UH Med Now

Surviving the Starving Season: A JABSOM Grad’s Remarkable Story of Resilience

Date: March 12th, 2019 in Alumni News, External News, IN THE NEWS, JABSOM News, UH Manoa    Print or PDF

Dr. Seang Seng with his book.

Pictured: Dr. Seang Seng. Deborah Manog Dimaya photo.

By Deborah Manog Dimaya, UH Med Now Correspondent

Dr. Seang Seng remembers when he was just a young medical student in Cambodia, a Southeast Asian country known as an “Island of Peace.” He lived an ordinary life—that is, until the Khmer Rouge rose to power in 1975 and forced millions of people into the “killing fields.” It was at these camps where men, women and children of all ages were forced to do physical labor with barely any food to eat. The leaders were ruthless and failure to follow the rules resulted in punishment and torture. Even death.

During some of the darkest times, he lay among those who were dying, too weak to even brush a fly from his face. One day, liberation came and he walked out of the killing fields, broken but not defeated. He wondered– out of a family of 23– why was he was the only one who survived?

In refugee camps in Thailand, surrounded by sights of people who were entirely skin and bones, Seng’s medical instincts immediately kicked in. He knew he then that he wanted to continue his dream of becoming a doctor.

With the help of the Hawaii Refugee Organization, Dr. Seang Seng and his wife were on a plane to Hawaii and touched down on US soil in 1980.

Seng remembers whispering to himself on the plane, “I was chosen.”

Once in Hawaii, their struggles were far from over. They had a baby to feed, did not speak English well and Seng remained ambitious to continue his medical education. He received his GED from Kaimuki High School and took classes at the Kapiolani Community College and the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UHM). Through the UHM Imi Hoola Program, Seng clinched one of the coveted slots of the entering MD class (back then the Imi program allowed for only five students to enter the medical school). Despite all he had endured, Seng graduated from UHM medical school in 1988 and became “Dr. Seng.”

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Seng says. “I thought that there was nothing more challenging than what I’ve been through and I believed I could do it (become a doctor in America).”

Below, Dr. Seng shares more about the daily tragedies he experienced, including the death of his four-year-old nephew.

Related Stories:
Dr. Seng comes “Home” to Share His Story


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