Acting is not only a profession. It’s a philosophy, it’s therapeutic, and it’s a life skill builder. An acting class can provide self-awareness, confidence, centering, communication, and teamwork.
Dr. Huan Dong has proven so. He initially embarked on acting studies, receiving a theater degree from the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), and then merged his training with a medical degree from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in May 2019 from the David Geffen School of Medicine.
“I have utilized both majors,” contemplates the physician who’s in residency until early 2022. “I continually find parallels between medicine and theater. My acting skills have helped me to be a more compassionate doctor.”
One area of specialty for the doctor is infectious diseases. An HIV educator and researcher, Huan was an HIV/STI counselor at the Berkeley Free Clinic’s Gay Men’s Health Collective, and for the New York City Department of Public Health where he created graphic novels and scripts for HIV/STI education, derived from improv-based focus groups on men who have sex with men (MSM) of color.
“These scripts integrated, normalized, and addressed fears and questions regarding HIV/STI testing that were prevalent in the community. I really got to use my directorial and scriptwriting skills, in conjunction with placing health issues into a relatable social context,” relays Huan (pronounced “Juan”) who completed his Masters in Human Nutrition at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons before he entered medical school.
Currently in residence with UCLA Pediatrics, Huan rotates shifts at these sites: Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center, Olive View UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica UCLA Hospital, and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, though in July 2020 this site has been exchanged for Miller’s Women and Children’s Hospital in Long Beach. At the end of residency he will apply for an infectious disease fellowship, satisfying his thirst and knowledge for well-being.
Now thirty-five, Huan arrived in America at the tender age of four, having relocated from Saigon, Vietnam. His family settled in San Jose, California, but to an outsider this family could be living in Asia! In fact, one of Huan’s essays for a college application was titled, “I Go to School in America and I Go Home to Vietnam.” Speaking only Vietnamese, his parents raised chickens, grew Vietnamese vegetables on their farm, and cohabited with sixteen other Vietnamese.
A hodophile at heart, Huan has been unable to travel much due to demanding studies and a strict schedule. However, thus far, his career has led him to New York City, Tanzania, and Hanoi, Vietnam. After COVID and after his workload lightens, he plans on more adventures, especially to Europe. Paris and London beckon!
After graduating from UCB, Huan’s passion for health and theater aligned. He joined the touring theater troupe, Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Theatre Program, educating and performing for over 60,000 kids a year, addressing hot topics such as obesity, non-violent conflict resolution, and HIV/STI prevention.
In summer 2014, he traveled to Tanzania with Support for International Change, an NGO that helps reduce the HIV and AIDS infection rate in underserved communities. He volunteered there for two months residing with a host family. Huan educated students in the villages about HIV, tackling stigma surrounding the disease. Many of them wouldn’t get tested due to a backlash from their community. So, Huan dipped into his theatrical toolbox! He created a character named Kaka Bob, or Brother Bob in Swahili, and this character became a powerful instrument in breaking down barriers.
In 2016, Huan received the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty Global Health Fellowship, usually designated for post-doctoral junior faculty (not students), and worked on a research project with Hanoi Medical University. Even though it was Huan’s first year at med school, he took the year off, reveling in the opportunity to visit his homeland.
Huan was part of a team that looked at the compliance of the patient and the care for HIV-positive individuals who identified as MSM as well as male sex workers. On this trip he also encountered prevalent antibiotic usage, which could easily be purchased without a prescription at the corner store. In other words, individuals were ingesting antibiotics freely without regulation. Huan confronted this same issue (inappropriate use) early on while working as an HIV counselor at Berkeley Free Clinic. It’s a practice that he highly questions, especially when it comes to STIs.
Huan took full advantage of his Vietnam expedition by plunging into his cultural roots, encountering family members he had never met. It was cathartic for the young student.
Though Huan has not known anyone personally who died from AIDS, he did date someone who tested positive while they were going out. Having just graduated from UCB, Huan was still volunteering at the Berkeley Free Clinic’s Gay Men’s Heath Collective (GMHC). He used those training skills to handle the delicate situation, offering input and support. His beau advised Huan to get tested, which he did. Huan proposed that he’d step back to give his boyfriend time to process his diagnosis, a meteoric impact indeed.
