Community Health Advocate
Then a unique opportunity presented itself. Inside Group Health Hospital was a small retail space designated to support minority and women's businesses. The space was becoming available, and needed a tenant. "Everything just happened at the right time," Ms. Ngo says. "The store was available with very little rent, and my women had enough quilts to sell. So we open the store, and we sold quilts, and then we were on the front page of The Seattle Times! And we sold our quilts like hot cookies!" she finishes with a laugh. "It was like a miracle."
At the same time, Ms. Ngo was moving ahead on other fronts as well. She trained and evaluated new interpreters. She organized a volunteer network to assist people in need of preventive health care. In the face of the AIDS epidemic, she developed and conducted AIDS education workshops for Cambodian men and their wives. At one point, she visited China to study herbal medicine with the express purpose of providing extra care to patients with AIDS. Ms. Ngo's combination of caring and expertise allowed her to promote appropriate western health care practices among Asian patients without undermining their own health beliefs or cultural practices.
In 1984, Ms. Ngo returned to school for training as a community health advocate. in a year she earned her certificate of completion, and began advocating for the rights of individual patients and for quality patient care. She addressed conferences and meetings of American medical providers, speaking about Cambodian culture and appropriate use of interpreters. She provided individual and family health education activities in areas such as nutrition, family planning, and prenatal care. She assisted with workshops: a typical workshop, taught by health providers from a clinic, helped parents to provide home care for their children's minor problems, and to recognize when their children needed further medical attention. These activities helped sensitize the two communities — providers and patients — to cultural differences, and built an atmosphere of trust between them.
In 1988, Ms. Ngo went back to school again, obtaining a childbirth educator training certificate. She began childbirth education classes for refugee mothers-to-be, and eventually coached hundreds of women in labor over a 10-year period. In 1989, she took on an additional part-time job as a mental health interpreter, helping prepare state evaluations for a local Seattle psychiatrist.
For all these efforts, in 1994 Ly-Sieng Ngo was nominated for, and received, the Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leadership Award. "It changed my life entirely," Ms. Ngo says of the award and the $100,000 stipend that came with it. She used the money to pay the salary of a co-worker to do with Cambodian men what she herself had done with the women — create a support group that would provide not just healing, but a livelihood. Their first project was a furniture manufacturing co-op. But after a short while, the men themselves, most of them farmers in Cambodia, asked Ms. Ngo if she could help them set up a landscaping business. She turned to the staff of the Community Health Leadership Program (CHLP) for help. "They were very supportive and well-organized," Ms. Ngo says. "They had expertise in setting up a business, and could connect us with people who could help us." The men began by mowing the lawns of Ms. Ngo's clinic co-workers, and from there, by word of mouth, their client list grew. The business is now booming, providing the men with increased self-esteem as they can now take pride in supporting their families, and come to feel secure in their financial futures.
Another result of the award was that Ms. Ngo found herself the object of media attention. "When I came back from the award ceremony in Washington, D.C., reporters came to the clinic to interview me, and they put me on the front page the next day!" she remembers. "After that, people kept calling to find out about what I do, ask for advice, ask about my experiences — and it still continues." She also appreciated the opportunity to exchange ideas with other CHLP award winners at the program's annual retreats. "Each time I come back from the retreats," she says, "it boosts me up to another level of recovery."