Rooted in community

Dr. Nhia Kash Vang serves both the Hmong and wider Oroville communities

Dr. Nhia Kash Vang, who works at Oroville Hospital, is Oroville’s only Hmong physician.

Dr. Nhia Kash Vang, who works at Oroville Hospital, is Oroville’s only Hmong physician.

Photo illustration by Tina Flynn

Call the doctor:
When not on duty at Oroville Hospital, Dr. Nhia Kash Vang sees patients at the Comprehensive Care Walk-in Clinic, 900 Oro Dam Blvd., Oroville (534-9183).

Dr. Nhia Kash Vang practices medicine in Oroville for many of the same reasons that have attracted other physicians to the North State. Locally there’s a need for doctors, and Vang fills multiple niches as a hospitalist and a family-medicine practitioner. He has personal ties to Oroville, and it’s the kind of town where he and his wife wanted to start a family.

“We like to live nice and quiet,” he said. “You don’t really appreciate the quietness here until you return from a trip to Europe—Paris, Rome or Barcelona, where it’s total chaos with people and traffic.”

A quiet hometown is particularly appreciated when you’ve experienced an upbringing like his.

Vang was born in 1977 in the jungles of Laos, in the midst of civil war. His family moved from encampment to encampment, never staying long enough to plant roots. They sneaked across the border into Thailand and found safety in a refugee camp. There, he learned enough English to start middle school once the family joined relatives in America—specifically, in Oroville, which boasts a significant Hmong population.

The connection with his community drew Vang back to the North State after medical school and residency in the Central Valley. He works at Oroville Hospital, primarily providing intensive care for hospitalized patients yet also seeing patients at Oroville’s Comprehensive Care Walk-in Clinic. It’s an uncommon arrangement for a hospitalist, since inpatient physicians typically don’t take appointments in an outpatient office.

But, then, Vang—Oroville’s only Hmong physician—is an uncommon individual.

“He’s just been a wonderful addition,” said Dr. Roy Shannon, a senior member of the medical staff at Oroville Hospital. “First of all, he’s smart, and he has good training. He’s a real human—he has a lot of compassion. He takes his time to talk to patients, and to listen to patients. He figures out the right thing to do, and if he doesn’t know the right thing to do, he knows who he needs to ask for help.”

Likewise, colleagues consult with him: “Dr. Vang has taught us a lot about the Hmong community,” Shannon said, “and it’s frequent that we call him to the emergency room to help us out with a patient we’re having trouble communicating with.”

Though he’s only 34 and has been practicing in Oroville for just three years, Vang holds high standing at the hospital. Peers elected him to a seat on the Oroville Hospital Corporate Board, a committee that feeds into the governing body, the Board of Trustees. “Not only will he be an advocate for the Hmong community and a bridge to the Hmong community,” Shannon said, “he will also be important in the direction of the hospital for years and decades to come.”

Vang appreciates his position.

“I feel very fortunate and very blessed to have this opportunity,” he said. “Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t imagine working with Dr. Shannon and doing all these things.”

Twenty years ago, Vang was a teenager who’d just recently immigrated to the United States. He was born during the aftermath of the Vietnam War, when violence continued to rock Southeast Asia. His family grew to eight: father, mother and six children.

“I don’t remember much,” he admitted. “We stayed there [in the jungle] for a number of years, but life was way too tough, so we surrendered and went to stay with relatives for a short time, but it didn’t work out because my father was on the other side of the war, so we were considered enemies. Life was difficult, so my father decided to find a way for us to go to Thailand.”

That was 1985. Vang said the Thai government had begun restricting the entry of Laotian exiles, but his family managed to “sneak into” a refugee camp.

“We were the last wave of refugees [for whom] they would process the paperwork,” he said. “We were able to get a little bit of training, learn a little English, learn about American culture, and in ’89 my family came to the United States.”

His mother’s uncle had relocated to Oroville in 1986. He helped the Vangs immigrate, then adjust to their new environment.

“To me, it wasn’t so much of a culture shock,” said Vang, “because in Laos we moved from place to place so much that I wasn’t exposed to the true culture that you’d have if you were living peacefully in a village. But for a lot of the older people, it’s a big adjustment to make.”

That is why Vang has made such a significant impact. Differences between Hmong culture and Western medicine can complicate treatment, or even keep people from seeking treatment.

As a teenager, Vang served as interpreter for his father at medical appointments. (His father’s primary physician, incidentally, was Dr. Mark Lundberg, who now serves as Butte County Health Officer.) Vang was inspired to become a doctor, and after graduating from Chico State, he got his medical degree from UC Davis and in 2008 completed his training in Modesto.

Immediately he returned to Oroville. He and his wife, Wendy, now have a 15-month-old son, and his brother, Kham, recently moved back home after receiving his dental degree at UCLA.

“I get invited to do different talks to hopefully motivate younger people to go toward higher education, and also offer advice and mentorship,” Vang said. “I like doing that. There’s something deeper than just having a job. There’s a deeper meaning to having the opportunity to make an impact, help people and make life a little bit easier for them. Fortunately, I was able to achieve that goal, and hopefully I’ll be able to continue to serve the community.”