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Scarred by fire, Dao Nguyen overcame fears to advocate for the disabled and disfigured

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 16, 2018

Every time she returns to Spokane, it seems, Dao Nguyen stands a bit taller and speaks English a bit more confidently.

She no longer tries to hide her prosthetic left arm, with its shiny metal claw, or the scars that once contorted her mouth.

She’s married with two kids and lives in California. She smiles often.

And now, with a team of filmmakers in tow, Nguyen believes her story will change hearts and minds in her native Vietnam, where those with disabilities are frequently cast aside.

“If I didn’t fall into the charcoal, I wouldn’t be who I am today,” she said. “I believe everything happens for a reason.”

The charcoal. When Nguyen was an infant in rural Binh Dinh Province, her mother tried to warm her by a fire, and somehow she rolled out of her hammock.

The flames melted her fingers into a bulbous stump and cocooned her arm in scar tissue, leaving her unable to straighten her elbow. And for a long time, she couldn’t open her mouth more than a sliver.

In 2004, when Nguyen was about 22 years old – they didn’t keep birth records in her village – she heard on the radio that some American doctors were coming to another village 30 miles away.

Among them were Dr. Frank Walchak, a plastic surgeon from Spokane, and his wife, Carolyn, then an operating room nurse.

“She came up and just had this pleading look on her face,” Frank Walchak said, recalling the first time he saw Nguyen.

He and another surgeon operated on her in Vietnam, but they knew she would need further treatment. Taken by her sweet yet timid personality, and sensing an opportunity to help, the Walchaks spent months working to get her a visa and bring her to Spokane.

After a 36-hour, stop-and-go truck ride to the airport in Ho Chi Minh City, Nguyen landed in Seattle on Father’s Day in 2006. She spent the next nine months with the Walchaks, undergoing more surgeries, getting her prosthetic arm fitted, learning to drive and toiling to perfect her English.

She has returned to Spokane several times since then and calls the Walchaks “Mom” and “Dad.” They think of her as a third daughter.

Before her surgeries, Nguyen had never left her home village and had never been exposed to the modern world.

“Never been on an elevator, didn’t know what a satellite was, had never heard anything about the moon landing,” Frank Walchak said.

When she came to the United States she was frightened by just about everything: the strange food, the traffic. Carolyn Walchak recalled how Nguyen used to cling to her arm wherever they went.

Now she marvels at Nguyen’s perseverance and ability to seize life-changing opportunities.

“The seeds fell on fertile ground,” Walchak said. “She’s really smart, and that’s what allowed her to get here. She taught me that you don’t need to be well educated to be smart.”

Nguyen, now 33, ate lunch Thursday at the Kalispel Golf and Country Club – spaghetti and meat sauce, one of many dishes she’s come to enjoy. She was the honored guest at a meeting of the Walchaks’ Rotary International chapter. Rotaplast International, a sister charity organization, sponsored the doctors’ mission trip in 2004.

Clicking through a slideshow, Frank Walchak told the club all about Nguyen. One photo showed her pushing a cart stacked high with luggage through an airport before her first flight back to Vietnam. She had come to the United States with little more than a sack.

In another photo, she smiled on a big red motorbike she had learned to ride one-handed through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.

After the Rotary meeting, Nguyen and her American parents visited Cheryl Jones, the occupational therapist who aided in her initial recovery from surgery.

They were accompanied by a three-person crew from Vietnam Television, a state-run broadcaster that reaches households across the country and is producing a 30-minute documentary about Nguyen to run during prime time.

Nguyen Minh Ha, who will narrate the segment, said the goal is to inspire people with disabilities in a country where they are often shunned from employment and educational opportunities, even limited in who they can marry. Many are relegated to poverty-wage jobs in Vietnam’s garment factories, she said.

Dao Nguyen’s story offers hope, Ha said. “She has the energy. She has a very strong-willed personality.”

The Spokesman-Review last profiled Nguyen in 2009, when she was working for a Vietnamese travel agency and helping support her elderly parents.

The following year, she married Dr. Michael French, a pediatric dentist who had traveled with the Walchaks on that mission trip to Vietnam.

“We kept in touch for five years,” through letters, Nguyen said.

She still laughs at the giant “diamond” engagement ring he bought her in Ho Chi Minh City. She knew it was fake but he didn’t figure that out until he visited a jeweler friend in Spokane months later.

“He thought I would be so mad at him!” Nguyen said.

They live in Murphys, California, with a 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. She does the bookkeeping at his dental practice in nearby Sonora.

Nguyen said she’s still not keen on being photographed and was reluctant to take part in the documentary, but she agreed after some prodding from her husband, friends and family.

She hopes to send this message to young people with disabilities, growing up with little hope for the future: “Be confident and be who you are, and changes will come when they come.”

Correction: This story was changed on Jan. 16, 2018 to correctly identify Cheryl Jones’ profession. She is an occupational therapist, not a physical therapist.

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