Volume XV | Issue 2 | Fall 2015
“It’s really a privilege to get to care for the veteran who sacrificed for us and who fought for the freedoms I have,” says SreyRam Kuy, pictured at the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Louisiana. Photo: Hannah O'Leary, Oregon Stater magazine

She survived Cambodia's 'killing fields'

And now she treats U.S. veterans as a surgeon

Just being alive is a miracle Ford Scholar Dr. SreyRam Kuy is grateful for every day. Having her mother still living is an even greater joy.

Both barely escaped the “killing fields” of Cambodia, where 2 million others perished under the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. Kuy’s mother, Sovanna Soeung, survived severe injuries, near-starvation and the constant threat of execution, yet she prevailed and eventually brought her family to the United States. 

To honor her mother for her bravery, resilience and ever-positive attitude, Kuy regularly writes newspaper and magazine columns and has composed a book, The Heart of a Tiger, about her family’s remarkable journey to freedom.

She finds the time despite the hours she puts in caring for the nation’s veterans as the first female general surgeon at the Overton Brooks Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Louisiana, where she is director of the Center for Innovations in Quality, Outcomes and Patient Safety. She also teaches at Louisiana State University in Shreveport.

“I wanted to honor the lives of the 2 million people who lost their lives during the killing fields,” Kuy says. “The mass killing of people should not happen. If we remember and understand the reasons, I hope we can prevent this from happening again.”

Forced at gunpoint

Kuy was born during the Cambodian genocide, when the communist Khmer Rouge regime had forced people out of the cities at gunpoint and into the jungles. Because of her mother’s courage, hard work in the rice fields and stubborn will, Kuy said her family managed to survive four years before escaping Cambodia to live in refugee camps for another 18 months.

When Kuy was two years old, their refugee camp was bombed. Her mother suffered critical injuries and Kuy’s ear was partially severed. A German surgeon with the Red Cross stitched Kuy’s ear back in place. He also operated on her mother, but she remained seriously ill for months. 

That story is one of many Sovanna Soeung would tell SreyRam Kuy and her sister, SreyReath Kuy, while they were growing up in Corvallis after the Seventh-day Adventist Church sponsored and brought them to the United States. 

The kindness and generosity of that doctor inspired both women to enter the medical field. SreyReath Kuy is a podiatrist in Houston, Texas.

“That story was a fabric of our being,” SreyRam Kuy says. “It amazes me that someone would leave their home and help someone they don’t even know.”

SreyRam Kuy (lower left) in a refugee camp with her family after escaping from Cambodia.

Because she was so young when her family was in Cambodia and the refugee camps, the stories in her book are based on her mother’s recollections.  

Through the stories, she recognizes how fortunate she is to be an American. For example, her mother was a teacher in Cambodia, but she had to deny she was educated to avoid execution.

“This is an incredible country to live in that anyone can get an education, whether a boy or girl, rich or poor, from a rural background or a city.”

SreyRam Kuy got top grades while attending Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis and achieved valedictorian status. Landing a Ford Family scholarship was crucial to paying for her microbiology and philosophy degrees at Oregon State University, but she says it was just as important to have someone believe in you. 

“That gives you the strength to keep going,” she says. 

Kuy went on to earn a master’s degree at Yale University and attend medical school at Oregon Health & Science University, then completed her general surgery residency. 

When she thought she might not survive her general surgery residency, all she had to do was remember the obstacles her mother overcame.  

“I hope in The Heart of a Tiger, people will realize that no matter how difficult circumstances are, nothing is insurmountable,” she says. “There is a God who is amazing, and if He doesn’t give up on you, you can’t give up on yourself.”

In her work at the Overton VA, Kuy wants to make sure veterans know how much caring for them means to her.

“It’s really a privilege to get to care for the veteran who sacrificed for us and who fought for the freedoms I have and so many people don’t have,” she says. 

In the future, she plans to continue teaching the next generation of doctors, and she has a strong interest in health-care policy. 

“We need to have physicians help shape our health-care system,” she says. 

She also enjoys spending time with her mother, who splits her time between her daughters’ homes in Houston and Shreveport. And she’s hopeful she will find a publisher for her book so others can read of her mother’s strength.

“She’s an amazing woman,” Kuy says. “She has so much courage. She is so strong and has such a heart to serve.” 

 

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