A Circle of Giving: A Tribute to My Friend Dr. Ann Tonnu

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November 24, 2015

Last weekend, some friends and I attended an introductory lecture about the power of meditation on health and lowering stress.  The instructor, a radiologist named Dr. Arnold Raizon, reminded us of the difference between empathy and compassion.  When you feel empathic about a person’s circumstance, you are trying to “walk in their shoes.”  Compassion, however, is when you “act” on your emotion of empathy to change this person’s circumstance.  For decades, however, I realize we live in a world of mostly sympathetic, occassionally empathic but rarely compassionate people.  Worse, I realize many of us are indifferent observers of others’ circumstances.  Until our own pockets are picked, a thief often remains somebody else’s villain.  Until we can afford to eat only once or twice a day, hunger, in our world, is only seen or heard in the news or in our worship places where we listen to our religious leaders before having to rush to our children’s sport events or music recitals.  Until our children huddle in a make shift tent of a refugee camp in the deep winter somewhere, it will be difficult to imagine that loneliness and desperation of their parents, while sitting in front of a cozy fireplace.  I have not lost hope, however, on humanity.  There are silent philantrophists beside those well-known benevolent giants like the Gates family or Warren Buffet, one like my friend Dr. Ann Tonnu. 

I have known Dr. Tonnu for almost two decades.  Ann is one of the well-known gastroenterologists in our area and, being Vietnamese, she and I have many mutual Vietnamese patients who come to us partly because we speak Vietnamese, and partly because of our cultural understanding.

Like me, Ann wasn’t born in the U.S. She escaped from Vietnam as a teenager a few years after the fall of S. Vietnam to communism.  For all the years I have known Ann, I have had superficial glimpses into her life, where she went to medical school, where she completed her residency, where she lived and how many children she had.  It was just a glimpse into Ann’s life, until the 40th anniversary of the fall of S. Vietnam, when I learned how little I knew of my friend Ann. 

After the communists took over South Vietnam, Ann’s parents decided to divide the family and half would escape first and the other would stay behind in case the first attempt failed, so that they would still have their house.  Ann, an older sister and a younger brother, escaped successfully by boat from South Vietnam while their father tried to escape later with three other brothers.  Unfortunately for her father and brothers, the boat was captured by Thai pirates who ordered the men to jump into the ocean.  Ann’s younger brother, being ten years old at the time, clutched onto his father when they both jumped off the boat and neither ever emerged from the ocean.  Ann’s two other brothers miraculously survived the ordeal and eventually made it to the U.S and were reunited with the rest of their family. 

After Ann escaped from Vietnam, she had to work in a pancake factory in Hong Kong as an assembler.  She daydreamed about going to the U.S to continue with her schooling.  Her family finally settled in Enid, Oklahoma in 1979.  Ann graduated as the salutorian from her high school and then went to University of Maryland where she graduated with honors in Chemistry.  She continued her studies at the University of Maryland medical school and became a gastroenterologist.  She now lives in a beautiful home in the suburbs of Maryland.

Recently, we learned, not from Ann but from her medical school friends, that she was featured in the University of Maryland Medical School Magazine, for establishing two endowment scholarships for medical students with financial need.  You can find her impressive story in the link below: 


Ann explained, as a devoted traditional Buddhist, how she has been ingrained with Buddhist teachings of the Four immeasurables: loving, kindness with compassion, joy, equanimity.  As in Buddhist teachings, Ann believes we should treat everyone with respect.  We should, she stated “practice looking and listening deeply with compassionate eyes and ears to develop empathy and understanding of human behavior.” 

Ann believes that each of us has a purpose in helping society, that we depend on each other to survive in this ecosystem.  In an elegant way, she explained that we are contributing to society with or without us being consciously aware of it.  She’s grateful that she is able to give.

Over the years, Ann has learned to forgive the pirates who caused the death of her brother and father, although she can never forget the tears she shed for them.  She eventually realized how there is “no birth, no death,” that life indeed is a continuation of life in its own cycle, that we are in this world for a limited time to serve a purpose.  She believes that she and her surviving siblings are passing on their father’s spirit and compassion to the next generation, giving her father an eternal cycle of life.

When I interviewed Ann for this blog, she emailed me a picture of a “quote of the month” at Shady Grove Hospital. Obviously, as for me, at times, one or another of these quotes would stop her in her tracks.  We would take photos of the words to remind us of what we believe is meaningful to our life.  The quote that Ann sent me, which ironically I had taken with my own iPhone, is one from Henry Ward Beecher, an American social reformer and congregationalist clergyman in the 1980s:

“In this world it is not what we take up, but what we give up, that makes us rich.”

Ann believes the doctrine of “to give is to receive,” that by giving, you are blessed with inner joy.  She uses her insight to guide where she donates and tries to support organizations with low expenses and directs most of the funds to needy people.  If her donation is used in a “wrong way,” she leaves the judgment up to God.  As a Buddhist, she believes we are living in a world of interdependence, that the good energy will follow a good karma. 

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am grateful that my friend Ann shared her inspiring life story with me.  Why do some people survive a tragedy better than others?  It’s their giving spirit and the ability to forgive that sustain them.  Ann is the epitome of an emotionally healthy survivor.

There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophies. My brain and my heart are my temples; my philosophy is kindness.

                                                    Dalai Lama