Vietnamese television editor Van Nu Quynh Tram first heard about Dao Nguyen French’s story through a chance encounter on an airplane in April last year.
When she was just 28 days old, French’s mother placed her in a hammock near a fire to keep her warm, a practice common in the poor village where they lived off the south central coast of Vietnam.
French fell out of the hammock and was badly burned in the fire, leaving her with scars to her face and melting the fingers on her left hand down to a stump. The scarring also made her unable to straighten her left arm at the elbow.
As a result, she faced constant challenges while growing up in a country where people with disabilities are often outcast from the rest of society.
French, 34, now lives in Murphys with her husband, Dr. Michael French. They have two children, Michelle, 5, and Mitchell, 3.
She works as an accountant at her husband’s dental practice in Sonora, holds an associate’s degree in business administration from Columbia College, and returns to her home country each year on philanthropic missions.
After hearing the story, Van reached out to French in hopes of making a 30-minute documentary about her life to run during prime time on the state-run Vietnam Television. The broadcaster reaches millions of Vietnamese people in the country and other parts of the world.
Van and a film crew have followed French for the past 20 days as she went about her life in the Mother Lode to show what she’s accomplished despite her disability.
“This is a source of inspiration to motivate those in a similar situation as Dao,” said Van, who spoke through translator and narrator of the documentary, Nguyen Minh Ha, while being interviewed Thursday at French’s home in the Red Apple Ranch subdivision.
Van also hopes the documentary will show the friendship that has formed between the people of the United States and Vietnam, who were once enemies on the battlefields of war.
“You will also see the mutual love that is borderless,” Van said.
From kindergarten through sixth grade, French said she was bullied and ridiculed by her classmates in school because of her disability.
“They thought my parents weren’t good people and I was born this way,” she said. “They isolated me because they thought it was a disease they could catch.”
French was born and raised in the rural Binh Dinh Province.
She said people rarely discussed the war that ended when the communist forces of North Vietnam seized control of the U.S.-allied South Vietnam in 1975, eight years before her birth.
French said her treatment by her peers got slightly better by the time she reached high school, but she still felt a sense of alienation from the rest of society.
She went through several surgeries before meeting Dr. Frank Walchak, a plastic surgeon from Spokane, Washington, who would change the course of her life.
Walchak and his wife, Carolyn, met French in 2004 while on a medical mission to Vietnam with Rotaplast International, a charity organization that sponsors such trips for doctors to treat burn victims and people born with cleft lip or palate.
French heard about Walchak and sought out his help.
“With all the bullying I had been through, I wanted to feel like a normal person,” she said.
The Walchaks began to work on getting French a medical visa so that she could come to the U.S. for more surgeries and be fitted with a prosthetic arm.
“They had to work very hard to get a visa,” French said. “It’s very difficult to get a visa to come here, even as a tourist.”
French finally arrived in Spokane on Father’s Day in 2006 and spent nine months that year undergoing surgeries and treatments while staying with the Walchaks.
She said she was at first scared of being in a new place, but became comfortable because of the way she was treated in America.
“When I first came here, I was like a baby clinging to her mom,” she said. “I was scared, I hid my hand, then when I realized how supportive everyone was I thought, ‘I’m normal’ ”
French refers to the Walchaks now as her adoptive parents, though they didn’t officially adopt her. They visit each other at the least once a year either up in Spokane or in Murphys.
“I went through a lot, but I got lucky and met my adoptive parents from Spokane,” French said. “They treated me like a normal person and made me feel like I could do whatever I want to do.”
Dr. Michael French went on his first medical mission to Vietnam with the Rotaplast International in 2005.
He was volunteering with about 20 other people doing cleft lip and palate surgeries on children in Qui Nhon, a coastal city in the Binh Dinh Province, where he met his future wife.
“She (Dao) was helping me manage the children and assisting me with the language while I was doing exams,” he said. “I consider her like a Florence Nightingale the way she did that. She was running around and helping all of the moms, all while being a patient herself.”
French said he fell in love with the country of Vietnam, the people and food so much that he started going back every year to do missions.
Each time he returned, he would meet with Dao for lunch and to catch up. They would also keep in communication over the Internet and writing letters.
French said he watched Dao blossom as a person over the years following her surgeries in Spokane.
“I met her first in 2005 and she was a shy girl from a small village,” he said. “After she met the Rotaplast people, the doctors in Spokane and me, we encouraged her to go to school in Vietnam, move to the city and get a job.”
She followed their advice and got a job working as an accountant for a travel agency in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. The owner of the agency, Nguyen Thi Bich Hang, was the one who told the Vietnam Television editor about Dao on the airplane in April last year.
Though it began as a friendship, the relationship between the dentist and woman from a rural Vietnamese village took a different turn in 2010.
“We decided maybe we should start dating and if things worked out we should get married, because I always admired her as a person,” he said.
On July 4, 2010, they got engaged on the beach.
French said he had to travel to her village and get in front of about 15 members of her family to formally ask for her hand in marriage.
“None of them spoke English, so she translated,” he said. “I still don’t know what she said to them to this day, but they gave me the thumbs up and we got married.”
They were married on Christmas Eve that year.
New life in the Mother Lode
The couple first lived in the Forest Meadows subdivision, where Dr. Michael French had moved to in 2009 from the Bay Area.
Dao Nguyen French said they love the area and small community atmosphere.
“The neighbors here are incredible,” she said. “It feels like home. Everyone is so supportive.”
She began working as an accountant for husband’s practice, Safari Smiles Dental in Sonora.
Their daughter was born in 2012, followed by their son two years later.
In 2012, French began taking classes at Columbia College. She could only take one class per semester because she was juggling so much.
She took a business law class a couple of years ago that was being taught by Laura Krieg, who also serves as Tuolumne County District Attorney.
French said she found the legalese to be particularly difficult, which Krieg admitted can be challenging even for people whose first language is English.
Krieg said she offered to meet and tutor her during office hours, which French accepted.
“Her commitment was just exemplary,” Krieg said. “Through that, she just excelled in my class and did an amazing job.”
As they got to know each other, Krieg said they became good friends. Krieg’s son, who’s the same age as French’s daughter, also play together.
Krieg described French as “one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.”
“She’s become an inspiration to me,” Krieg said. “She’s someone who has immigrated to a country, overcome huge obstacles including a disability, and still managed to really become an asset to her community and country.”
French became an American citizen three years ago.
She and her husband also continue to do medical missions in Vietnam and other countries through the nonprofit they started together called Pacific Smiles.
For the past eight years, the Frenches have also opened the doors to Safari Smiles for an event called “Give Kids a Smile,” where they and about 30 volunteers do exams, cleaning and x-rays for children without dental insurance.
An average of about 100 children are seen at the event each year. The next one is being held on Feb. 3.
In March, they will be traveling back to Vietnam to volunteer at an orphanage in Da Nang and do more filming with Vietnam Television for the documentary. The crew hopes to complete the film by the end of the year.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” she said. “If I didn’t fall in that charcoal, I wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.