the patient beyond the normal scope that day,” Phung said.

Scholarship Support

Phung is one of two recipients this year of the Daniel and Katina Carusillo Endowed Scholarship, one of four privately funded scholarships at the medical school.

The Carusillos live in San Diego, California, where Daniel Carusillo is the director of anesthesia for the Orthopedic Surgery Center of La Jolla. He received a degree in biological sciences at Virginia Tech in 1986. His wife, Katina Carusillo, graduated from Virginia Tech in 1987 with a degree in systems engineering.

“It’s rewarding as a donor to help the education of fellow Hokies – and future fellow physicians,” said Daniel Carusillo. “It’s very rewarding, more so than giving to a lot of charities and just knowing you gave to a good cause. It’s rewarding above and beyond, because when you support a scholarship the impact is exponentially much greater.”

Beyond helping the student individually, Carusillo said supporting scholarships benefits the student’s family for generations into the future as well as their patients.

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