Dustin Kelley: Hello, my name is Dustin Kelley. I am a librarian at Lewis & Clark College's Watzek Library. Today is January 8th, 2021. I have the privilege today of speaking with Dr. Hieu Pham via Zoom. Dr. Pham and his wife are founders of Atlas Dental, where Pham practices dentistry. On the side, he also performs with his dance crew, Moon Patrol. I am really excited to hear more about that. Hieu, thank you so much for speaking with me today.
Hieu Pham: Yeah, thanks for having me. I really appreciate it and just appreciate being here and being a part of what you are doing, so thank you so much for having me.
DK: Happy to have you. Can you begin by stating your name and briefly introducing yourself?
HP: So, my name is Hieu Pham. I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, graduated from Portland State, then went on to OHSU, so I have stayed in Portland my whole life. I grew up in Northeast Portland and graduated from dental school in 2015 and started Atlas Dental with my wife in late 2018. So, we have just passed the two year mark.
DK: Congratulations, by the way. That must feel like a pretty big accomplishment.
HP: Yeah, we have been pretty fortunate, we have been working really hard for the past two years and it has been good and it is definitely something that has been rewarding to do. Lots of work, but definitely rewarding. I do not know if you knew this, but I actually recently just had my first kid, too, so five months old now.
DK: So you're a busy person!
HP: Yeah, definitely. Very busy. But I think having a baby has been a life-changing perspective, so it has definitely changed my priorities and just kind of rearranged things. That is why I requested to meet with you a little bit earlier—they normally sleep in until about 10:00, 10:30.
DK: They have the good life.
HP: Exactly, yeah.
DK: So, on your dental practice website you talked a lot about your values in terms of building design and neighborhood selection—it sounds like you and your wife took a very hands-on approach to creating your practice. Can you tell us more about your motivations in terms of the priorities in selecting them and how they reflect your values?
HP: I think, for me, a lot of the reasons why I do the things that I do all come back to exactly what you said: the values that I uphold. Essentially, that all stems from my parents, but moving forward from that, it stems from dance. I had briefly told you before we started that my dad's a musician, and so growing up he actually had me learn multiple instruments. I know how to play the piano, guitar, violin, bass. So, music was a huge part of me and both my brother's lives. That started to translate to dance and me and both of my brothers were dancing as well together, growing up. So, dance is a big part of my life as well and once I got to the interest in dental—my interest in dental essentially comes from the fact that it is a perfect blend of art and science to me. I actually started to really enjoy just learning about how things happen. Science in general was something I was pretty interested in when I started college, and I was looking for something that had a little bit of the art aspect to it as well. That is when I went into dental, but just working after dental school just did not feel like it was enough to satisfy that art aspect of my life. That is when I decided to create the patient experience exactly how I wanted it to be, especially because my wife was actually one of my first patients and she has severe dental anxiety. So, I think for me, I worked at multiple places but there was always something that I felt like I wanted to do different, and the way I look at it, starting Atlas Dental was essentially a blank canvas that I was able to utilize. We were able to do everything ourselves—and I think most people might not want to do everything themselves—but we literally did everything ourselves. I actually designed the floor plan myself—that was a lot more work than I expected. Obviously I needed an architect to approve things, but I essentially designed the workflow, the path, the patient flow of the floor plan and my wife picked out all the finishes. We did things that we felt would be different in a good way, so that patients would experience a little bit better of an experience less about dentistry, more about them. Just wanting to start with a blank canvas … that was a really long answer, hopefully that was okay.
DK: That's great. That's exactly what I was looking for. So, you are a dentist during a pandemic, what does that look like? Can you describe a typical day for you?
