Lucky Vang, DO, has always called the Twin Cities “home.” He grew up in the east metro, but his studies and training took him across the U.S. and back – twice – while he prepared for his career as a general surgeon. Now with University of Minnesota Physicians (M Physicians), Dr. Vang treats patients with conditions like acute appendicitis and those with longer-term needs such as hernia repairs.
Dr. Vang’s path to becoming a surgeon started while he was young. His parents are first-generation immigrants, and he grew up accompanying them to medical appointments, helping translate complex information presented in English into Hmong, their native language. As he continued to grow and explore his career, Dr. Vang nurtured a penchant for health and wellbeing while making it accessible for others.
How it all started
Dr. Vang’s parents immigrated to Minnesota in the late 1970s following the Vietnam War. When they arrived, his parents primarily spoke Hmong, and they began to learn English as a second language. For many children of first-generation immigrants, Dr. Vang says they learn both their parents’ native language in addition to English, and that the youth often serve as interpreters for their own families, especially in healthcare settings. “Even for those whose parents speak some English, they aren’t fluent in it, and when you add medical terminology, it can be very difficult to fully understand what it all means,” he explains.
Growing up with those experiences stuck with Dr. Vang as he pursued an undergraduate degree in biology at Union University in New York and then a master’s degree in clinical biology at Drexel University in Philadelphia. When he returned to Minnesota after graduating, he began working for the then-HealthEast health system, which is now part of M Health Fairview, as an interpreter for English-speaking surgeons and Hmong-speaking patients.
“I really got to know the team of incredible surgeons there in that time before I went to medical school,” Dr. Vang says, “And I really wanted to become a surgeon and come back to work with them and the patients they serve.”
In 2010, after a year and a half of serving as an interpreter, Dr. Vang enrolled at Touro College of Medicine in Harlem, New York. He went on to complete his residency in general surgery in Detroit and then began practicing in rural southwest Minnesota. His heart, however, remained where he grew up in the Twin Cities.
“The Twin Cities area is incredibly diverse with a close community,” Dr. Vang says, “To continue serving the community I grew up with as a surgeon is something I had always wanted to do.”
Where it led
So, in December 2021, Dr. Vang returned once again to the Twin Cities as a general surgeon with M Physicians, treating patients with the same group of surgeons he worked with before he attended medical school. “They are truly a group of people who work together and perpetuate the idea of helping one another. They were always welcoming, and that's the best kind of team you want to get into.”
Now, Dr. Vang is bringing together two life paths to serve his patients: making language accessible to patients while caring for them as their general surgeon. “It feels very full circle in a couple of ways,” Dr. Vang observes, “Being an interpreter for my parents, and then for patients, really helped round me out by providing me with that perspective I have when treating my patients today.”
This is important, Dr. Vang notes, because when patients need surgery, they may often feel uneasy and nervous about what is to come. “It helps me as an individual to talk with my patients using words and language they understand, instead of complex medical terminology, so they can learn their prognosis, the procedure, the risk and how they can heal in a way that’s comfortable and easy to understand.”
It makes a difference, Dr. Vang says, especially when patients’ conditions become more complex in already-difficult experiences in their lives. “It helps me to provide my patients with the comfort that I am never going to give up on them and that I am going to do everything in my power to help them recover. They feel positive about it, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that they are going to recover.”
And for Dr. Vang, that’s at the heart of his work. “To know that even in those circumstances that my patients never gave up on me is the biggest achievement I think a physician can have: For a patient to have so much trust in you, undergo such a traumatic event and still stick with you because they believe in you.”
“Being back here and doing this with these patients and surgeons,” he adds, “Is truly a dream come true.”