“The people are very friendly here,” says the new doctor in the town of Wilmot, Ark., population 1,202. “Everyone waves at you.”
People sometimes waved at Dr. Thieu Bui where he came from but more often they shot at him. Dr. Bui’s previous practice was in Danang, South Vietnam. The chief surgeon of the I Corps area before the fall, he was one of 10 M.D.s in the ARVN to hold the rank of colonel.
Though just one of an estimated 300 doctors among the 121,000 Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the U.S. this spring, Bui, now 41, was a prize catch for physician-hungry small towns, because he had already served in an American hospital and passed the required licensing exams. Most of the rest can’t practice for at least a year.
Before Dr. Bui arrived, Wilmot folks had to drive to a clinic 30 miles away in Lake Village. Then William Johnson, a wealthy local soybean and cotton farmer, was tipped about some of the refugees encamped at the state’s Fort Chaffee, and set out—in his own private plane—like a University of Arkansas alum recruiting for the Razorback football team. Says Johnson: “When I heard there were qualified doctors among the Vietnamese, I decided I was going up there and bring one back if I had to drag him by the heels.” Bui was finally convinced—after Johnson’s sixth visit.
Son of a prosperous family in Nhatrang and a graduate of the University of Saigon medical school, Bui had served in the army for 17 years, nine of them jumping as a paratroop battalion surgeon. His only respite was in 1967 and 1968 when he worked in West Virginia on an exchange program, and his last assignment was in the Central Highlands at the time of the ARVN collapse earlier this year.
Bui got his pregnant wife, Simone, and their three children, 2 to 14 years old, to Saigon only five days before Danang fell. He himself did not leave until after all of his seniors had fled. A few weeks later, knowing that “as intellectuals and part of the Thieu government, we would have been shot on the spot by the Communists,” he bluffed his way onto an evacuation list by flashing documents showing he had worked in the United States and got himself, his family, one small suitcase and a bag of milk for their newborn baby onto a plane at 5 a.m. At Fort Chafee Bui ran into an old college classmate, Dr. Ton-That De, and Bui finally accepted Bill Johnson’s offer only on condition that De be invited, too. Since Wilmot had not had any doctor since 1972, Johnson readily bought the package deal.
When they arrived in Wilmot, Mrs. Bui, a Paris-educated lawyer, turned to her husband and said, “Why did you choose this place? America should be a big city.” Her disappointment was short-lived. Wilmot welcomed the Buis effusively, providing them with a rented home and furniture rounded up from attics around town by Jaycee wives. “Our reception was overwhelming,” Mrs. Bui says now. “They had the refrigerator stocked with food, coffee perking and cookies on the table.”
The only worry that the people of Wilmot have is how they are going to keep the Buis, particularly the sophisticated Simone, down on the farm once they are financially able to leave. Says Johnson, the man who brought them: “If they want an emergency room, we’ll build them one. If they want a hospital, I guess we’d build that, too. These people are more in the driver’s seat than we’d like them to realize.”