This story is from the archives of UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Survivor of Saigon babylift reunites with his former doctor

“Dear Dr. Halpern,
Happy New Year to you. I am Joseph Palmeter, Vu Tien Kinh, a Vietnamese-American citizen who you, as a pediatrics intern at UCLA, may have treated in April 1975. Arriving aboard a plane with 219 other babies and children with the help of Betty Tisdale, I was apparently quite malnourished. Nearly 35 years later, it is my pleasure to write you that I am well. …”
When Vu Tien Kinh wrote these words last January to Dr. Barry Halpern, medical director of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Northridge Hospital Medical Center, he was hopeful that he had found the man who had cared for him upon his arrival at UCLA Medical Center all those many years ago.
Vu Tien Kinh grew up in central Pennsylvania with his adoptive parents.
As luck would have it, Halpern turned out to be the very same doctor — then a pediatrics intern — who had treated Vu when the half-starved Vietnamese infant arrived at UCLA on April 12, 1975. Vu was one of 219 children from Saigon’s An Lac orphanage who had been airlifted out of the city days before it fell to the North Vietnamese army. Approximately 20 of the sickest children, including Vu, received care at UCLA Medical Center.
On March 24 — 35 years after they first met — doctor and patient were happily reunited at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Vu, 35, a slightly built man with a gregarious personality and contagious laugh, is now a high school music teacher in Connecticut. Halpern, 61, left UCLA in 1977 after finishing his internship and residency and was later hired at Northridge Hospital Medical Center, where today he heads the NICU.
At their reunion, the two men received a tour of the old Center for the Health Sciences building, where Halpern served his internship and where Vu had been treated. (“I don’t remember any of this!” Vu said, laughing.) Following the tour, Vu and Halpern spoke to a group of UCLA pediatric residents about their reunion and Vu’s experience as part of the now-historic Operation Babylift.
Tien and Halpern 2
As a malnourished baby, Vu (left) was brought to UCLA Medical Center in bad shape after being airlifted out of Saigon before its fall to the North Vietnamese. He came back recently to publicly thank Dr. Barry Halpern, who cared for Vu as a pediatrics intern nearly 35 years ago.
It was Vu who initiated the meeting after coming across some old UCLA medical records last year — he had been in the process of changing from his adoptive name, Joseph Palmeter, to his original Vietnamese name. From those scant records and subsequent research, Vu deduced that he was one of the smallest and youngest of the children treated at UCLA. At the time, he was suffering from impetigo, diarrhea, severe conjunctivitis, malnutrition and dehydration.
After Vu had been at UCLA for a couple of months, Halpern wrote in his notes: “The child has been improving greatly over the past weeks and is very sociable. … He is an extremely interesting patient and we here at UCLA would be very interested to hear how he develops and progresses over the next months.”
Soon after his discharge, however, Vu was adopted by a family in central Pennsylvania, and Halpern lost track of his tiny patient. The doctor was truly pleased, then, to receive Vu’s letter earlier this year.
“I think it was a no-brainer that I needed to call,” Halpern said. “[Vu] said he was coming out here and wanted to meet, so it never occurred to me not to call.”
For his part, Vu said he was caught off-guard when Halpern contacted him — several weeks had passed between the time he had sent the letter and by the time Halpern had received it. “My phone rang,” Vu said. “It was Barry Halpern. I was silenced immediately. Then I said, ‘Thank you so much for saving my life.’ ”
Tien.headshotAbout to embark on a Ph.D. program in music education and research at the University of Minnesota, Vu said he often muses about his future and what it holds for him. One of his fellow teachers was astonished by his plans to return to Los Angeles to meet Halpern and to speak with UCLA medical students.
“My colleague exclaimed, rather candidly, ‘Because these doctors saved you, there will be another doctor.’ I didn’t understand what he was saying. I thought he meant a medical doctor,” Vu said. “He said, ‘No, just a doctor. In four years, you’re going to be finished with your dissertation in music education.’ And I said, ‘Oh, you’re right.’ I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
Vu then turned to Halpern, who was seated next to him. “Because of you, I’m doing that,” he said. “Thank you for making an incredible difference in my life by saving it, Dr. Halpern. Your triumph is mine, and mine is yours. I’m so happy to be reunited with you 35 years later.”
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