Huan’s boyfriend agreed, though their relationship became strained…and then…radio silence. The chap scuttled off without a peep. Pow!——that hurt. Huan was heartbroken. He admits it still haunts him today and he has thoughts about possibly reaching out to him this year for resolution.
One of Huan’s first recollections of hearing about HIV was when he watched TLC’s music video, “Waterfalls.” The members of the all-girl hip-hop band were known to be AIDS activists [A&U, September 2003], especially the lead singer, Left Eye (Lisa Lopes) who often wore condoms on her apparel or condoms attached to eyeglasses. (A&U interviewed T-Boz and Chilli after Left Eye’s untimely passing.) The protagonist in the Prince-penned song acquires HIV, becomes ill, and dies. “Waterfalls” was the first number one song to address the epidemic (1995), which also garnered Grammy nominations as well. “Waterfalls,” an international hit, deals with the dangers of the virus and urges women to not take risks: “Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.”
Huan’s familiar waters include his partner of nearly four years, Kevin, an administrator at a nonprofit organization. The two met on Tindr. They soon found out that they had some mutual friends in common, and, grippingly, found that their families lived close to each other in the early eighties in nearby neighborhoods in Saigon, Vietnam.
Their home is located at the brim of Culver City (a Los Angeles suburb), where they have twenty-five “pets”—succulent plants. Though currently they have no kids, Huan and Kevin take pleasure in being a strong presence in their nieces’ and nephews’ lives. “We take pride in being happy uncles,” relates Huan merrily, indicating that his nephew glues more to Uncle Kevin than his own Uncle!
The couple’s first date was low-key. They dined on tapas and beers, and then chatted and shared laughs strolling through the lively, funky neighborhood that is downtown Culver City.
During the evening both were upfront about their sexual history. Kevin divulged that he was HIV-positive. Since Huan had been an HIV counselor and was well educated on this disease, he remained calm. This new information would not deter him from forming a serious relationship. In fact, Huan felt just the opposite. This was the beginning of an honest connection to someone he could bond well with.
Their honesty is commendable. Absolutely not an easy task upon the first meeting. Straight away, their behavior set forth a foundation of trust for their relationship. Huan and Kevin certainly set a healthy model for others.
Kevin is undetectable, Huan is on PrEP. They both take mindful care of themselves. Kevin does Yoga twice a day from an online subscription service, and, testament to his career, Huan exercises, as well, relishing time when he can rock boulder climb (less risky than rock climbing) at various facilities around his environs.
As for dealing with COVID stress, it’s been an adjustment since the partners are typically social beings. But they heed the restraints to protect themselves and others by staying in, hoping to set an example for family and friends. Whereas many couples have split during lockdowns, the pandemic brought these two closer. They are both cooks but since isolation they’ve delved into more adventurous menus, and began composting outside, creating an herb garden. They learned to grow mushrooms and bake bread. “We’ve reconnected to Home Ec,” giggles Huan.
Further healthful behaviors include Huan and Kevin disconnecting daily from social media, taking lengthy walks or visiting Mother Nature at botanical gardens, as well as hiking in canyons, or regional or state parks. To ease robotic computer position and sedentary eyestrain, they huddle together and read. Kevin is currently plodding through the classic The Glass Menagerie, while Huan’s page-turner is Endurance by Scott Kelly. What makes their kinship thrive? “We’re good friends,” Huan plainly states then counters, “we also have a similar sense of humor.”
When posed with the question to describe himself Huan answers, “Dancing through life.” (Unquestionably a dynamite title for his autobiography.) He elaborates. “It implicates energy, carefully coordinated footsteps, creativity, fun, expressivity, and carefree attitude.”
I authenticate his self-portrayal, finding him also down to earth, engaging, personable, and spirited as we encounter each other’s presence over Google Meet one late afternoon, shortly after the turn of the new calendar year. Huan is a goblet of white wine—soothing, classy, and peppy.
