From War-Torn Vietnam to the U.S.A.: One Orthodontist's Success Story

April 4, 2017
Ed Rabinowitz

When Emily Letran, D.D.S., says she has seen it all, she has. A native of Vietnam who came to the U.S. in 1981, Letran rose above the death and destruction she experienced as a child, and today helps other dentists realize their full potential.

witnessed more pain and human suffering at a young age than any child should.

Growing up in Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Letran’s life was a newsreel. She experienced bombings and saw some people dying while others fled their homes. And in 1976, when Letran was 8, her mother died from cancer.

“My dad and his two younger sisters, we all moved in together,” Letran, D.D.S., recalls. “We lived as a big, extended family.”

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Then in 1981, the Vietnamese communists went to war with China in the north and Cambodia in the west. Young men were being drafted. One of Letran’s aunts decided to escape the country. She took her two children, Letran and her older brother, and two other cousins, and left.

“My dad told me, ‘You’re the oldest daughter in the family. You need to go help your aunt,’” Letran says.

So she left her father and two younger siblings, and after several months in a refugee camp in Malaysia followed by six months in New Orleans, settled in California. She never saw her father again.

CHOOSING A CAREER

When Letran was an undergrad at the University of California, Riverside, she knew she wanted to work in health sciences. But being a physician?

“I didn’t like the idea of having a beeper,” she admits. “To me, it seemed like you’re tied up to your work.”

She looked into pharmacy, and even interviewed a few pharmacists.

“They told me they count pills,” Letran laughs. “That didn’t sound too exciting. So, that left dentistry. I sort of went into the field by default.”

But it turned out to be a wonderful career move.

“I think it gives me the most freedom,” she says. “It’s a career about relationships, where I am ultimately in control. And looking at the way medicine is now, I don’t think you’re able to develop a relationship with your patients. But we still can in dentistry.”

THE MEDICALLY COMPROMISED

After graduating dental school, Letran did a general practice residency at Loma Linda VA Medical Center. She followed that with a mini residency at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center. Most patients she saw were medically compromised — quadriplegics, children with cerebral palsy, many in wheelchairs.

Today, in private practice, Letran still takes care of those individuals.

“I have quite a few of patients like that,” she says. “You know, it could be people with MS coming in a wheelchair, or patients who are blind, patients who are deaf. They’re just a patient; just a person that I would treat in my office.”

The work she does could be viewed as rewarding. On some levels, it could be seen as giving back. But Letran doesn’t see it that way. Instead she sees herself as a service leader within the community.

“I see it as no different than seeing a patient on the schedule and knowing that person is difficult and demanding,” Letran explains. “It’s satisfying and fulfilling in the sense that I serve a patient in need.”

Letran tells the story of a patient in her 80s who has been coming to the practice for the last 20 years.

“She never looks happy,” Letran says. “She barely ever smiles. The first time I met her I was so hoping she would leave.”

But she didn’t. She kept coming back, complaining from the time she made her appointment by phone all the way into the exam chair. Letran takes it all in stride.

“That’s what makes this career interesting and fulfilling,” she says. “Between the challenge of the work and the personality of the patient, I don’t think anyone can have a monotonous day in dentistry.”

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HIGH PERFORMANCE

Letran is also a certified high performance coach. She defines high performance as a heightened and sustained level of clarity, energy and productivity. She was trained, she says, by one of the best personal development coaches around, Brendon Burchard.

“One of the reasons I want to be a high performance coach is because I lead my life basically as a high performer,” Letran explains. “I know very clearly what I want. I do the same things to get to my goal. I’m very energetic. I don’t take any supplements, and I don’t drink coffee. I show up every day with energy and joy, and kind of make everybody in my office do the same thing.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Letran attends conferences and seminars looking to help others learn the benefits of being a high performer. She takes business owners and entrepreneurs through the process of understanding where they are and what they should be doing. Then she gives them steps — changes they can make in their habits and business strategies to become high-performance leaders.

“You should be able to have kids and have a family, and still do your work, and still have time to do other things,” Letran says. “A lot of times I hear people say, ‘I don’t have time,’ you know? And ‘I’m too tired’ and it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon. So, I want to help people be able to do what I do.”

PERSONAL TIME

When Letran does allow herself personal time, she often spends it reading. Her material of choice? Business, and personal-development books.

She also spends a lot of time with her children.

“They’re a little bit older now,” she says. “Two of them are in high school, and the oldest one is in college. And we love to travel.”

They also love to talk, and will often go out to eat and spend time sitting around and talking.

“We just love spending a lot of time with each other.”

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