HP: Man, it was a crazy year. I remember when it happened, that week … I was hearing about stuff but it's crazy because I am sure you experienced the same thing where you do not expect it to really get to you, you know? It was crazy! It just happened so fast. I remember the day, it was March 17th, the last day that we worked, and my staff was starting to get really nervous, you know? Like a little cough from a patient and they would freak out, and then we shut down for a month and a half. We shut down before we were ordered to shut down. I just wanted to be proactive because no one knew anything about this virus, like zero. It was scary in March; we had no idea how it was transmitted, we had no idea how deadly it was. All of those things, it was a huge question mark. So, I shut down for a month and a half, and during the time that I shut down I tried to stay proactive and tried to stay productive, but it was a very stressful time because there was so much uncertainty, so I shut down for a month and a half. During that month and a half I would only see severe emergencies, like borderline go to the [emergency room] emergencies. And every dental office treated it differently. Everyone was just trying to do the right thing, but there was no direction. Even the CDC was too slow to give direction, you know what I mean? So every dentist treated their emergencies differently—for me, I tried my best to just troubleshoot things with a patient over the phone first, and then I would decide whether or not I needed to come in to see them, and then we would go from there. It was crazy, and then I'm going to keep going—I feel like I have so much to talk about with this one question.
DK: Please do. I have follow up questions, too.
HP: So, that was the first month and a half, and then we brought back the staff slowly after that. We got the go-ahead to open May 1st, and I decided to give it an extra couple weeks because we needed to make sure that we had everything that we needed to be as safe as we possibly could be at the time, based on CDC recommendations, based on OSHA recommendations, based on the Oregon Health Authority recommendations. So, nothing was recommended or required on May 1st, May 11th, but we all knew that it would be beneficial to have N-95 masks, we all knew that it would be beneficial to have face shields. That month and a half I was researching, and also—you could not find anything anywhere, you could not find masks anywhere, and N-95s got marked up like 500 percent. So, it was a crazy time. But, essentially, what I did was I learned how to do 3D printing and 3D printed face shields. So, that was also something that I was doing during the shut-down, I was learning how to 3D print. So I did that, we got a hold of some N-95 masks, Multnomah County gave us some, and ever since I have started to buy some. So, essentially, an N-95, a mask over that, a face shield, and then also we started to put medical grade air purifiers in the operatories. Everywhere you go where everyone is doing stuff, that is what we have started doing as well, so just taking everyone's temperature, filling out a form about whether or not they were feeling sick or were exposed to somebody with COVID, all of those types of things. That’s the new normal, you know? And then, essentially, you can also stay in your car instead of in the waiting room if that was something that you were wanting to do. A lot of our patients walk to the office so we do not require that, but we try to limit how many people are in the waiting room, for sure.
DK: That required a lot of investment, both financial investment and also time investment and researching trends in real time as they were developing.
HP: Yeah, and the frustrating part is … man, it was crazy. The state bought—at this time, there were not any N-95s available—so the state bought KN-95s, so we are talking about like hundreds of thousands of KN-95s, and essentially what happened was the CDC had a huge list of KN-95s that were approved, and then they shrunk it down by like ninety percent. Like, within a day the KN-95s that the state bought were not approved. So, all of that was thrown out. I do not know what they did with it. It was a very stressful time for dentists, especially dentists that were private practice owners. So yeah, it was crazy.
DK: So, you just mentioned some of the challenges of this last year, and it is still a relatively recent practice, but do you have any other highlights of your dentistry career, of your experiences with Atlas Dental?
HP: Yeah, I think the biggest thing that I just really appreciate and really value is just having the full autonomy and control to treat patients exactly how I want, to not have any outside pressure. For instance, if I wanted to implement some sort of technology that I felt would make work a bit more fun for me but at the same time be able to better care for patients, I would be able to implement it immediately, versus asking for permission. I have worked in corporate and I have worked for other private practices as well, and that type of autonomy you cannot do unless you are your own boss. So that is one thing I have really appreciated, just being able to make that decision on my own, and then just being able to fully control the patient experience in general. One of the biggest things for us is we want to make sure that patients have a great experience and one thing came to mind just thinking about that is if someone does not have a great experience, I have the full control to make it right. So one thing that I did—I mean, we try our best to make sure everyone has a good experience—but there is one patient that comes to mind where they did not have a good experience, and I literally just gave them all their money back. So, I have the power to do those types of things and that is one thing that I really value. There's also more stresses that comes with it, obviously there's a lot more stresses that comes with owning your own dental office, but it is definitely something that has been worth it to me. I think it really depends on the person but it is definitely something that has been worth it to me.
