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From the killing fields to the halls of power

SreyRam Kuy
Photo by Ryan Smith
A child survivor of genocide, SreyRam Kuy has followed an extraordinary path into medicine. In Houston, she helped organize responses to the flooding brought by Hurricane Harvey.

When Yale Medicine Magazine last checked in with SreyRam Kuy, MD, MHS ’09, FW ’09, it was in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey last summer. Kuy, associate chief of staff at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston, was running the hospital’s emergency response. She spent days on end making sure the hospital took care of its patients and staff, even taking a turn working the cafeteria’s chow line.

Kuy has served the VA for nearly two decades, in roles spanning from Deputy Under Secretary for Health, overseeing a $14.5 billion-dollar budget, to operating on colon cancers and gangrenous limbs as a general surgeon. “In any capacity, it is an honor to serve these heroes,” Kuy said.

She’s also been named one of 10 recipients of the Women of Worth award by L’Oréal Paris and is a Daily Point of Light—the latest in a roster of awards that includes the Ford Family Foundation’s Gerald E. Bruce Community Service Award and the American College of Surgeons’ the Dr. Mary Edwards Walker Inspiring Women in Surgery Award. A common thread is her service to such vulnerable and underserved populations as veterans and mothers on Medicaid. Given her life story, said Kuy, “paying it forward” is nonnegotiable.

“I am a child survivor of genocide,” she said. “To be able to live in America is a privilege I am very grateful for. I owe it to the generosity of strangers who saw value in helping me when I had nothing of value to give back and there was no reason to believe in me.”

Kuy was born in Cambodia in 1978. This was three years after the Khmer Rouge took power and emptied the capital, Phnom Penh, at gunpoint. Kuy’s father had a government job and her mother was a school teacher. The Khmer Rouge executed everyone with an education, Kuy’s parents feigned illiteracy. With her older sister, they marched hundreds of miles to forced labor camps in the jungle. Kuy was born in one of those camps.

The family saw a chance to escape in 1979, when Vietnam invaded Cambodia. They walked by night and hid during the day until they reached a refugee camp in Thailand. Safety still eluded them, however. A rocket-propelled grenade landed on their tent, injuring Kuy and her mother. A Red Cross surgeon saved their lives.

Three refugee camps later, the family landed in the Philippines, where a Christian missionary helped them enter the United States as refugees. They settled in Corvallis, Ore., in 1981. Kuy’s father worked as a janitor at Oregon State University and her mother was a housekeeper at Good Samaritan Hospital.

“My mom used to mop the floors of the operating room and now I work as a surgeon; my dad mopped the floors at Oregon State University, and that’s where I graduated,” Kuy said. “That is how amazing America is.”

After college and medical school in Oregon, Kuy completed her surgery residency at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and then applied to the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program that brought her to Yale.

“My journey as a health care public servant has been as a direct result of the skills I gained at Yale,” she said. Biostatistics, public health, computer programming, and working with large data sets were important, she said, but she also learned “the courage to take on challenges.”

In 2017, as chief medical officer for Medicaid in the state of Louisiana, Kuy’s challenge was the opioid crisis. That year she was selected to the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program, a partnership among the presidential centers of Lyndon B. Johnson, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush that brings together mid-career leaders from diverse backgrounds.

The fellows met once a month for four-day workshops led by former presidents, cabinet secretaries, and other policy luminaries. Kuy sought ideas on the opioid crisis from her mentors and colleagues, and came away from each meeting with ideas that she brought back to Louisiana. “I walk into the classroom and there’s a judge, a lawyer, a teacher, a poet, a Marine, a nurse—each offering a perspective on how to mobilize stakeholders,” she said. “I would come back from the class just energized.”

Kuy organized town halls; held symposiums; and ran seminars for doctors, patients, and stakeholders. Her solutions included payment reform to reduce overprescription of opioids and increasing accessibility to naloxone, used to treat overdoses. “We reduced opioid prescriptions among new users by 40 percent,” Kuy said.

Kuy’s accolades extend beyond medicine and health policy. She is an accomplished writer with articles published in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. Her novel, The Heart of a Tiger, is based on her family’s experiences in the killing fields.

“My life is a miracle,” she said. “It is a testament to the grace of God and the extraordinary human capacity for compassion.”