From Refugee to Doctor

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Dr. LanAnh Do-Tarnay

Dr. LanAnh Do-Tarnay arrived in the United States with her parents and four sisters with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They came as refugees from Vietnam. They had no money, no papers and did not speak any English.

“We frantically climbed aboard one of the boats in Saigon Harbor, uncertain of our fate,” Do-Tarnay explained. “It was a harrowing journey that eventually took us to refugee camps in Guam, Wake Island and San Diego’s Camp Pendleton before we were sponsored by a Baptist church in Snohomish in Washington state. The kind people there gave us some clothes and shelter and a new beginning. At the time, there were no other Asians in the small community. It was very difficult for my parents to adjust to the transition. The food, language and cold weather were so different from all they had known.”

Her father heard there was a growing community of Vietnamese people in Southern California. So the family moved to Downtown Los Angeles, where Do-Tarnay and her sisters were raised. 

Do-Tarnay’s father had been a lieutenant in the army. He fought for democracy in South Vietnam, but after the North won the war, he would have been killed or imprisoned if captured. With that grim prospect, along with an uncertain future for his five daughters in Communist Vietnam, they hastily fled their homeland in April 1975.

“Though my dad had a relatively prominent position in Vietnam, the language barrier and his limited vocational skills led him to odd jobs in the U.S., including packaging newspapers in the early mornings and then gardening work later in the day,” Do-Tarnay said. “My mom went to cosmetology school during the day and worked as a waitress at night. We were latchkey children. Though my parents emphasized the importance of education, they had no idea how we were doing in school. They were too busy trying to make ends meet.”

Despite the circumstances, all five sisters managed to achieve great success: two dentists, an attorney, a pharmacist and one doctor — Do-Tarnay. She graduated magna cum laude — top of her class — at UCLA. After medical school at UCLA and a residency in combined internal medicine/pediatrics, Do-Tarnay now has a thriving practice as an allergist. 

Starting in junior high, the five sisters worked as manicurists in the family nail salon. Even as a doctor, Do-Tarnay would help out as a manicurist when she could.

“Our family is a tight unit, and we all pitched in to help our parents as they have sacrificed so much for us,” Do-Tarnay shared. “We also realized the value of education and knew that if we studied hard enough, we could achieve something with our lives.

“I also give a lot of credit to my oldest sister, Thu, who acted as a parent when my parents couldn’t be present. As with many Vietnamese parents, mine were not vocal or showed much physical displays of affection, but I remember Dad did say he was proud of us.”

Do-Tarnay’s father died 18 months ago, but he lived to see his daughter make a home of her own. She is happily married to another physician, Dr. Christopher Tarnay. They have two children, Matthew, 11, and MaiAnh, 10, and live in Malibu.

“We are so blessed to be raising our children here, but it can be especially challenging to provide them a perspective on how other people can struggle daily just to survive,” Do-Tarnay said. “But we’re trying to teach them to have a strong work ethic and to understand they have a responsibility to give back to their community.” 

Both Do-Tarnay and her husband volunteer for Malibu-based charity Medicine for Humanity.

“I am so thankful for all I have been afforded here in the U.S.” Do-Tarnay shared.