Offhandedly dressed in an everyday-gray archetypal hoodie with a “University of California Berkeley” inscription, Huan riffs that he’s had it for years and practically lives in his “comfort” sweatshirt. His earth-tone hair is close-trimmed but not short, his Lacoste specs are cool-dark cobalt, almost black, and he sports a few days whisker growth. Huan’s quintessence is clean-cut, cheerful, colorful—and sometimes cheeky. The man also possesses a killer Jake Gyllenhaal smile.
Since I’m a novice to this video conferencing, and somewhat technically handicapped too, Huan offers instructions on how to manipulate certain features, such as selecting the appropriate size of the screen. He then illustrates other features such as altering background screens to a coffee shop, bookcase, snowcapped mountain, and so on.
Huan greets me with a real-life “screen” that is his second bedroom-turned-office with mirrored closet doors, which I view over his shoulder. Throughout our chat, though, he chooses a backyard setting, replete with vintage RV bus nestled underneath a glowing lit patio carport, decked with virtual trees, ivy, and bushes. It’s as if he and I are seated cozily in lounge chairs conversing over a cuppa tea.
Dann Dulin: Hey thanks for getting me acquainted with this system, Huan. [I make one more slight adjustment.] Well, I’m no longer a virgin now….
Huan Vinh Dong: I broke it. I took it from you, Dann. [He quickly quips, deadpan.] Now you’ve got to credit me in the article for that! [In unison we howl.]
Well, here’s a fast pop-up question: Is there someone’s autograph you treasure?
[Huan ponders a moment then casually prefaces his answer emphasizing that he’s not the starstruck type; though he enjoys celebrity talents, they’re unimportant in his life.]
I treasure a signature from Pham Thi Lan, a professor at the National Hospital for Dermatology and Venereology. She wrote me a small note and signed a copy of her PhD dissertation after I visited and shadowed her in her clinic. I admire her and she’s such an inspiration. [He straightens his bod, pulls his shoulders back.] Dr. Pham Thi Lan studied the implications of STIs in rural Vietnam. [Huan props an elbow up on his desk, one finger dangling on his lip.] To me, there’s more to celebrate in that work than an entertainment celebrity. [Abruptly, Huan has a surge of glee] Oh, on second thought, Dann, if I had a chance to meet RuPaul, that may be one celebrity that I would really appreciate an autograph from…!
Very cool! I’ll see if I can arrange that! Do most people call you Huan or do you have a nickname?
Most people call me Huan, previously Huanito, because I didn’t have growth spurts until I was about sixteen years old. But now [he titters] I am adequately tall and pretty fit, so no one really calls me that anymore. My family still calls me “Tô,” which means “big bowl” in Vietnamese. When I was under four and still in Vietnam, I would eat voraciously and request big bowls of noodles or rice! [Grinning, he uses his hands demonstrating size.]
I find it noteworthy that your introduction to the AIDS epidemic was partly through TLC’s “Waterfalls”….
When I first saw the video I didn’t really get it —What is happening to him? [he asks rhetorically, later learning that the protagonist has an AIDS-defining illness]. After viewing the video I became more sensitive to the topic. I didn’t understand why some people were very vocal about the differences between HIV and AIDS, which led me to read more about the natural history of HIV infection and the complexity of the virus itself.
I also distinctly remember that at UC Berkeley there was a class called “Biology and Sociobiology of Human Sexuality and Reproduction,” taught by Ivy Chen, which helped me become more comfortable talking about the topic of sexuality.
You do indeed remember professors who’ve made an impression…brilliant! [I pause.] Yeah, sex is still difficult to talk about in this society. In some ways we’ve come far, and in other ways we’re still immature. After learning about HIV, how did it all play out for you?
The epidemic sparked a very important motivation inside of me to do all I can to promote social justice given the stigma and discrimination I saw around the HIV status of an individual. Even more, HIV is heavily associated with LGBTQ+ folk and particularly gay men who were further compounded by the marginalization. These are my peers. I knew that I didn’t want to live in a future world where communities I care about had to deal with this unnecessary prejudgment.
