Jessica Dao

First-Generation Vietnamese American Jessica Dao Dedicated to Service and Paying It Forward Through Medicine

For Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) student Jessica Ngoc Dao, PPC ’22, MS ’23, there is not one single factor that inspired her to pursue a career in medicine but rather a convergence of factors. One theme has stayed consistent, though, and that is the desire to help others.

“I grew up in a single-parent, low-income household, so I know how tough it can be financially,” Dao said. “At the same time, we were fortunate enough to get Medi-Cal and Cal-Fresh, which has helped my family with food insecurity to this day. Also, my mom’s side of the family and friends of my mom and church groups would help out my family, giving us food, money, and other things we needed to get by.”

Thus, Dao knows firsthand how much of a difference a helping hand can make, and she is determined to pay it forward.

“I like helping others, and I think medicine is the best way I can do this because I’ve always enjoyed biology,” Dao said.

From Dao’s experience working in hospitals, she understands what an impact even a seemingly small gesture can make.

“Asking a patient, ‘How’s your day?’ or, ‘I see that you’re in pain; is there anything I can ask the nurse to do for you?’—these little components affect the overall healthcare experience for these patients positively,” Dao said.

As the oldest of five children and a first-generation Vietnamese American, Dao often accompanied her family during hospital visits to help translate and facilitate communication between her family and the providers. This led to her becoming the primary caretaker for her grandmother.

While this was much responsibility for a young girl, these experiences enhanced her communication and translation skills. They also sparked her passion for medicine.

Dao started volunteering at a hospital when she was 14 to gain exposure to the field. Eventually, she began shadowing physicians, leading to employment in the hospital.

Now she works as a unit secretary on the medical-surgical palliative care floor at Valley Presbyterian Hospital and as an ER monitor technician for Montclair Hospital Medical Center. She particularly enjoys the fast-paced atmosphere and variety that the ER environment offers.

From her experience accompanying her family to appointments and working in hospitals, Dao has seen the need for Vietnamese translation services. This still needs to be fully met, even though Southern California hospitals offer good bilingual services overall. With her medical experience and strong translation skills, Dao knows she can do her part to help meet this need.

“One time at Valley Presbyterian Hospital, I was able to translate for an elderly Vietnamese patient who was asking for something to help her with her pain,” Dao said. “Helping her made me happy because I’ve been in those shoes before with my family.”

Dao also sees the need for more providers. As a volunteer, she often had to step in and help the nurses with many responsibilities beyond her job description—such as performing secretarial duties, helping patients to the bathroom, and passing out water—because hospitals were so short-staffed.

Now at KGI, Dao is one step closer to fulfilling her goal of becoming a physician. Having completed the Postbaccalaureate Premedical Certificate (PPC) program and the first year of the Master of Science in Applied Life Sciences (MS) program, she has found the supportive KGI atmosphere to be a refreshing change from her undergraduate experience, which was friendly but competitive.

“In the PPC program, I wasn’t afraid to ask for help because I realized we were all there to support each other in becoming doctors one day,” Dao said.

“I was able to connect with many individuals who shared my goals, and I loved the experience.”

The program also clarified some misconceptions she’d had concerning medical school. In the PPC Professional Development class, she learned that you don’t need a perfect GPA and MCAT score to get into medical school—that schools consider everything you bring to the table. Activities such as the Mini Mock Interview helped her to feel more prepared for the application process.

Dao also appreciates everything she’s learned in the MS program, where she’s concentrating in Infectious Diseases. Her thesis focuses on the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a contagious airborne virus that causes respiratory tract infections and is especially dangerous for infants and elderly populations.

Some KGI professors who have stood out are Dr. Joon Kim, Elba Muñoz, Dr. Alan Rothfeld, Dr. Animesh Ray, Dr. Travis Schlappi, and Dr. Anastasia Levitin.

“I like Dr. Levitin’s teaching style,” Dao said. “She expects a lot from us, but it helps us to expand our knowledge beyond the subject we’re researching.”

Dao’s plan after graduating from KGI is to prepare for the medical school application process and become an EMT to gain more clinical experience. For the long term, she’s keeping her options open but is leaning toward working as an ER physician.

Most important to her, though, is carrying out her mission of helping others.

“I grew up in a Catholic family, and my mom always says that God taught us to help those in need and to give back to those who have helped us,” Dao said.