When Yeng Her’s mother’s kidneys failed, she wanted to try herbs and shaman rituals. But a Madison doctor said that without dialysis, she would die.
Her was 16, a junior at Memorial High School, the oldest of four children born in a refugee camp. As he fought to keep his mother alive, he struggled to translate language and culture between his Hmong family and Western medical providers.
“I felt powerless,” he said. “That lit a fire inside of me to go into medicine and try to bridge these gaps.”
Her is believed to be the first Hmong-American to get an M.D.-Ph.D., after receiving the degrees last month at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
He plans to return next year to UW-Madison, where he got his bachelor’s degree, to do a residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation at UW Health. He will also pursue research on using stem cells to treat chronic pain.
Her became interested in helping people regain function after spending much of his childhood at Hmong refugee camps in Thailand. He was surrounded by people injured during the Vietnam War, in which the United States recruited Hmong soldiers, including Her’s father, to fight communist forces. The wounded included his uncle, who was paralyzed on one side of his body.
“He didn’t really get the treatment he needed at the camp,” Her said. “That had a pretty profound effect on me.”
Now 33 and married, with two children, Her is the first Hmong-American to get a medical degree and a doctor of philosophy degree, according to Victor Yang, who has tracked doctoral degrees among Hmong-Americans since 1985. Yang records the degrees in the blog Hmong St. Paul.
The National Institutes of Health and the Association of American Medical Colleges said they collect data on underrepresented groups, but don’t have information on individuals that would allow them to confirm Her’s singular feat.
Didn’t know first name
For a man who had no formal education before coming to Wisconsin in 1994, at age 10, Her’s completion of perhaps the most difficult, competitive program in academia is remarkable, his mentor at Mayo said.
“His determination to succeed against odds, to not take no for an answer and be stubborn and overcome challenges with hard work came through,” said Jim Maher, dean of Mayo’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.
“He’s a survivor,” said Maher, who grew up in Middleton and got his bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. at UW-Madison. “His family taught him to survive in really dire circumstances. ... It made him ready to tackle things that might have scared other people off.”
As a child, Her lived in three refugee camps. His family occasionally had to ration food, and each child had only two outfits of clothing, but his parents bore most of the burden, he said.
“I had a pretty happy childhood, even though the camp was overcrowded,” Her said, recalling games he improvised with other children that involved rocks, flip-flops and plastic straws.
When his family arrived in Madison, Her started fifth grade at Randall Elementary School, not knowing English or how to read in any language.
He didn’t even know his first name. His family called him Soua, a shortened version of his middle name, Fransoua. When teachers called for Yeng, he didn’t respond.
“They thought there was something wrong with me, like hearing issues or something like that,” he said.
At Jefferson Middle School, he found his footing with Sarah Stewart, who taught English as a second language. She stayed after school most days to help him study.
“She became almost like a second mom to me,” he said. “That is what really laid the foundation for me to get better grades.”
Upward Bound, a program for students from families with low incomes or no bachelor’s degrees, helped him succeed at Memorial, where he graduated in 2002.
Forced to shift focus
At UW-Madison, Her initially planned to become a physician assistant. After doing well in chemistry, which became his major, he decided to become a doctor and a scientist.
His aspirations were shaped by the kidney disease that struck his mother, Yia Vang. She was skeptical of dialysis because her sister had a bad experience with the blood-cleansing procedure, but she eventually tried it and later got a kidney transplant.
She is doing well today — working, along with her husband, Chong Lor Her, at Electronic Theater Control in Middleton, where they have been employed for about 20 years.
After graduating from UW-Madison, Her enrolled in Mayo’s two-year Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program, which trains promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds for academic research.
The experience helped him get into Mayo’s M.D.-Ph.D. program, a demanding, eight-year effort that starts and ends with two years of medical school, with four years of graduate school in between.
The Ph.D. portion, with Her specializing in biochemistry and molecular biology, was the most challenging, he said.
During his second year of research in Maher’s lab, a lab in Paris published work he planned to do as half of his thesis. To salvage his degree, he had to focus on the other half. Six months later, a lab in San Diego published the other half.
“Everything that I wanted to do was out,” Her said. “I went home and broke down. ... I contemplated stopping grad school.”
With encouragement from his wife, Padao Yang, and help from an adviser, he identified a different way to apply his research. The result, a paper explaining how a lack of oxygen might make people living at high altitudes more susceptible to a rare cancer called familial paraganglioma, was published in 2015 in the journal PLOS ONE.
‘Education is the key’
Her, Yang and their children moved last week to Fresno, California, where he will spend a year doing a medical internship in a city with a large Hmong-American population.
Then he’ll start his three-year residency at UW Health, and do research on pain. Eventually, he wants to treat all kinds of rehab or pain patients, not just the Hmong community. But he thinks about setting up a clinic in Laos — the Southeast Asian country where his parents grew up, and where many Hmong people live — to help injured people there.
He also wants to promote higher education among Hmong-Americans. While at UW-Madison, he started a soccer team for middle school and high school students, incorporating family gatherings, educational seminars and tips on getting into college.
“This is the reason we’re here in the United States, that we have this opportunity,” Her said. “Education is the key.”
He is proud to tell his immigrant story. “Opening the door for people like myself … to achieve the American dream, that’s something we should do,” he said.