Let’s create some brouhaha here on your statement! [I flaunt my approving fists.] Now, elaborate on your years being an HIV counselor at the Berkeley Free Clinic’s Gay Men’s Heath Collective (GMHC).
Well, I joined GMHC right after graduation from UC Berkeley. I volunteered through their training program to become a volunteer “medic,” quickly becoming a section coordinator for nearly five years. I used my community organizing experiences and then corporate experiences to help increase efficacy in staffing and digitization of documentation. There, I was engaged in learning not only the health education and prevention side, but how important clinical interactions were.
I learned the importance of being an advocate for your patient, while earning their trust in some of the most vulnerable, and sensitive experiences. These patients showed me a spectrum of different men who needed support in sexual health. [He gracefully sweeps his hand through his silky locks, swooping up a thatch of hair then releases it.] I became someone who any of my friends could speak to about sexual health—something that even the toughest of guys have trouble expressing at times. This experience really broke down many stereotypes and presumptions of people’s behaviors from outward appearance. You really cannot tell if someone is at high or low risk for anything just by looking at them.
Undeniably, and gee, what an all-encompassing training you had. So, Huan, you wanted to pursue an acting career…?
I never really wanted to be an actor. I was in theatre to learn about expression and communication. My interest lies in biology. [Huan’s vivid browns peer candidly into mine.] Actually, I am more of a talented dancer than singer or actor….
OH?! Fred Astaire? Mikhail Baryshnikov? Channing Tatum? Willi Ninja? Derek Hough? [Huan giggles and trails off.] Huan, I want to hear more about “Uncle Bob” the character you created while teaching in Tanzania.
Many who live there refuse to get tested because they’re afraid of what the community will think of them. I challenged that mindset by creating this character Kaka Bob in my classroom. Kaka Bob sat in on “Basic Skills” class I was teaching and become a friend to the students. At the end of class Uncle Bob was tested for HIV and found out he was positive. This then prompted a discussion about whether Kaka Bob was now any different, and how we could help him. The children rallied around Kaka Bob.
What a keen idea, Huan.
The character was a powerful tool to start dialogue about fighting HIV stigma. I wouldn’t have thought to create or been able to create this character without my training at Theatre Dance and Performance Studies at UC Berkeley and my experience at Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Theater Programs, where I got to perform shows and learn how to place health education messaging in a socially relatable context for children.
What a sturdy foundation and atypical tools you’ve acquired for your doctor’s bag. What was your living situation in Tanzania and did it work out for you?
I stayed in a farming town with a population of 600. We were able to implement a rather successful testing campaign where we tested over 200 individuals in the town and surrounding townships. This led to my curiosity and interest in pediatric patients because it was actually the kids in this town who really helped our testing campaign. They helped us by singing songs throughout the town, which then helped some of their older community members understand the importance of providing screening and prevention measures.
What a groundbreaking way to get people to test. Kudos. Next on your travel list, you spent a year in Hanoi, Vietnam! Share your experience.
During my work here I saw the lines really blurred between social constructs of sexuality and in the strong pressures of society that influence how one pursued their life, particularly in male sex workers—who did not identify as queer or gay. [He clears his throat.] Some had families, and some were married with children as well. At times these individuals just saw their sex work as an extension of massage or physical labor.
This is quite eye-opening.
[Huan nods.] I also was able to conduct research into community antibiotic usage without a prescription, particularly in the realm of sexually transmitted infections. My collaborative discussions with stakeholders in Hanoi Medical University led to the development of my grant from the Fogarty Global Health fellowship. I realized that my future career is not pointed towards being a laboratory technician but in coordinating research efforts. [He ponders; his tone becomes thoughtfully wistful.] The year abroad really helped me understand where I could impact global health and research collaborations as a young trainee.
…And while in Vietnam you were fortunate enough to meet some kin.
[Huan beams while stretching his arms outward.] Oh, Dann, it was a huge moment of respect for myself and for the distant family to see that even though our branch of the family moved away and have become members of another country, we can still pay homage to our cultural and familial roots.
How exhilarating. Huan, what motivated you to go into the medical field and devote your time to helping others?
