Pulling Back the Curtain: Vincent Ho, MD

Clinical director of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program and senior physician at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, as well as associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts

You were born in South Vietnam during the war. Could you tell us about your experiences before coming to the United States?

I was born in Saigon in South Vietnam shortly after the Tet Offensive in 1968. There was a lot of turmoil in the city at that time, and the city was basically on lockdown, with strict curfews that even prevented my mother from going to the hospital when I was born.

So, I was born at home, and my grandmother delivered me.

It was a traumatic time for people living in Vietnam; the war had been going on for many years and all the young people had been drafted into the army. In 1975, as the war ended, things started to calm down but, as communism came to Saigon, our family suffered. My parents were ethnically Chinese and capitalists – my father owned a paper distribution business – and, after the war ended, the communists gave orders for us to report to a re-education camp. These were basically labor camps for people who supported the former government of South Vietnam. The communist government took people away and seized their property; many of the people sent to these camps never came back.

My parents decided that we were not going to report to the camp, so our family went into hiding. For one year – 1977 to 1978 – we lived in hiding, scattered around the outskirts of Saigon. My brother and I were living in a friend’s house, my mom was living in the countryside with my younger brother and sister, and my dad roamed from house to house in the city with his friends. If we had been caught, we would have been arrested and killed.

Is that when your parents decided to emigrate to the United States?

My dad was plotting a way to get out of Vietnam during that time. We attempted to leave in 1977 by sneaking on a fishing boat, but we were nearly caught. The officials had learned about the plot and confiscated the boat. That was traumatizing to my parents, but my siblings and I were too young to know what was happening. We just knew that we were leaving for a trip at 2:00 a.m. and didn’t understand why.

We lost money in the failed attempts to leave, so it was devastating. Still, my parents kept trying and, in November 1978, we were able to leave with the “boat people,” or the wave of refugees who fled the country by boat. By that time, things had changed for Chinese people living in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government actually encouraged us to leave. If you could pay a certain amount of money, you were free to leave. That meant, though, that the officials in charge of the evacuation would try to fit as many people as possible onto these tiny fishing boats.

The boat we left on was a wreck that had been pulled from the bottom of the Mekong River and repaired. At 20 meters long, it was supposed to seat 220 people; when officials had finished loading the boat, 350 people were on board.

By the time our overloaded boat reached the ocean, the weather turned stormy. We had to jettison all of our belongings and luggage to drop weight. We floated for about seven days before arriving in Malaysia. We lived in a refugee camp there for six months – November 1978 to June 1979 – while we waited for the international community to figure out where to send us. Delegations from different countries would visit to interview refugees and, if they decided you had skill sets they wanted, they would accept you.

There were so many people who didn’t have those skills and were left basically stranded in these refugee camps.

Fortunately, in 1979, President Carter opened the U.S. borders and that’s how my immediate family ended up in Boston. My grandmother and aunts and uncles were sponsored by a church group, so they came over separately, but they were just two hours away in Connecticut. We were lucky – they could have ended up in Alaska! My uncle also had epilepsy, so there was no way that another country would have taken him. That is why I am so passionate about our country and the opportunities that this country gives people – without discrimination.

Do you think your experiences as a refugee played a role in your decision to go into medicine?

I always wanted to go into medicine, and the time in the refugee camp solidified that. It was tragic. Whenever another refugee boat arrived, many people on the boat were sick and needed medical attention, but there were very few doctors and supplies to help them. On one occasion, a boat with about 200 refugees on board arrived at our camp, which was full. The Malaysian government turned them around, bringing in a battleship to pull the refugee boat back out to sea. As they were pulling it, the boat broke apart and sank. Only about 50 people were rescued and brought ashore. All these people, including some young children, needed medical attention. The alarms were going off, and the doctors on the island were running to help, but there were never enough people to help. It was very sad.

I always remembered that, and that was definitely part of my motivation to become a doctor. Later, my grandmother died of colon cancer, so that made going into oncology a fairly easy choice.

Why did you choose stem cell transplantation as your specialty?