DK: That's awesome. So, looking forward, what's next for Dr. Hieu? What's next for Atlas Dental?
HP: So, right now, we have been pretty fortunate. We have not really been slow in general. I told you about all the stresses of this past year, it has been pretty stressful. But we have been pretty fortunate as far as just patients wanting to come see us still, we have been pretty busy. One thing that I want to do is just maintain the same level of patient experience as we grow, and so that is one thing that I have been working on quite a bit. But also, we have just been working so hard in general, like I am always working on something though it's my day off. For instance, this week … this is kind of like the first full week that we kind of just took off, but I am still working on stuff, there is still stuff that needs to be worked on. So, I am trying to be better about balancing work and life. That is kind of why I mentioned that I think having a five-month-old, having a child, really puts life into perspective, and so I am trying to be better about balancing work and life and just getting back into dancing a little bit more as well, because I am not dancing as much. I think ever since the pandemic started there was just so much to worry about, and I cannot meet up with people, and so that is definitely something that I want to change in 2021 as well.
DK: So, shifting gears, I would like to go back to your childhood. You mentioned at the beginning of the interview growing up in Northeast Portland—can you tell us about what your childhood was like?
HP: Yeah, I grew up in Northeast Portland. I went to Laurelhurst and Fernwood. Growing up, like I said, my dad kept me really really busy, and I think at the time I hated it but looking back it definitely helped me with everything in life. Growing up, he kept all of us busy: I was doing Taekwondo, Kung Fu, I had all of these musical instruments that he was teaching us, I was playing basketball and I was on a basketball team, he had us swimming … what else was there? We would go to school and we were busy until we would go to sleep, so we grew up pretty busy. Essentially, for me, that really helped me learn how to juggle multiple things and learn how important time management was, so I think that really helped me get through school and be able to dance at the same time. I think that was extremely valuable to be able to learn how to time manage and juggle multiple things at once. I started dancing when I was twelve—I was doing Kung Fu, that was something that I started before dancing, Kung Fu and Taekwondo—but I started dancing when I was twelve. My younger brother is a year younger than me and he started dancing a little bit before me. My older brother was dancing a few years before me. So, we danced together. I think that was a big part of our childhood.
DK: What type of dance did you do together?
HP: Breakdancing. We did breakdancing together and we started traveling quite a bit as well. I started when I was seventeen or eighteen. Lots of trips to Washington, different states and Washington for a bit, but for me I started to take more trips in the states for competitions. I think the farthest I have gone is Montreal. Montreal was the Just For Laughs Festival—there was a qualifier that we won in Portland. It was awesome. And they did too, they went together one year, there was a year that I went separately without them.
DK: That's really awesome. It sounds like you have a really tight knit family.
HP: Yeah, and I think it helped us stay close growing up too. You know, growing up I did not actually get along with my younger brother, like before dancing. And I think dance made us get along, so I am definitely grateful for that. We did not get along because we were like, a year apart. We fought over toys when we were younger. But I think that all changed when dance came into the picture.
DK: So, tell me a little bit about your parents. On your dentistry website, you mention some about that they are immigrants to America and left Vietnam for the United States. I am curious about some of their story of the process of leaving Vietnam and building new lives in America.
HP: Yeah, I think everyone's story when they go from Vietnam to America is different, and also an inspiring story, right? So my dad is Vietnamese and my mom is Chinese, but they were both born in Vietnam. My dad's family was very poor and my mom's family was better off in Vietnam, but obviously that all goes out the window when you get to America, it's like a reset button. Both of them fled Vietnam and, essentially, I know that they fled by boat and I know that it was a tough journey, dealing with pirates. I know that my mom mentioned to me that she got robbed during the trip from Vietnam to America. So my mom, the majority of her family came—there were only a few that stayed behind, the people who had ties to Vietnam and were not able to go. But my dad's side … so my dad's side is a family of eight and my mom's side is a family of eight. But my dad's side, there were only three brothers that went first and everyone else stayed behind. And so, essentially, my parents got together in America. I believe the story is they met in the refugee camp. So my dad, when he was over here, he was working and also sending money back to his family. And ever since, slowly the family has been coming to America and we actually had one family that just got sponsored, I think, a few years ago. I think it was three or four years ago. There is still some family in Vietnam, but there is more family here now, so they are slowly coming over. My dad was working with his brothers and sending money back, and his two younger brothers went to college, but he did not go to college, he worked. He was constantly sending money back to the family, to his mom. Does that answer your question?
