The following story appeared in the most recent issue of the UNO Magazine, which highlighted the efforts being made by UNO alumni, faculty, staff and students to promote health and wellness. Read the magazine online as a Flipbookor download a PDF.
In May 1977, 19-year-old Dave Boocker had finished what he remembers as a “decidedly undistinguished” first year at college in Lafayette, Louisiana.
He was working a part-time job at a 7-Eleven for the summer. That night, he finished his shift and headed home around 11 p.m.
He’d traded his usual Monday night graveyard shift at a co-worker’s request. Quat Bao Pham was also a college student, pre-med and just a year older than Boocker. He and his family had escaped the Fall of Saigon in 1975. They had become refugees of the Vietnam War.
The two had worked together for only a few weeks. Quat wanted to have Wednesday off so he’d be awake and ready to preregister for summer school on Thursday. Many years later, Boocker would write about what happened next:
At exactly 1:00 a.m., while reading the May 30 Sports Illustrated featuring Pittsburgh Pirate Dave Parker on the cover, for some reason I suddenly realized that I had forgotten to turn the store’s cooler back on. We were not supposed to turn it off because it made the doors sweat, but I thought it was too cold inside. I jumped out of bed and ran into the dining room where our telephone hung from the wall. I looked up the store number in the phone book placed on the counter under the phone and called the store. The store phone was a pay phone mounted on the wall to the right of the front door, away from the register area. Quat answered; I explained that I thought I had forgotten to turn on the cooler and he assured me he would turn it back on, an action that would require him to leave the main store area to flip a circuit breaker inside the store’s closeted storage area. I went to sleep.
A few hours later, Boocker’s father woke him, saying, “The police are coming over. Your friend at work was killed.”
Quat Bao Pham was found dead at 1:15 by a policeman driving by the store on a routine patrol. Quat was shot four times in the chest and once in the back, point blank. His murderer made off with about $40 and Quat’s car. Officers estimated he was killed between 1 and 1:15.
The cooler was still off.
Writing a legacy for Quat
The experience left an indelible imprint on Boocker, who later earned his B.A. and M.A. in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Today, he’s dean of UNO’s College of Arts and Sciences.
He’s nearly 1,000 miles and a lifetime removed from that 7-Eleven. And yet …
“I’ve never lost contact with that day,” Boocker says. “I’ve always had a personal desire — in fact, I think I called it a compulsion at one point — to write this down, because of the need for me to make sure that the name and memory of Quat Bao Pham lives beyond my lifetime.”
The seeds of sharing his story were sown early in his career, as a graduate student in English. In Composition, he would spend a period telling his class what happened that day in May.
“It was just something that I wanted to do, that I needed to do,” he says. “To tell students what happened to me when I was 19 was a way to kind of get them to understand who I am as a person, where I’m coming from and what’s important to me.”
Even to heal.
Boocker’s early attempts to write the story years ago were what he describes as a “Sergeant-Joe-Friday-just-the-facts” account. But he didn’t know the story of Quat. Never felt he had the whole picture.
That would take a reopening of his wound, a revisiting of personal memories, and the urging of Quat’s family to tell his own story. Over time, that all came together as Boocker’s memoir, “The Vietnam War Comes Home.”
Tapping emotional knowledge
With a background in creative writing and public health administration, Steve Langan understands the therapeutic power of connecting words to paper.
And he gets that it doesn’t come easy, especially for those used to thinking in practical, black-and-white terms.
In 2008, Langan was interested in creating a workshop at the University of Nebraska Medical Center to pair professional writers with mid-career physicians dealing with job burnout or dissatisfaction.
In no time, he says, he had seven participants — and dubbed the group Seven Doctors Project (7DP).
His goals for 7DP, he says, were to explore the aspect of writing that involves pure imaginative play. To make new emotional knowledge. To have fun again through language.
How did he go about getting the physicians to go there?
By showing them they don’t have to be in charge. By allowing the writers in the room to guide them. By becoming apprentices in the process.
Their first assignment was to write a lyric poem, by definition a piece that has the writer delve into their emotions.
“It’s scary to write a lyric poem and read it to an audience of one’s peers and some strangers,” Langan says. “As I think about the physician leaders who were in that space, I really applaud them for their openness and their vulnerability.”
Igniting a fire
Ten years later, 7DP has had more than 150 participants, including 25 physicians. Over the years, it’s opened membership to other health care institutions and the community at large.
In addition to poetry, members have created stories and essays, some based on real life, some from their imaginations.
“I had no idea of the outcomes that I would start to witness,” Langan says. “I had no idea that there would be this unbelievable therapeutic piece in the lives of so many of the participants over the years.”
Lydia Kang can vouch for that. An internal medicine physician, she took part in the second session of 7DP.
The idea of doing something creative, along with being a health care professional, didn’t really jibe in her mind. She wasn’t sure burnout was something that could be fixed. And then there were worries about sharing her work.
“And I was really frightened to try, to be honest, because I think in the industry of health care there’s a certain level of professionalism that everybody expects of you,” Kang says. “Especially when you are a physician.”
“I was particularly embarrassed that people who were going to read my stuff were established writers and poets and physicians. So it was like a combination of people who could laugh at me and be my worst nightmare coming together.”
But the more she wrote, the more she grew to enjoy the process. And, curiously, writing and medicine became complementary in her life. She discovered the writing helped quell some of the professional burnout she’d been feeling.
Clearly, something clicked for Kang. She’s written several young adult fiction books and a historical fiction title, and co-authored a nonfiction book. By the end of this year, she will have published seven books.
