Quy Ly

Pulling Teeth With Pliers


Quy Ly, now a dentist in Southern California, spent two and a half years in a Communist re-education camp.

After graduating from dental school, Ly was appointed to be a First Lieutenant in the “Army of the Republic of (South) Vietnam, or ARVN. He had served in the Medical Corps throughout his student years. After Saigon fell in 1975, the Communist government ordered former ARVN soldiers to report to so-called “re-education” camps. Ly remembers being instructed to bring food for 10 days though his internment lasted much longer, he says.

According to Quy, the guards in his camp did not kill many people outright, but a great number of inmates died from malnutrition. He recalls that twice a day, a group of eight people had to share a portion of rice served in a steel ammunition box. They took turns passing it around, each taking a small bowlful until there was not a grain of rice left in the box.

It seems that one man was greedy, squeezing his portions to make them look small even though they were in fact larger than fellow inmates’ rations. Ly recalled his urge to beat the man because it was so unfair but then felt ashamed of this instinct. “At that time, I realized how low I was,” Ly said. “Myself, a dentist, a First Lieutenant of the South Vietnam Army, and I wanted to beat him because he just wanted an extra spoonful of rice.”

He saw others eat scorpions, or just about everything, but his knowledge of medicine prevented him from doing so. Families of inmates were allowed to send food or medicine once in a while, and sometimes prisoners could buy contraband medicine from the wardens, according to Ly.

Ly did some dental work in the camp, but without the necessary tools. He removed teeth using pliers, and he had no Novocain. “I knocked out my patients with alcohol that they had to buy from the guards,” he says.

Every day he observed people getting beaten with a rifle butt for being clumsy or late. This did not happen to him, though. “I was young, strong, and able to work well, I followed instructions and did not argue, so they left me alone.”

Ly was released early. After two and a half years, he and several other prisoners were given the bus fare home to Saigon where he found that the general population was suffering more deaths from illnesses because so many medical professionals were in the camps. This, he realized, was the reason why the government had released him sooner than other prisoners.

He and his family came to the United States in 1991 benefiting from a re-settlement agreement negotiated between Vietnam and the U.S. in 1990. Ly says that at times he would forget his re-education camp experiences because life in the U.S. was much better. At other times nightmares haunted him.

Although Ly did not have to endure any physical head trauma, he is still suffering from painful psychological effects of what he had seen in captivity. He says that in time, the psychological traumata will fade in time. “One way of treating my pain is by doing good for others,” Quy says. -- KELLIE KOTRABA