Sitting in their tidy, warm and inviting dental office both Dr. Portnoy and Dr. Tu appear much like any other professional dentists.
And while they eventually followed a similar path as many dentists, the beginning of their paths were unlike any other.
Imagine you’re a small child, around 7 years old. In the middle of the night your parents wake you up, hurry you in the dark to the coast and place you on a ship where you, still confused, remain for a number of days, encountering various obstacles, most of them frightening. Finally you arrive in a new place. You don’t speak the language, you know no one, you have very few possessions, yet you’re told this is your new home and things will be better here.
While it may be difficult to imagine, for Portnoy and Tu the above scenario is not. That’s because it’s a reality they faced.
Born in Vietnam, both Dr. Gianh (pronounced Yen) Nguyen Portnoy and Dr. Bachtrac (pronounced Baktra) Tu’s parents didn’t agree with the communist regime in their home country and began the process of immigrating to America. Although Portnoy and Tu’s families lived half a country away and didn’t know each other at the time of their escape, the women have similar memories of their trip to the US.
Portnoy’s father, a doctor, attempted to send Portnoy, her mother and two brothers to American twice. The group was twice arrested and imprisoned before they made their final escape.
But even then, the family was not safe. On their way to the US, the boat they were on was robbed by pirates, leaving the group shipwrecked for a number of days before finally being rescued and taken to a refugee camp. After being sponsored to complete their travels to America by the YWCA, the family landed in Illinois in 1980. Portnoy was 7 years old.
The only correspondence they had with Portnoy’s father during this time was by letter until he arrived in the US in 1983. Before that and even for a few years following her father’s arrival while he became a certified doctor in the US, the once-affluent family did everything they could to make ends meet.
“(My mom) did anything,” said Portnoy. Portnoy and her brothers took care of the rest, keeping their home neat, completing their homework and caring for each other.
During the Vietnam War Tu’s father was a Navy commander. Because he joined with the American forces during the war he was forcefully imprisoned for five years in a reeducation camp. When released he was finally able to begin his family’s journey to the states.
Tu, at just around 7 years old, was awoken in the middle of the night and told the family was going to a wedding.
She has vague memories of the three days and nights her seven-member family spent on a banana boat. After spending 19 months at a refugee camp, Tu’s family found a sponsor in Michigan and arrived near the Jackson area when Tu was around 10 years old.
Give the sacrifices each woman’s family made to assure their children an American upbringing, Portnoy said it was expected that she and her siblings would become education, productive members of society. Being a doctor was a sure way to please her parents.
Portnoy’s family relocated to Ann Arbor Mich. from Illinois in 1990, and Portnoy attended the University of Ann Arbor receiving degrees in biology and biopsychology. Her plan of becoming a pediatrician took a back seat when she decided having a family of her own was a priority. She began to explore other options. After taking a year off, Portnoy decided on dental school and enrolled at University of Detroit Mercy School in dentistry.
During this same time Tu — who originally wanted to be an artist until her father advised her against it (“Dad said ‘you’ll be poor sitting on the corner,’” said Tu with a laugh) — was studying at Western Michigan University (WMU). Thanks to her own dental procedures growing up, including braces, Tu knew she wanted a career as a dentist and also enrolled at the University of Detroit Mercy School in dentistry.
“I decided I wanted to be a dentist and help people,” said Tu. Within the first few days of classes Tu and Portnoy met and instantly bonded thanks to their heritage and complementary personalities.
“I never had a sister,” said Portnoy. “She’s kind of my sister in a way … (still) we’re totally opposite.”
“I’m more ‘let’s do it,’” said Tu of her personality. “I’m the planner,” added Portnoy.
Their time in dental school together solidified the two as friends for life and when Portnoy decided to move to the Lansing area and begin practicing here to be closer to her parents, who were now living in the area, Tu followed.
Working together as a team, even planning their pregnancies not to coincide so that only one of them would be on maternity leave at a time, in 2005 they decided to go into business together and open their own practice.
Portnoy and Tu bought a practice located in a converted house on Hamilton road in Okemos.
“It’s more like a home feel,” said Portnoy.
Since 2005 the two have worked to build a practice they can be proud of, all the time raising their young families.
Portnoy married her husband Ben in 2001 and has two sons, Joshua, 9 and Ethan, 6 and one daughter, Isabella, who is 3 years old.
Tu married her husband Andre Nguyen, who she met at WMU in the Vietnamese student organization she founded, in 2004. The couple has two daughters, Brianna, 4 and Julianna, 2.
Portnoy and Tu have experienced some of the same challenges as any female business owners — “We tend to look younger than our age,” said Portnoy, still they push on. “Once (people) get to know us, it’s different,” added Portnoy.
Just as their personalities complement each other, so do their dental skills. Portnoy prefers cosmetic work, while Tu enjoys extractions and root canals. But both have a true love for dentistry. “I’m better with one-on-one,” said Portnoy. “I’m a perfectionist. I’m very into detail.”
Tu enjoys being able to help patients instantly. “If you come in with a tooth ache, we can fix that,” she said.
Both women have returned to Vietnam on separate occasions and say that although they are happy to have come to America as young children, there are things about their culture they treasure.
For Tu, it’s the food, especially when Portnoy’s mom is doing the cooking. For Portnoy, it is the tradition of keeping family close.
“I have a really close-knit family,” she said. And Tu is part of that. While Tu’s parents still live in Jackson, Tu, Portnoy and Portnoy’s parents all live in Okemos.
And although the women have been in this country for most of their lives, they say they don’t take any single thing they have — from their educations to hot showers — for granted.
The women hope to grow their practice even more and emphasize the importance of preventative dental care, especially to their Asian patients. Tu and Portnoy said in Vietnam, for example, going to the dentist isn’t something that people routinely do. In turn, when someone has a tooth ache, teeth get pulled. It’s a pattern Tu and Portnoy hope to see end.
In the meantime the doctors are working on plans to eventually remodel the home their practice is in, enjoying time with their family and, as they have since 1997, enjoy time with each other.