I had the pleasure and honor recently of meeting Dr. Kou Vang face to face. I had interviewed Dr. Vang more than two years ago for an article for Twin Cities Business magazine. After the article was published, Dr. Vang was awarded the Minnesota Dental Association’s Humanitarian Service Award in April 2008.
While interviewing Dr. Vang for the article, I was awestruck at the depth of his humanitarianism and commitment to selfless service. If Mother Teresa had gone to dental school, she would have shared a clinic with Dr. Vang. He is a true hero to the Hmong community and beyond. I cannot remember ever being more impressed with somebody. Dr. Vang’s life and career are a celebration of the human spirit.
Click here to visit the Vang Dental website.
Click here to e-mail Vang Dental or call the office at (651) 222-6738.
UPDATE: Dr. Vang’s dream of opening the Hmong Minnesota Professional Building in St. Paul, home to the largest urban Hmong population in the world, is now a reality. It is modern, spacious and a testament to the power of dreams.
Here is my article from the December 2007 issue of Twin Cities Business magazine.
DR. KOU VANG OF VANG DENTAL CLINIC
Dr. Kou Vang is not your typical dentist. Unless your dentist was born in a small village in eastern Laos, the oldest child of 15. Unless your dentist was recruited by the CIA at age 15 to call in air strikes on North Vietnamese Army positions. Unless your dentist was captured by the Vietcong and forced to consume bugs and foul-smelling water to survive. Unless your dentist escaped from that POW camp only to watch three of his friends and fellow escapees get blown up by land mines. Unless your dentist was left behind during the evacuation of American troops in 1975, escaped into the jungle, then walked and swam his way to Thailand to join his family in a refugee camp.
After a few months in that camp, Vang, his wife Song and their two children were on their way to America, sponsored by a Lutheran Church in Illinois. After ten years of working three jobs in the Rockford area, Vang and his growing family of eight moved to Minnesota, where all 13 of his surviving siblings now reside.
Determined to make a life for his family, Vang earned his GED, then enrolled at Lakewood Community College in White Bear Lake. He had engineering on his mind until he met a recruiter from the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry at a career fair. Recognizing dentistry as an effective way of helping his fellow countrymen in the Frogtown area of St. Paul where he lived, he completed an undergraduate degree at the U of M, then enrolled in the School of Dentistry.
Like the rest of his life, dentistry school wasn’t easy. Still struggling with English, he studied sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. “Every day I wanted to quit,” he says. “But I would tell myself that I had already gone through something much harder. I don’t know how I went through it, to be honest. I just kept plugging away.”
After graduating at age forty, Vang served two years of residency, then opened up Vang Dental Clinic in Frogtown in 1998. “I want to be close to the low-income people,” Vang says. “I like to serve the people who are underserved. Seventy percent of my patients are Hmong and many of them have never been to a dentist before. The other 30 percent are mostly Somalian, and the rest are mostly Latin, Russian or African-American.”
Clinic hours are 9 AM to 6 PM, but Vang routinely stays until 9 or 10 PM because many of his patients stop by on their way home from work. “In their culture, they usually don’t go to the dentist until they’re really sick,” Vang explains. “They just walk in and say ‘I cannot go to sleep tonight.’ I feel good because I’m helping these patients. If I don’t help them, I cannot go to sleep; I’d be thinking of the patient and the pain they must be feeling all night long.”
Vang’s commitment to selfless service also dictates that he never turn anybody away because of an inability to pay. Two-thirds of his patients have insurance provided by Minnesota Care and Minnesota Healthcare programs. “I have never turned anybody down, no matter what they can or cannot pay,” he says. “If people need your help, you help.”
That includes helping those who don’t believe he can help them. “Homng culture teaches that toothaches are caused by ancestors,” Vang says. “I have to explain tooth decay and disease to them, but only about 75 percent of the older generation believe me.”
Vang continues to look for new and better ways to serve his community. He recently secured private financing to purchase the old Saxon Ford property at 225 University Avenue West, two blocks away from his current location. Rehabbing it at his own cost, he plans to move into the new building by February, expanding his practice by bringing in another dentist and more assistants to join his wife, daughter and daughter-in-law. He has verbal leasing commitments from other health-related practices, including a pharmacy, a vision clinic, a chiropractic clinic and a foot and ankle specialist.
Vang is excited about fulfilling his dream of offering one-stop shopping to his patients. “I wanted to have a bigger place so I can accommodate more people,” he says. “Many of my patients come to the clinic by bus or get dropped off. If they see a dentist or a physician who prescribes medication, they need to go home and find more transportation to come back later. With the new clinic, they will now be able to have all their healthcare needs addressed in one trip.”
Even after 12-hour days, Vang’s desire to serve doesn’t wane when he leaves his clinic. He joined the Air National Guard in 1998 and spends one weekend a month performing dental work at Fort Snelling. Even that isn’t enough. He also goes to the base whenever troops are being deployed and need his help. “I feel that I need to do something for my new country,” he says. “I have an obligation to do my part.”
Dr. Vang’s passion for dentistry and the importance he places on family hasn’t changed a bit over the years. His practice, Vang Dental Clinic, is staffed by several family members, including two of his sons, daughter and daughter-in-law. Since Vang Dental Clinic opened in 1998, Dr. Vang has treated nearly 20,000 patients. He says every single one of those patients is now a member of his family. “My practice is successful because I treat people just like my own family,” he said. “We are a family clinic and everyone who comes in becomes our family member, too.”
Because the Hmong community tends to be skeptical of Western medicine, Dr. Vang wanted his clinic to look less like a clinic and more like a shopping mall. A modern, open floor plan features a 3,000-square-foot central lobby that serves as a waiting area for all of the healthcare facilities and tenants in the building. Each facility has its own private entrance that faces the lobby, putting clinical procedures out of sight, and easing the fears of anxious patients. “I want to bridge the cultural gap by educating, nurturing and comforting my patients in a safe and professional environment,” he said.
With the trickle of a water fountain in the background, exquisite marble floors, stone columns bordered by live plants and beautiful sconces hanging from the ceiling, the lobby is anything but clinical. A 50″ plasma flat-screen television with rows of chairs provides a comfortable place for patients to relax and socialize with one another while they wait for appointments. “I wanted the office to be warm and welcoming to patients and visitors, so the moment they walk into the clinic they know this is not a threatening place,” said Dr. Vang.
Dr. Vang enlisted Mohagen/Hansen Architectural Group, Patterson Dental and Carlson-LaVine General Contractors to continue the same warm, welcoming feeling of the lobby throughout the design of his dental practice. Gorgeous wood flooring and walls painted in earth tones create a soothing environment. Natural light from a bank of windows spills into the operatories, brightening the entire practice. Privacy screens permit patients to see out the windows, but prevent passers-by from looking in.
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