Syracuse nurse to return to Laos, where she lost mom, siblings when escape boat sank

Monday, July 20, 2009

Syracuse, NY -- Vonn Lee was 12 years old in 1975 when she watched her mother, oldest sister and two younger brothers drown in Asia's Mekong River during their escape from Laos at the end of the Vietnam War.

A year later, Lee immigrated to America where she helped raise her three younger siblings, translated for Hmong refugees, married, started her own family and began a career in nursing.

She always thought about returning to Laos for a visit but never got around to it.

Sunday, Lee will travel to her homeland on a two-week medical mission with the Hmong District of the Christian and Missionary Alliance based in Thornton, Colo. She is part of a 12-member team that includes a doctor and nurses, all of them Hmongs. The team will provide basic health and dental care to people in Laos and Thailand.

Lee is making the trip to fulfill a field requirement for her bachelor's degree in nursing from Keuka College, but it's also personal.

She wants to help her people and to put to rest the nightmares that have haunted her for 34 years.

"It will be emotional," said Lee, 45, a registered nurse at St. Joseph Hospital Health Center's North Surgery Center in Clay. "We're going to be crossing the Mekong River into Laos. Half my family drowned in the escape from Laos. I think we had too many people trying to escape. We're going really fast ... and the boat sank."

At the end of the Vietnam War, the Hmong people were persecuted because they supported the United States military. Lee and her family were among thousands who fled to Thailand and other neighboring countries. Her father died of natural causes, and her mother remarried. Her stepfather was in Thailand waiting for Lee, her mother and six siblings.

Lee and her three siblings were rescued by people in Thailand who saw the boat sinking. Rescue crews found the bodies of her mother and one brother, but they didn't find her sister and other brother, she said. Lee identified her mother because of the wallet pouch that was attached to her underwear.

"It just seemed like a big nightmare," Lee said of losing her mother and three siblings. "This isn't happening to me. And then you quickly realized there's no one else, and you have to take charge and do what you need to do."

As the oldest child, Lee became the mother and nurse to her younger siblings in the refugee camp. Her brother, then 5 years old, was malnourished and sick a lot, so she took him to the clinic every week. Her stepfather remarried, and the family moved to America, settling in Berne, Ind. The family moved to Chicago in 1978, where there was a large Hmong population.

Lee learned English quickly, and at 14 she became a translator for Hmong refugees, taking them to medical appointments.

It was the experience caring for her siblings and Hmong refugees that inspired Lee to pursue a career in nursing. At St. Joseph's, she is coordinator of a post-anesthesia care unit.

Lee began working on her nursing degree last fall. When she began thinking about her field work requirement, she thought about going to a Spanish-speaking country so she could practice her Spanish.

"Then I thought, wouldn't it be wonderful if there was a mission to Laos, and I could go there and be able to do what I wanted to do since the beginning -- to help our people," she wrote in the autobiography for the course. Lee e-mailed family and friends to see if they knew about a medical mission to Laos.

About a month ago, her sister sent her information about the Hmong Christian and Missionary Alliance mission's request for Hmong nurses and doctors.

Lee signed up immediately.

The mission will fulfill her personal and professional dreams. Lee is covering most of the trip's cost -- $3,500. She raised about $600. St. Joseph's donated medical supplies -- blood pressure cuffs, bandages and medications. Her dentist, Dr. Michael Damiano, donated toothpaste and toothbrushes.

Though excited about returning to Laos, Lee worries about crossing the Mekong River where she lost half her family.

"It's a bit of anxiety," she said. "At the same time, I'm excited, really privileged to go back as a nurse. It's a great feeling and a lot of emotions."

Contact Maureen Sieh at or 470-2159.


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