I think a large motivator was that I received a lot of help when I was younger. We were immigrants and we didn’t have much. We used food stamps, I always got a free lunch at school, I was in a special after-school program because my parents worked a lot, and we all were learning English. I received tutoring from volunteer programs and the special programs that were placed by state and federal government to help families like us. I was recipient of extra academic outreach so I could do better on SATs, for example. People were there for me. I.. am…lucky…. [He halts still in thought.]
I also saw how much my parents worked and how hard they worked. [He thinks a moment, tilting his head to the side.] They were my role models. They endured and persevered, never giving up on us.
What a blessing.
I witnessed many parts of society, especially immigrant families, who didn’t know how to effectively use healthcare to promote their well being. In developing countries only when you are acutely ill is when you go to emergency to see a doctor. In my family, there were many missed opportunities to screen for such diseases as hepatitis B, breast cancer, lung cancer, or tuberculosis. They have impacted my extended family greatly. For me, there was this need to help educate people about preventative care.
I get it, yeah. You have a profound interest in nutrition and living healthy and sharing it with others. Tell about your decision to study nutrition at Columbia.
Coming from health education, I wanted a transition to a graduate degree that would allow me to better understand how to interpret and conduct research. While at Columbia I worked on the intersection between nutrition and chronic viral infections—HIV and hepatitis C—and the impact of the inflammation on bone mineral density and fracture risk, especially in older individuals.
What did you learn about this in relation to individuals who are living with HIV?
The major advice is to exercise all through our lives. We cannot “catch up” later! Many middle aged or older individuals do not exercise because they worry about their joints and bones being too weak to support exercise, but actually our bones and muscles need that usage and resistance to get stimulated to maintain bulk.
First-rate information. Just then, Huan, I think you were channeling Dr. Sanjay Gupta and fitness guru Jane Fonda. [He cracks a half smile, chortling.] As you know, HIV stats have risen in several communities and has hit hard the younger generation, especially gays. Any ideas how we can better reach youth today?
We have to meet them where they are—which likely means a push towards messaging through technology. Influencers are very important today for youth and I think it would be great to connect with them to spread messaging. [He dons a high note] …But not just warnings and scare tactics—honest discussions, so they can understand that they can trust adults and healthcare providers with these personal and sensitive topics.
If I may add, we all really need to not forget the incredibly difficult work that the LGBTQ+ community did to help reduce infections when the epidemic raged in the eighties and nineties. We need to continue to unite as a community to protect the health for us all.
We must remember the past——always. You’ve done much work with high-risk gay youth of color. Does anything stand out?
Different communities have different histories that make trust in healthcare systems difficult. My approach has been that we can all look different on the outside but there are experiences that we’ve been through that can connect us. The major thing I learned was that beyond credentials and official titles, people in medically mistreated communities need someone who is from their community—who look and sound like them.
Smart words. Say, you are doing a residency in Pediatrics. You definitely have a passion for kids! On the personal side, are you and Kevin considering children?
This is an ongoing discussion, Dann. [He smirks and then he becomes pensive and sincere.] Having biological children would be incredibly wonderful…however, I’m not absolutely tied to that idea, given all the children without families in America and across the globe.
Wholeheartedly agree, Huan. What’s your take on the current state of HIV?
It’s not over. [He heaves a sigh.] There’s still so much work to be done. Sexual health is an important part of overall health. We cannot allow our discomfort over talking about it lead to potential disease. We must change the tide in infections that continue to affect millions of people each year. [Huan is revved, his urgent voice elevates….] Let’s all get tested and reduce transmission of HIV and other STIs, investing in the future of our community. If not now… then WHEN!?
[Huan highlights his words and emotions by gently twisting to profile, exposing the Lacoste trademark alligator on his eyeglass frames, lowering his cranium, as his eyes cast vaguely downward—a dramatic pose. Point. Well. Taken. Dr. Dong did learn a thing or two in acting class.]
Credit to Davidd for his sage counsel and long term devotion.
Senior Editor Dann Dulin interviewed actress Hailie Sahar for the March cover story. Follow him on Twitter @DannDulin.