“I’ve found it to be very, very therapeutic,” she says. “In some ways it is an escape mechanism for me because I get to live different lives and explore different places that aren’t my own. I didn’t know that the experience was going to really ignite the fire in me. And it absolutely did.”
Making things whole again
For Steve Heater, writing has provided something others take for granted. A 1994 UNO business grad, he’s had Parkinson’s disease for more than 25 years. The condition has made it difficult to communicate verbally.
“I have thoughts, ideas, something humorous to add to the conversation,” he says. “But the PD made it so difficult to talk loud enough to be heard, it wasn't worth it. It actually hurt.”
Heater joined the 14th session of 7DP.
He expected others in the group would be better writers. But he was surprised to find himself an equal — and discovered a way to express his wry sense of humor and matter-of-fact attitude about PD.
He’s written about the day-to-day struggles, the disappointments, the funny things and his observations of “normal” people. He’s also penned some memories of his time as an Elvis impersonator.
“We all have limitations, we all have things that are tough to handle, but you do what you do and you get on with life,” he says. The experience has “allowed me to be a full human being again.”
To heal. Langan has seen it happen more than once.
“I’m quite comfortable with not knowing exactly how this healing effect occurs,” Langan says. “I just have witnessed it repeatedly and I can’t deny that it’s valid.”
In 2016, Boocker reached out to the family of Quat Bao Pham. He planned a visit to Lafayette to connect with them. Father Tran, a priest who knew the family, was on hand to help.
We agreed to meet at Quat’s grave. It was to be my first visit after his death 39 years ago. Father Tran explained that the cemetery was located on Teurlings Drive near the Breaux Bridge Highway. I knew exactly how to get there, and I understood immediately that the drive would take us past the location where Quat was killed. As we drove by, I pointed the store out to my wife, Kathy. No longer a 7-Eleven, looking at it immediately conjured up an image of that night, as I mentally transported myself back into the store, picturing myself standing next to Quat. I had no interest in stopping.
After that visit, he spoke with one of Quat’s sisters by phone and traded emails. Almost a year after their initial connection, he visited her and her sisters in Houston.
He’s filled in many pieces of the missing information he wanted to know. He’s learned more about Quat’s life in Vietnam and who he was. In doing so, he’s discovered what they have in common.
The goal of writing his memoir, “The Vietnam War Comes Home,” was always to keep the memory of Quat Bao Pham alive.
“Writing a story that’s important, like this one for me, the desire to get it right can be overwhelming at times,” Boocker says.
Has accepting his vulnerability opened up a new way of telling the story?
“I think that’s been the key. I never really saw it as vulnerability, but I guess that’s what it is — that I’m revealing my own hidden secrets that have been in my mind and my heart for all these years that I’ve never really told anyone.
“There’s a certain amount of relief and release knowing that I’ve finally gotten it the way I wanted it to be all along.”
Others have tried to make meaning of these events, telling me that “God was looking out for you.” Father Tran, after learning what happened to Quat that night, looked me in the eyes and said, “He died for you.” Such explanations leave me puzzled and uncomfortable. Quat’s family still mourns his death, and in my last meeting with them they suggested that I let the story go. I responded that, consistent with my philosophy, consolation cannot be achieved through letting go. Instead, I said, my consolation is achieved through memory. I found a photo online, taken in 1974, of his 11th grade class. His image brought my faded memory back into focus. I recognized him immediately, even without the list of names.
- From "The Vietnam War Comes Home" by Dave Boocker
GO AHEAD, PICK UP A PEN
Wonder if you’d like to explore the therapeutic benefits of writing? Here are some tips:
Let writing help express your thoughts
“People suffer in a lot of different ways and often people aren’t as good about speaking out about how they feel,” Lydia Kang says. “I think the actual act of putting something on paper is a way of transcending what’s going on inside your head.” No matter what avenue you choose — a diary entry or a piece of fiction — it reflects a part of yourself.
Don’t overthink it
Starting to accumulate content through memories and experiences is the first step. “The amount of editorial work for all of us to make something publishable, which of course was always the goal of 7DP, is immense,” says Steve Langan. Start writing, start typing and allow it to be messy. Resist the urge to edit your work and just let it happen.
Join a group
The structure of getting together with your peers is a way to make writing a priority and to safely nudge you outside your comfort zone. “Take courses in Creative Writing or Creative Nonfiction at UNO or work with organizations and programs such as Steve Langan’s 7 Doctors Project or Nebraska Warrior Writers sponsored by Humanities Nebraska,” Dave Boocker says.
SICKNESS AND HEALTH IN LITERATURE
In his other role as interim director and community liaison for UNO’s medical humanities program, Steve Langan teaches a course called “Writing for Sickness and Health.”
Open to both undergraduate and graduate students, the class explores the themes of sickness and health as they present themselves in literature.
“A variety of our students may not be on a health care track but they’re very curious about the health care experience,” he says.
“They’re curious about the experience they’ve had in some cases or their family members have had. So they’re reading books, writing about books and creating their own poems, stories and essays.”
About the University of Nebraska at Omaha
Located in one of America’s best cities to live, work and learn, the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) is Nebraska’s premier metropolitan university. With more than 15,000 students enrolled in 200-plus programs of study, UNO is recognized nationally for its online education, graduate education, military friendliness and community engagement efforts. Founded in 1908, UNO has served learners of all backgrounds for more than 100 years and is dedicated to another century of excellence both in the classroom and in the community.