DK: It does, thank you. So, growing up in Northeast Portland, did you feel connected to Portland's Vietnamese community?
HP: Can I actually go back and say a little bit more, is that okay?
HP: So I think I mentioned it to you, just about my family building their lives in America, my dad—I mentioned to you before, I think—my dad, when I was growing up, he was a janitor and that was something that my mom did as well. He had multiple jobs: they were janitors, and my dad was also a social worker. That was his main job. He was also a musician. He was playing in a lot of weddings every weekend, he also taught musical instruments, so growing up there were multiple students in the house as well and in every nook and cranny of the house he was teaching piano and drums and guitar. Those are the main three that I think he taught, but there was multiple students at the house after work and so he literally works all day. He would go to work, his normal job, and then he would teach, and then he would have gigs that he would play on weekends—like, it was every weekend. And sometimes it would not be in Portland, sometimes it would be in Seattle. So, they were very busy. And then my mom stayed at home with us when we were younger, and eventually they bought a dry cleaners and my mom ran the dry cleaners.
DK: More busyness, just like you said. A lot of hard work, a lot of music, a lot of dance, a lot of time. So, did you grow up connected to Portland's Vietnamese community at all with your family?
HP: Yeah, I would say so. Definitely.
DK: Did you attend Vietnamese school as a kid?
HP: I did not. So, a lot of my friends did, but we did not. We did not attend Vietnamese school. I am not sure why, but I think my parents just … I mean, I learned Vietnamese at home. My mom taught me Vietnamese and my sister taught me Vietnamese, but we did not attend Vietnamese school.
DK: Was it important to your parents that you learn about Vietnamese culture and tradition?
HP: Definitely. Growing up, my parents only spoke to us in Vietnamese, which I think was good. We only spoke Vietnamese, they definitely made Vietnamese food, we definitely celebrated all of the Vietnamese traditions. I would definitely say that we grew up learning about Vietnamese culture and traditions. It is definitely something that I want to pass on to my daughter as well. And, essentially, I think everyone my age has potentially a different experience growing up in America. So, some of my friends, they had more Vietnamese friends but, for me, I had friends of all kinds. Especially with dance, I had friends of different cultures … my experience was I only spoke Vietnamese to my parents. So, any time I had to speak Vietnamese to someone my own age it was kind of awkward. And so that was my experience growing up, my Vietnamese is only limited to talking to the older generation. One thing that I think is really important is for me to pass on all of the culture to my daughter, and I think it is going to be a little bit harder. But it is definitely something that I think is really important to me.
DK: You mentioned it would be harder. What are you hoping to prioritize the most, and how do you think you will go about that?
HP: I think one thing that is going to be really hard is … I am not able to cook any Vietnamese food. The other thing is my wife is Cambodian, and she has the same priorities as I do. She wants to pass on Cambodian traditions as well. But the fact that we do not communicate in Vietnamese, I think it is going to be harder to pass that on to our daughter. But at the same time, I think it is equally as important.
DK: Thank you for that. So, you mentioned attending college at Portland State. I'm curious, what did you major in, and what were some of the important lessons you learned during college, either classroom or otherwise?
HP: So, I majored in Health Science. Essentially, I attended some public health classes and then the major was Health Science. As far as what I learned and important lessons, I think for me the most important lesson I learned in college was time management. Because I was juggling so much, because I was dancing so much in college, it was very important for me to really stay focused when I do something. When I was studying I would go to the library and be really hyper-focused. When I was dancing, when I was practicing, I would try to not think about studying and not think about anything but dancing, just so things were separated. And also, just the time-management aspect was me having certain events that I was training for but also planning the events around midterms or finals. So I would have to prioritize like, "Oh, I'm not going to be able to dance at this time, I'm going to have to focus on school," or, "Oh, this is a perfect time for me to focus on dancing," and then just cutting apart, really dissecting how I would train during those three months. At Portland State we go by terms, and so every three months was a term, and I just dissected those three months like, how would I be training during this specific week, and how would I be training during this specific week? It was a very methodical approach to life at the time for me, and that was probably the biggest takeaway from that aspect of my life, those years of my life, just learning how to prioritize time and time management and just planning. And I think that all really helped during the next phase of life.
