Experience as a patient inspires Vietnamese immigrant to pursue dental degree from UofL

Jake Do and faculty mentor Sherry Babbage

As a teenager, Jake Do and his family left Vietnam to pursue new opportunities in the United States. Through the mentorship of School of Dentistry faculty member Sherry Babbage, Jake is pursuing his dream to become a dentist. UofL News reached out to Jake to learn more about his journey as he begins his second year of dental school at UofL.  

UofL News: Talk about your home country and how you came to the United States.

Jake Do: I was born and raised in Saigon, Vietnam. Vietnam contains 63 different cities/provinces, each with its own unique cuisine. The food is always fresh, fruits always sweet and coffee always strong. When I was midway through high school, my family’s application got accepted, and we officially became permanent U.S. residents. We knew we would miss Vietnam’s beautiful beaches and people, but we decided to move to America mostly because of the better education and career opportunities.

UofL News: Eventually you ended up here in Louisville and became a patient of the School of Dentistry. Tell us about that experience. 

Jake Do: My relatives are all in Louisville, so when my family first moved to America, Louisville was naturally our new home. My uncle was already here and helped my family with our green card applications and with our adjustment to a new country.

I joined a program called AHEC, as recommended by my aunt. Through the program, I took some science classes and went to different universities in Louisville, so it was the perfect opportunity to get used to the language and the city. It was then that I was introduced to the School of Dentistry and was able to shadow Sherry Babbage because I mentioned an interest in dentistry. It was such an amazing experience that I also signed up to be her patient.

UofL News: Describe Sherry Babbage’s influence on you and your family.  

Jake Do: During our first year in America, my father had a serious cavity, but going to a dental office was never high on his priority list, considering he had not been able to find a job or a place to stay. (We were still living with my uncle’s family at the time.) When I finally convinced him to visit Dr. Babbage, the cavity was so big that she had to pull the tooth.

At the time, I knew nothing about health insurance. My uncle managed to get my family covered, but he did not fully explain the system, especially the part that unlike Vietnam, dental is separate from health insurance. So, my father was responsible for the full charge. After learning about our situation Dr. Babbage said, “No charge,” and refused to take the money. I remembered having tears in my eyes at that time, not just because my father had an extraction for free, but also because I thought, “This, this is the kind of dentist I want to become.” It was Dr. Babbage who turned my mild interest in dentistry into determination.

UofL News: Ultimately, you decided to pursue dental education and applied to the UofL School of Dentistry. What was that experience like for you?

Jake Do: The first step I took to pursue a dental education was applying for ULEAD, a guaranteed entrance program to the School of Dentistry. I was so excited when I got invited to an interview, then I was devastated when I did not get accepted. Dr. Babbage was a faculty member of the program and explained to me what I still needed to work on and convinced me not to give up.

After a year of shadowing Dr. Babbage, she commented that I was becoming more outgoing and asked if I felt more confident in myself. It sounds like a joke now, but at the time, I kept thinking how could I become a dentist if I was more afraid of the patients than they were of me. Mostly, I was afraid of not understanding the patients and of them laughing at my accent.

Dr. Babbage kept my hopes up by acknowledging my struggle and progress in tackling my weakness. When I applied for dental school again in my junior year, I was more mature and prepared, so the interview, albeit virtual, went much more smoothly. For my second attempt, instead of a rejection letter, I received a call to let me know I had been accepted. I stayed up all night from the excitement.

UofL News: You’re now going into your second year as a dental student. Describe the challenges you’ve faced this year and how you’ve overcome them.

Jake Do: As a D2, I am starting to assist D3s and D4s in the dental clinic, directly interacting with patients. There are still lots of awkward silences and miscommunications, but I am glad to have three more years to improve my communication skills in a learning environment. I am learning how faculty members and students in upper classes interact with patients in the clinic, such as asking them how they would like to be addressed, how the drive to the school was or if they have any family in the city.

UofL News: What is your career goal?

Jake Do: Dr. Babbage inspired me to be a dentist like her, to work not for money but for the community, not to open a dental office, but to open a dental home, specifically for those who do not normally expect to get dental care. It is going to have income-based rates, translation services, as well as acceptance of all insurance plans, including Medicaid and Medicare.

I also hope to help my Vietnamese community in Louisville as one of the few dentists in the city who speaks Vietnamese. In Vietnam, the general mentality is that you only go to the dental office when you are in pain, and there is no such thing as 6-month dental check-ups. My parents’ current diagnosis of periodontitis are indications that mindsets need to be changed.

UofL News: Anything else you’d like to share?

Jake Do: I could not stress enough the importance of finding a mentor in the field that you want to pursue. Summer health programs are great ways to connect aspiring students with doctors and graduate students. I was able to become a qualified and competent candidate for the dental school thanks to Dr. Babbage and the newly graduated dentists I met through the programs who were always willing to answer my questions and provide details about the necessary preparations for dental schools.

 

 

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