I ended up in hematology and stem cell transplantation because my undergraduate advisor at Harvard was William Beck, MD, a remarkable teacher and professor of hematology. I still have all of his textbooks, which he signed for me. He inspired me to learn about leukemia and how stem cells can regenerate the immune system. I thought it was fascinating, and, after working with him for three years, it was clear that I was going into hematology/oncology and stem cell transplantation.

Then, as a medical student, I was able to work in the lab with H. Franklin Bunn, MD. He was a tremendous mentor and – most of all – a very caring and compassionate advisor. He put his students and their careers ahead of everything else.

We don’t get to where we are without our teachers and our mentors, and I certainly wouldn’t be here without these remarkable people. All I can hope is that I can do the same for a future generation of trainees.

What advice do you pass on to younger trainees and fellows?

It isn’t so much specific pieces of advice, but setting an example for them. To be a good mentor, you have to lead by example and show that you care about your trainees. You are there to foster their development, offer guidance, and help them with their research projects. There’s not one specific formula for being a good mentor, but, first and foremost, you have to love what you do and show enthusiasm for the research. Hopefully, through that, your mentees will be inspired.

How do you think hematology and medicine have changed since you started your career?

My field of allogeneic stem cell transplantation has certainly seen a lot of changes in the last 20 years. When I first started in this field, for instance, patients in their 50s were considered too old to receive a transplant. Now, we’re giving transplants to patients in their 70s.

Our ability to fight infections, to perform HLA-typing, and to treat graft-versus-host disease has improved tremendously – as has the number of survivors after a transplant. We still have plenty of challenges ahead, though. Many patients still die from relapse after a transplant, so we are now in an era of dissecting every leukemia and lymphoma down to its genes to develop better targeted therapies.

What is the best part of your day and what is the part you look forward to the least?

Many times, the best part of the day is going over to the hospital to check in with my patients who are there to get their transplant. It’s not something that I’m required to do every day as an outpatient transplant physician, but I enjoy it. Just showing your face and saying hello can make a huge difference in the lives of these patients. As stem cell transplant patients, they are in the hospital for a month at a time; giving them encouragement and letting them know that I’m keeping an eye on them can make a world of difference. That’s really why I signed up to be a doctor; I’m a people person, and I want to show them that I care.

Obviously, there are some less-enjoyable, tedious tasks that come with caring for patients – like medical documentation and administrative duties – but that is all stuff we need to do. The bottom line is that I enjoy the challenge of the clinic and seeing my patients do well. There is no substitute for seeing a patient you know would not be alive if it were not for the stem cell transplant I gave them.

Did you ever think about pursuing another career other than medicine?

My alternative career would have been marine biology – that’s probably another influence of my time as a refugee on that island. I was a 10-year-old kid basically stranded on an island, so what else was there to do besides play in the sandbars? I loved looking at the coral reefs and at the little fish. That’s still a hobby that I keep up today; I have marine fish and corals at home.

Vincent Ho, MD, with his wife, Mei; their son and daughter, William and Jacquelyn; and his parents at Jacquelyn’s high school graduation.
Vincent Ho, MD, with his wife, Mei; their son and daughter, William and Jacquelyn; and his parents at Jacquelyn’s high school graduation.

What else do you like to do in your off-hours – if you have any?

I think we always wish we had a little bit more of those. … My wife and I have two children; our daughter is 18 and just started as a freshman at Harvard, and our son is 17 and he’s a senior in high school. They are both great kids, and I’m so lucky to have them.

My son and I are both very much into marine biology. We have a membership at the New England Aquarium, and we do work there to promote conservation of the oceans and marine life. When he was younger, we liked to build models of airplanes and ships together and learn about the history of World War II.

Do either of your children plan to go into medicine?

My daughter is interested in bioengineering. She’s only a freshman though, so that could change. … My son may go into medicine; like me, he’s very interested in fish, so he’s working in the lab here at the Harvard Medical School doing research using zebrafish. Again, he’s only a senior in high school, so I told him, “Keep your eyes open.”

Is there anything you wish you had more time to pursue or a skill you’d like to learn?

I wish I could play the piano better. I took lessons for a few years, but I never had enough time to practice – that’s always the problem. When I retire, I’ll probably go back to learning a musical instrument or reading or traveling more. But I’m at the peak of my career and have many responsibilities, so there’s a few too many things on my plate right now to think about adding anything else!

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