The vital role former refugees play in shaping clinical care and research at Central Adelaide

Clinical Professor Phan Nguyen arrived as a refugee in Australia in 1981.

Now he’s the head of unit in the Department of Thoracic Medicine at the Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH), Central Adelaide Local Health Network (CALHN).

“My work is constant and quite high pressure,” Professor Phan says.


“But even when I’m at my most hectic, in the back of my mind I still have a perspective that keeps me calm.”


“Nothing can be as challenging as what my family and other refugees have already been through.”


From Vietnam to Malaysia, then Adelaide

After fleeing Vietnam via boat in the 1970s, Professor Phan’s family spent nine months at a refugee centre on Pulau Bidong, an island off Malaysia.

“When I was three, and my sister five, we moved to SA with our parents and initially lived in a hostel in Pennington,” Professor Phan says.


“Later, and thanks to my father’s foresight in seeing an opportunity, I won a scholarship for my high school education and did well enough to enter medical school.”

Now Professor  Phan chairs the lung cancer multi-disciplinary meeting and is head of the Thoracic Procedure Suite among his other duties.

“I also do some work for the Federal Government advising on health screening for migrants coming to Australia,” says Professor Phan.


“That’s very humbling, to be able to represent Australia on a global stage.”


Setting the ball in motion

Professor Phan is just one of many former refugees who are now healthcare leaders at CALHN and other health networks across Australia.

Associate Professor Hien Le is Head of Research in the Department of Radiation Oncology and a clinical radiation oncologist at the RAH.

“With my parents, I arrived from Vietnam as a baby,” Associate Professor Hien says.


“The brave decision my parents took to come to Australia really did set a ball in motion.”

Associate Professor Hien recalls days from his early childhood in Adelaide when both parents were working to make a living, and his role was to look after his younger siblings.

“That decision to leave Vietnam, combined with sacrifice and luck along the way, plus support from local communities and volunteers in Australia, were the crucial building blocks that allowed us to create the lives and opportunities we have now,” Associate Professor Hien says.


Common but remarkable stories

Professor Nam Nguyen is Head of the Gastrointestinal Investigations Unit at the RAH, and Clinical Professor in the Discipline of Medicine at the University of Adelaide.

“That boat trip from Vietnam, it was life and death,” says Professor Nam, who has clear memories of arriving in Australia at around age 12.


“We came from nothing, which creates such a strong sense of taking every opportunity in front of you.”

Both Professor Phan and Associate Professor Hien view Professor Nam as a role model in their medical careers.

“Professor Nam was like a pioneer for us,” says Professor Phan.


“Our refugee experiences; they’re common stories, but they’re remarkable stories too.”


“And with those experiences, we now find ourselves in positions of privilege and service.”


Access the Refugee Health Service

We acknowledge the vital contributions former refugees make as clinical and clinical support staff at CALHN.

For recently arrived refugees and asylum seekers in SA, CALHN operates the Refugee Health Service.

For more information, please visit the Refugee Health Service web page or read our story about the impact of the service for refugees.