Posted on 08/03/2016 at 11:06 AM by YMCA of Greater Des Moines
Fleeing war, adapting to a new land, serving the community and recovering from trauma — Phoukham Tran is an incredible example of strength and courage. Learn more about this Y member’s journey and see your own challenges in a new light.
Phoukham was born in Vientiane, Laos and grew up alongside nine siblings. He met his wife in high school, and they attended medical school together for three years before fleeing Laos during the Vietnam War. They crossed the Mekong River into Thailand where they spent eight months in a refugee camp. Eventually, in 1980, they arrived in the United States.
Because he didn’t know any English at the time, Phoukham couldn’t return to medical school and went to work as a dishwasher. He took every opportunity he could to improve his English, and instead of continuing his education in the medical field, Phoukham set his sights on becoming a police officer.
To pass the entrance exam for the academy, Phoukham had to be proficient in English. He failed the exam multiple times, each instance making him more determined to improve his language skills. After more classes and a lot of hard work, he passed the exam and became a police officer.
Phoukham played an important role in protecting and serving the Des Moines community. As an Asian officer, he helped build positive relationships between local law enforcement and the Asian community. Because he could speak three different languages, Phoukham was able to facilitate communication between Laotian, Vietnamese and English-speaking communities. Having performed his duties as a police officer for almost 30 years, Phoukham earned the praise and gratitude of the people he protected and served.
Then, on the night of Aug. 19, 2011, Phoukham was directing traffic at the Iowa State Fair, safely ushering pedestrians and fairgoers across an intersection. As he was making his way into the street to stop traffic, he was struck by a drunk driver speeding in a pickup truck. Phoukham was thrown across the intersection and rushed to the hospital in critical condition. He suffered a broken clavicle, fractured ribs and hemorrhaging of the brain.
Phoukham underwent surgery to relieve the pressure that was building up in his skull, and during the procedure his heart stopped beating for 12 minutes. The doctors and nurses fought to get his heart beating again, but the team was unable to control the swelling in his brain, and he was sent to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. There, he underwent a very intricate surgery that lasted three hours; the surgeons were able to control the swelling and had to remove a small part of his skull and brain. He was in a coma for several days.
When Phoukham recovered enough to start rehabilitation, he was transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. For one month he underwent intensive physical and occupational therapy as well as speech therapy. Nearing the end of his stay at RIC, Phoukham was able to converse and walk a few steps with the help of a gait belt and someone holding onto him. He continued his therapy at On With Life in Ankeny.
The staff at On With Life recommended the YMCA Healthy Living Center (Y-HLC) for additional therapy, and Phoukham became a member in 2012. During his time at the Y-HLC, Phoukham’s therapy has included arm and leg exercise on the Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) bike, a land program for upper and lower body exercise and, most recently, exercises in the warm water pool. This therapy has proven very beneficial for Phoukham, and he says he is grateful for all the staff that have helped him along the way. He looks forward to continuing his exercise regimen at the Healthy Living Center.
Phoukham and his wife have two sons, and he recently became a grandfather. He has many friends he keeps in touch with both here in the United States and in Belgium. In fact, the night of the accident, several of them rushed to Des Moines when they heard the news. One couple came from California, another from Washington, and one couple flew from Belgium to New York to join yet another couple with whom they drove to Des Moines. While driving through Illinois, they were stopped by a state trooper for speeding. The officer asked them why they were in such a hurry, and the driver explained their friend’s situation. The trooper gave them a verbal warning and sent them on their way.
Inspired by this family’s story? Join us at noon on Aug. 11 for the next Team Altitude meeting with Phoukham Tran as our featured speaker.
What challenges are you working to overcome? Share your story in the comments!