DK: So when did Moon Patrol officially begin? Was that during college, was that more recently?
HP: It was in 2000, so I think the establishing year was 2002, and it started with—there were five original members once Moon Patrol started in 2002. Us three, my brothers and I, and there were two other brothers. So that started in 2002. The story of Moon Patrol and how the name came about was actually the other two brothers waiting as kids for their sister to finish her ice skating lessons, I believe, and they would always play the Moon Patrol game. So that is where the name comes from.
DK: Is it still the same five of you?
HP: No, the same five is still there, but it has definitely grown. I think there's over ten members now, but we are all a lot older now, and so we are not doing the same amount of dancing and who is in it fluctuates over the years. Certain people will be able to dance more this specific year and certain people will be able to dance less. But yeah, everyone is older now and in careers, and so it is a little bit harder to get together. It's definitely grown since the five in 2002.
DK: What has being in a dance crew been like during a pandemic?
HP: Nonexistent. One of my friends in the crew, he started a thirty-and-over practice. It was essentially like a judgement free place because, with breaking, it is definitely a young person's game, like high school, early twenties, and then you get older and the body deteriorates and there is more injury-prone issues. And so yeah, he started a thirty-and-over practice. It was not just Moon Patrol, it was other people as well, and that was a lot of fun to go to, you know, it was like once a week, but he had to cancel it because of the pandemic, and so we have not practiced together since—actually, they have! They have gotten together and they had masks on, but I have not, just because, one, I feel an obligation to my patients to be as militant with the self-isolation as possible, but also having a five-month-old, and my wife was pregnant through the pandemic too, and so I have not practiced with anybody. But they have, here and there, just not very often, just because of everything that is going on.
DK: I'm curious, are you involved with any non-profit organizations or community groups besides your dental practice and your dance group, which is a lot—I'm just curious if there is anything else that you are a part of.
HP: Actually yeah, there's been a few things. So, I want to be more involved, actually. I don't know if that is a good idea, but I want to be more involved. But right now, I am part of the OAGD—that is the Oregon Academy of General Dentistry—so I am a board member of that, and essentially their goal is to improve the lives of the dentists in Oregon in general, so they have continuing education. I am the legislator, so there's different things that I do to communicate with Congress and things like that. It is a new role, and it is something that I have not been able to participate in in the last eight months, just because of having a new baby, but that is essentially my role on the board. But there is a new facility that we have recently built in the past year and there is a continuation of education that happens there, just doing things to improve the lives of dentists in general in Oregon. Just like advocacy, things like that.
So yeah, that is one thing that I do. I do not know if you read on the website, but we actually are also doing free dental days. We have only done one, and then the pandemic happened and we didn't do any during the pandemic during last year, 2020, but that is definitely something that I wanted to continually do, just to give back to the community, so that is another thing. I have always volunteered at the Asian Health Center, which is right across the street from our office, and I have always wanted to do more for them because when we volunteer they have the annual Asian Health Fair, but in 2020 it did not happen because of the pandemic. But yeah, I have always wanted to do more—every time that we volunteer there, the only thing that we really do is examine the patients' teeth and if they have a problem, say, "Hey, you have this problem, go here"; we don't ever actually do anything. So, I always talk to them about the fact that our clinic is walking distance and so we could essentially do stuff for people, which would be way better. So, that was always my goal too, and that is one of the reasons why I chose the location that I chose as well, to just be a part of the community and also help the community in general. So, there is that as well. And, like I said, I want to be more involved but that might not be a good idea right now.
DK: Fair enough. I'm curious if we can zoom out just a little bit and talk about the Vietnamese community as a whole. What local or political issues are most important to the Vietnamese community, here in Portland in particular?
