Just five weeks after I gave birth to my daughter, my mom passed away. I had read somewhere that parents are our anchors in life. They are the reason we exist, so when they are gone, regardless of our relationship with them, we feel a great sense of loss, a loss for a piece of us that made up our existence.
My mom had been battling Leukemia since 2013. It was a blood disease with a very poor prognosis, but being the strong woman that she was, she hung around to witness so many more life milestones in her last three years. This was a woman who had survived ten days stranded on a boat at sea somewhere off the coast of Vietnam after the war, a few years in two refugee camps, and working twelve hour days for sometimes less than minimum wage to raise her family. For her, leaning in meant doing whatever she needed to survive.
During the past three years, the fact that death was imminent was always on my mind, but there also was always a sense of hope and the very strong will to fight, from both my mom and me. I was her cancer sidekick. To conform to every cliché of tragedy bringing people together, my mom and I evolved from a mother-daughter relationship with occasional phone calls every few days, to one of deep friendship and understanding after she moved in with me and we spent many hours together at various cancer centers. Part of it was that I had reached the 30s part of my life where we start looking to our moms for life advice, and part of it was that we were faced with this massive battle to fight together. I was always by her side as a devoted daughter, but more importantly, she was always by my side as a caring mom, despite her illness, always taking care of me as moms do regardless of how old, able-bodied and capable we are. We went about our daily lives while we fought this battle on the side. Me, charging forth in my career at Google and later with the United States Digital Service at the White House, and her, cooking for family and friends.
I give the background of my mother not only because her memory is so very raw in me right now, and the magnitude of her loss is still felt every day so strongly, but because her resilience and strength have shaped so much of my own life and career. Very seldom was anything was too hard or too much for her. Any experiences she had in the United States were better than drifting at sea, fate unknown, or living without freedom.
Growing up, observing my mom working hard, I leaned into any opportunities teachers and mentors sent my way. No one at home knew how to succeed in the United States. Thankfully, I had mentors who threw opportunities at me to explore.
As early as grade school, when asked if I wanted to volunteer to run something at school, or stay late to help another student, I almost always said yes. I knew at an early age that I was afforded opportunities many others in the world would never have, and I took them all. Sometimes they worked out, and sometimes they were failures, but they all pushed me to gain the skills and perspectives that would be the foundation for my future.
I picked up many dreams as I progressed through school, college, and jobs. The wonderful thing about this country is that even when parents are busy surviving, and do not have the capacity or energy to coach us to reach for the stars, opportunities still continuously present themselves. Each advancement towards my dreams came with an equal desire to give back to all those who lifted me up along the way, and all those who were not as fortunate.
I got to go to one of the top engineering schools in the nation with my tuition paid for by the state. At first, I was apprehensive to pick Computer Science as my major because no one I knew from high school or in my family did anything like it. But I jumped at it anyways. I learned to code, and learned the power of creating something totally new by writing several lines of logic to command a computer. This gift of a college education in Computer Science armed me with foundational skills that would prepare me for reaching many future dreams. I am forever grateful.
In addition to engineering, college gave me other outlets for exploration. I worked at a non-profit that helped to bring eye healthcare to diverse populations across southeast Georgia. I created a product to contribute to the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals. I moved across the country to join a small startup, and later went to Google to focus on internal analytics on people data. And when my little brother, a purple heart Captain of the United States Marine Corps, called from a hospital in Georgia to tell me that my mom just got diagnosed with Leukemia, I took all of my professional and personal experiences and poured my knowledge and energy into fighting cancer, knowing I would also take everything I learned in this crazy, scary, exhausting but enlightening cancer battle and give it back to other people.
In October 2014, when the United States Digital Service, a technology startup at the White House, called for a healthcare and data engineering expert, I left my job at Google for my first government job. The skills I had acquired in engineering school, building non-profits, solving healthcare problems, bringing large-scale data systems together, and supporting my mother’s fight against cancer prepared me for the greatest, most rewarding, most fulfilling role of my life. I have worked alongside the most passionate public servants to build a technology startup inside the federal government while personally contributing to healthcare, precision medicine, and better services for our veterans.
For all that, I thank my mom, and I hope I do her legacy justice by living with a passion to serve others, facing challenges with grace and resilience, and passing on her strength to my own daughter.
First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden greet Kathy Pham, First Lady’s State of the Union box guest, and brother Captain David Pham in the Blue Room of the White House, Jan. 20, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)