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Doctor's painful journey gave him strength to succeed

Victor Phan has learned a valuable life lesson: "It's not how hard you fall. It's how fast you get up."
Victor Phan says there was a time in his life when he would have to study on the floor of his home to avoid stray bullets, and he would have to stretch out 99-cent chili from Wendy's to last two meals.

HOUSTON -- Victor Van Phan was just 4 years old and the youngest of 12 when most of his family escaped from Vietnam.

Arriving in America, it seemed the worst must be over until a telegram arrived.

His mother — still trying to escape — was killed. 

"She was stabbed and she was thrown in the lake," Victor says.

His family moved from Missouri to Texas, where he grew up in southeast Houston. He was a freshman at Dobie High School, when his father died of liver failure. 

Victor had spent much of the summer in the hospital at his father's bedside to help translate. His father sent him home July 3. The next morning, he died. 

"I knew he was going to pass away," Victor says. "He didn't want me to be there. That was rough."

At 14, he had to lie to get work. 

"Right after my dad died, I got a job here working at a Kroger," he says.

He worked two jobs through high school and three through college. That's when he had a bad car accident.

Afterwards, he couldn't feel his leg. A doctor told him it was unclear if he would be paralyzed. He was 19 and angry at God.   

"How much more do you need to test me? I don't get it," Victor recalls asking.

He lost a year of college at the University of Houston while rehabbing — regaining his mobility and gaining a new direction in medicine.

He rented a cheap room next door to a drug house off Telephone Road.

He recalls one day when a stray bullet flew in. He didn't have money to move, so he reinforced walls with plywood, joking he couldn't afford Kevlar.

"I just studied on the ground," he said.

At a Wendy's near downtown, he says he would "buy the 99-cent chili. I would divide it in half because I had to make it last two days."

At the nearby Fiesta, he bought tuna — four cans for $1.

He calls that motivation to succeed, saying "I will not go back there. It gives you drive."  

He says he hates canned tuna now.

He became a successful orthopedic surgeon affiliated with Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital. He says he is a better doctor because of his own pain.

He married his sixth-grade sweetheart, Anh, and had two daughters. Surely, the worst of his journey was behind him.

Then he wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.

On the morning of her mastectomy, the Phans learned they were pregnant. He says that was his darkest hour.

They faced a difficult decision: Continue with Anh's treatment or wait nine months until the baby was born. They waited for the baby.

Victor and Anh now have three beautiful daughters and live in a beautiful West University home, where they teach their children their hard-learned lesson: all things can give you strength.

In the family kitchen, Victor says to his daughters, "It's not how hard you fall. It's how fast you get up."

Victor does not know where his life's journey will take him next, but he does know what would he say to God now?

"I get it," he says with a smile.

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