HP: Can you say that one more time?
DK: Definitely. What local, public, or political issues do you think are most important to Portland's Vietnamese community?
HP: That is a good question, and I am not sure if I have a good answer to that. Local, public, or political issues …
DK: What are some differences that you see between older and younger generations of Vietnamese Americans?
HP: Can you repeat that question one more time?
DK: What are some differences that you see between older and younger generations of Vietnamese Americans?
HP: One thing that comes to mind with that question is just in general, this is something that is not necessarily just for Vietnamese Americans but I think Asian Americans in general, and I think that the big problem is the disconnect on what "success" is. I think most Asian parents—and this is a stereotype, I am sure you have heard of it—but most Asian parents, they always say, "Be a doctor, be a lawyer." There's like very specific things, "Be a doctor, be a lawyer," it's normally something like that. But they do not actually understand what that means and they actually do not understand that like not everyone wants to be a doctor or a lawyer, and not everyone will be happy being a doctor or a lawyer, and so this is actually one thing that I have actually talked quite a bit to students about. I do not know if you knew this, you probably do not know this, but there was a period in time—I actually wrote a blog about ten tips on how to juggle college as a dancer, and essentially I started talking at colleges to students. I talked at OSU, I talked at Portland State, and somebody invited me to talk in New York as well, which was really cool, and I taught like a workshop as well. But, essentially, every time that I went and talked, I always wanted to talk to them about the fact that you have to be passionate about what you do as well, and so I think that is one disconnect between the older generation of Asian Americans and in general, not just Vietnamese Americans, but the older generation and the younger generation.
Because the older generation thinks there is only one pathway to success and it is to be a doctor. And I think this is something I struggle with, because I actually enjoy what I do, but it's like I fit into that stereotype as well, you know? So that is one thing that I struggle with, because I personally feel like you should be passionate about what you do, that is the only way you are going to be successful, like whatever it is, if you are not passionate about what you do you are going to miserable, you are going to hate your life, you know? And I have some friends that I think were forced into dentistry or forced into their careers by their parents and they are not happy. And I think that is a problem, because happiness should be the number one thing, and I think there are multiple pathways to success, and that is something that I think is a disconnect between the older and younger generations, and I do not think there is any way to really solve that problem, but I think it is a problem that is very common with parents wanting to push their kids into something that they do not want to do. And the thing is, I think every immigrant kind of instills hard work into their kids, but I think it's tough sometimes when you are pushed into something you do not want to do, and it makes it even worse when there is failure because then it gets amplified and then you feel like a failure, and so that is one thing I think is a difficult problem between the older generation and the younger generation. I do not know if I answered your question, but …
DK: You absolutely did. I only have one regular question left. In your mind, what role does being a Vietnamese American person play in your life?
HP: I think it is everything, I think it's definitely everything. It is kind of like what I had mentioned. I feel like every decision I make today is a reflection of my childhood growing up, who raised me, my parents, my experiences through college and struggling, time management, planning, dancing, all of those types of things—I think all of that goes back to my parents, and going further back, it is their value set they hold as Vietnamese immigrants, and for me just growing up Vietnamese American I just have different influences, right? I have influences from my parents and I have influences from just growing up in America and so I think it's everything, that the role of being a Vietnamese American is everything in my life, for sure.
DK: So, in closing, is there anything we have not discussed today that you would like to discuss, or anything that we were in the midst of discussing and you would like to expand on more? If there is anything that fits either of those categories, now would be a great time.
HP: I think we covered quite a bit. Yeah, I'm not sure, I think we covered quite a bit. It has been awesome. Do you have any questions for me? Is there anything … I guess you have been asking questions, but …
DK: I have asked all the questions on my list, I just like to make sure that each participant gets extra time to bring up anything additional if you want, but if you are happy with everything we have discussed, then that's awesome.
HP: Yeah, definitely. It's been fun.
DK: Well, thank you so much for chatting with me today. It has been just an honor to get to know you a little bit better and hear some of your story.
HP: Yeah, definitely. Thanks for having me.
DK: You are welcome. This concludes our interview.