UCSD physician proves that no dream is impossible

Sopheap Ly has no photos of her childhood, but her memories of that time are vivid. Born in Phnom Penh, her early years were idyllic. She and her sister lived with their parents in an affluent suburb of the Cambodian capital and spent time with affectionate, well-educated, accomplished extended family members.

When Ly was 5 years old, Khmer Rouge soldiers invaded her family’s home and forced them to leave with nothing but the clothes on their backs. She and her relatives were transported far from the city and forced to work as slave laborers in rice fields. She and her sister were frequently separated from her mother and father. They subsisted on watery rice, moldy vegetables and roasted rats. At age 7, Ly realized her father was gone for good; she later learned he had been decapitated by the Khmer Rouge.

After four years, Vietnamese soldiers released Ly’s family. The next several years were spent moving from hovel to hut until they were smuggled into the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand.

At age 16, Ly arrived in the U.S. It was then her father’s words, “Always follow your dreams. They are never beyond your reach,” finally seemed possible.

Now an assistant clinical professor of medicine at UCSD Medical School and the VA Healthcare System, San Diego, Ly is married to a dentist and mother to twin daughters. She wrote her memoir, “No Dream Beyond My Reach: One Woman’s Remarkable Journey from Cambodian Refugee to American MD” (AuthorHouse, 2009), to record her experiences for her children and to inspire others.

When did you decide to write your memoir?

I started writing it in 2001, just one month before graduating from medical school. I would go to the library at the UC Irvine Medical Center as soon as it opened and work until it closed. It was something I had wanted to do for many years, and when my classes slowed down, I used that time to write. The excitement of achieving my medical degree made me want to capture everything I had dealt with in my life.

Your book is a memoir, but you’ve said the message is broader than just your life story. How so?

I look at life like a big picture, not small details. The past is over, and life is about what I can achieve now. I want the reader to see it’s their dream, too. Their dream is not beyond their reach. They have to focus on it.

Throughout the book, you wrote about how your father’s love and encouragement inspired you. What is the strongest memory you have of your father?

I remember the last time I was with him. It was raining, and we had to sit outside the hut because the roof was leaking. We were sitting on some wooden sticks, and my father was holding me tight. Every day, he told me he loved me more than he could say. That last night, he said it again. He told me he wanted me to never give up and pursue my dreams.

What do you want people to learn from reading your book?

Some people told me that when they read my book, they cried. I don’t want them to cry for me. The details about the suffering are the background information. I’m just an ordinary person, and a lot of people suffer more than me. But I learned to be resilient and work hard to achieve my dreams. I want to show others that they have to dream big to achieve big. There will be a lot of closed doors, but knock a lot and knock loudly. You have to be persistent, motivated, find a way to make people say yes when they say no. People who are successful don’t wilt at the first no.

Education is very important to you, and you’ve earmarked a portion of sales from this book to help students. How has education made a difference in your life?

Education gave me a lot of opportunities. You can have a big house or big money, but you can lose that. You can go far with education. Even if you lose a hand or leg, if your brain is still intact, you can still write. I started a scholarship because I don’t want any student not going on to higher education because they are afraid of not having money. I don’t want that to stop them.

How did this experience influence your life and the decisions you’ve made?

I don’t have a straight answer to that. Because of my experience, it shaped me into a hard, motivated worker. But even if I didn’t have this background, if I was born ambitious, I might have achieved more. I cannot tell. I’m happy with my success, but I’m sure I could be more successful if my dad was alive. The person that gave me motivation and dreams was my dad.

What do you plan to tell your daughters about your experiences when they are older?

It is who I am; it shaped my life. It does not matter if you come from Cambodia or Asia. It doesn’t matter where you start in life, it matters how you finish in life and how you can influence society through donations, hard work and volunteering. It’s how you help others in life.