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A Nurse in Two Languages

Graduation day

May 2015


In Vietnamese, his first name stands for “elder brother.”

“I have big shoes to fill,” said Anh Le.

He is filling them.

Some 21 years after Le and his family left Saigon for Davenport as refugees of a Vietnamese War that ended long before he was born, Le collected his St. Ambrose University Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree on May 9 in Moline. Le was among 680 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degree candidates at the St. Ambrose University Spring Commencement ceremony.

Soon, he will lace up a comfortable pair of nursing shoes for his new position as a Psychiatric Health Nurse for Genesis Health System, fulfilling a mission he set for himself as a high school senior.

Le estimates he extended twice the effort in earning his bachelor's degree as did many of his fellow graduates, largely because he absorbed his class material in two different languages.

“Every student has a steep learning curve with medical technology, etc.,” said Nancy Flaherty, an administrative assistant in the Nursing Department.  “But the fact he had to translate everything he read into Vietnamese to glean the meaning, then back into English was amazing to me. He is an exemplary young man who will be an asset to the nursing profession.”

Le hopes to be that, as well as an asset to the Vietnamese community that embraced he and his father, mother and sister when they arrived in the Quad Cities in 1994.

Le’s father, Rihn Le, fought alongside American forces in the long civil war between the communist North and US-backed South. He spent 6 ½ years in a “re-education” camp following the fall of Saigon in 1974.

Although he started a family after his release, Rihn Le could not find steady work in the newly communist country and often worked three menial jobs in a day to keep his wife and children fed. A 1989 agreement allowed Rihn Le and other former South Vietnamese soldiers to immigrate to the US.

Now 61, Rihn Le continues to work in the Davenport manufacturing plant where he found employment upon the family’s arrival in the Quad Cities. Ahn Le’s mother, Hien Vu, also worked in manufacturing, and Ahn and his three-years-older sister, Phuong, often tended to their own needs after school. That forced him to quickly learn to speak English in order to purchase food and other necessities.

Learn he did, with the assistance of a large contingent of Vietnamese-Americans who attended Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. “I asked my friends to speak English to me and help me translate it,” said Le, who was 7 when he came to the US. “They were patient with me and taught me a lot.”

Le’s parents continue to speak only Vietnamese, and that is chief among the reasons he translated his St. Ambrose nursing lessons to Vietnamese and then back to English. He intends to serve as a translator between his aging parents and English-speaking doctors and he hopes to be a similar source of assistance to the larger Vietnamese-American community here.

This is how he fulfills the role of “elder” implied by his name. “I just want to serve the community as much as I can,” Le said.

To that end, and to enhance his own understanding of the material, Le also translated tests to Vietnamese and said the patience and assistance of faculty such as Flaherty has been essential to completing his degree. Likewise, he said, his deep Catholic faith. “I prayed a lot to learn the language — I think I had a helping hand,” he said.

He also credits divine guidance for his decision to enter nursing. As a high school senior, he said he battled the flu for days before a fever of 104 led to an emergency room visit. There, he was attended by a male nurse whose name he never learned but whose advice changed Le’s life.

“As I was getting discharged, I thanked him and he said, ‘If you want to thank me, you should go into nursing because we are short nurses and male nurses are in even shorter supply,'” Le recalled. “I think that was my calling card from God.”

MORE LIKE THIS:About SAU Students, AmbroseZine, College of Health and Human Services, Diversity, For Alumni, Nursing

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