Dr. SreyRam Kuy, the 2020 Honors College Alumni Fellow, can pinpoint the exact moment she knew her calling was to be a doctor. Her mother was hurt, with massive abdominal injuries, and Kuy, just 2 years old, had sustained head trauma, her left ear partially torn off. Only weeks before, the family — Kuy, her older sister, SreyReath, and their parents — had escaped Cambodia and the violence of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Now, in a refugee camp on the border with Thailand, a grenade attack nearly killed them. It was a volunteer surgeon with the Red Cross who performed lifesaving surgery on Kuy and her mother. From this moment onward, Kuy knew she wanted to one day overcome her own terror and adversity to care for others.
“I was young when this happened, but these stories are a part of my history, and they’ve shaped much of what I do in my work now,” Kuy says. “These experiences taught me to appreciate the blessing of being alive, when millions of others didn’t survive. They taught me the power of perseverance when your circumstances seem so bleak. And, most importantly, these experiences have demonstrated the extraordinary capacity for human kindness to rise in the face of evil atrocities.”
Building a new life in America
After the family spent a year and a half in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines, a Christian missionary group helped them move to the United States. They settled in Corvallis in 1981. Trained as a teacher and an engineer, her parents worked whatever jobs they could find. One of her mother’s first jobs in the U.S. was in the horticultural greenhouses at Oregon State, and her father worked as a janitor cleaning classrooms at the university. Kuy and her sister would help their parents with their second job at the OSU Folk Club Thrift Shop as well as by cleaning houses and doing yard work for university professors.
Despite the difficulties of the transition to the U.S., Kuy thrived academically and was valedictorian at Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis. She was accepted to Harvard University and offered a scholarship when tragedy hit her family again. The spring of her senior year in high school, her father died of cancer.
“I remember, as I sat on the steps of Strand Ag, I wrote down what I wanted to accomplish in my life. I decided, instead of Harvard, I was going to come to OSU so I could continue to help my family,” Kuy recalls. “And now, looking back more than two decades later, that was one of the best decisions I made.”
While at Oregon State, Kuy immersed herself in the community while pursuing degrees in microbiology and philosophy. She was a senator for the College of Science on the OSU Undergraduate Senate; vice president of Talons, a women’s service honors society; president of the Science Student Council; president of Phi Eta Sigma; president of the OSU campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity; and an Honors College student.
Though Kuy ultimately did not finish her honors degree, instead participating in an internship in the U.S. Senate, she looks back fondly on her time in the Honors College. She remembers studying and hanging out in the SLUG, the Honors College student lounge, trips to Ashland to watch Shakespeare plays and the incredible discussions in the small Honors College classes. “Many times the classes were discussions and dialogues, rather than lectures,” she says.
Kuy is especially grateful for the Honors College’s professors, “who were excellent teachers, but were also mentors who genuinely cared about us.” Specifically, she is thankful for the mentorship of two faculty members in the Department of Philosophy, Lani Roberts and Flo Leibowitz.
Helping veterans and underserved communities
After graduating from Oregon State with degrees in microbiology and philosophy, Kuy earned her M.D. from Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. She later received a master’s in health services from Yale University. Now living in Houston, Texas, Kuy teaches students and residents at the Baylor College of Medicine while working as a surgeon caring for veterans at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center. She is also deputy chief medical officer for quality and safety for the South Central VA Health Care Network.
Throughout her career, Kuy has remained committed to helping underserved communities, specifically veterans and Medicaid recipients. She was a special advisor to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and then became the first woman to be appointed deputy undersecretary for community care in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In another previous position, Kuy served as the chief medical officer for Medicaid for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, helping lead the state through a variety of public health crises. There, she was able to ensure, for the first time, that low-income women could get genetic testing for breast cancer, and those with breast cancer had access to necessary breast reconstructive surgery. She also helped reduce new opioid prescriptions among Medicaid patients by 40%.
Kuy is most proud, however, of the work she accomplished in the Department of Veterans Affairs. There, Kuy and her team helped transform the VA, once considered among the worst government agencies to work for. In 2020, Forbesnamed the VA as one of America’s best employers, thanks in considerable part to the legacy of her and her colleagues’ work.
“The reason why I cite this as the accomplishment I’m most proud of is because, when the VA secretary and chief of staff tasked me with tackling this problem in December 2017, this challenge seemed impossible. It took more than just implementing policies or rulemaking. We had to accomplish a change in the workplace culture,” she says. “And changing a culture requires changing our belief about what’s possible.”
Kindness overcomes adversity
Throughout her life, Kuy has continuously been inspired by those whose human kindness overcomes adversity and advances change, including her Oregon State and Honors College professors and mentors, the veterans and Medicaid recipients she has helped, and of course, the volunteer Red Cross surgeon who saved her life decades ago.
“At OSU, I had the opportunity to really grow as a leader, and these lessons have stayed with me in my work as a health care leader and a policymaker,” she says. “But I didn’t just gain the critical thinking skills that have been essential in my work as a leader. OSU also nourished my humanity, and that has shaped my work as a surgeon and as someone who cares for underserved Medicaid patients and vulnerable veterans.”
Kuy has spoken with small groups of Honors College students over Zoom in both spring and fall terms this year. And for all of her accomplishments, her advice to current students is deceptively simple: “Believe in your dreams. Persevere. Be kind to others, and be kind to yourself,” she says.
It’s wisdom that has been hard won — and that continues to make an impact.
Leading during a crisis: From Hurricane Harvey to COVID-19
The alumni fellow program was created by the OSU Alumni Association to recognize eminent graduates for their leadership and accomplishments. Dr. SreyRam Kuy, ’00, the 2020 Honors College Alumni Fellow, is an accomplished surgeon and deputy chief medical officer for quality and safety for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Kuy is widely recognized as an international leader in health care policy and management. Her Alumni Fellows presentation can be viewed at beav.es/oDn.
By Cara Nixon: Student Writer, Honors College