Where Discovery Creates Hope

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Doctors like Dr. Pham aren’t just changing the practice of medicine. They’re changing the world.
Dr. Jakub Tolar
Dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School
a monthly series

where discovery creates hope

The doctor who found his place: And the patient and student under his wing

It was a friend who referred Yarrow Song-Brave to “Kook.” It’s a place, he said, where you can get help kicking heroin.

A place that cares for you whether you’re insured or not. And, above all, it’s a place where you’ll find a doctor who truly “gets” substance use disorder.

Dr. Cuong Pham smiles at the kind words: “I know what it’s like to not be seen, not be heard.”

“It’s whatever and whoever comes in our door.”

“Kook,” of course, is only a nickname.

It’s how people pronounce CUHCC—the acronym for Community-University Health Care Center.

It’s a silly nickname for serious medicine. But it perfectly captures the fondness people have for this welcoming place.

In fact, Koushik Paul, a University of Minnesota Medical School student, would love to work at CUHCC.

His mentor, Dr. Pham, is all for that: “Young people always shake it up. Without them, I’d be the same old person I was ten years ago.”

“I’m just happy to be alive.”

It’s Monday. CUHCC’s lobby, located in the shadow of downtown Minneapolis, is a splash of color.

Proof that University of Minnesota professors who founded CUHCC decades ago were spot on.

In walks Yarrow, part Choctaw, part Cherokee.

Dr. Pham thinks it’ll be “therapeutic” for him to share his story. Yarrow agrees, but hopes for something bigger, too.

That his experience might save somebody else from walking in his shoes.

“After you’ve done heroin for so long, you no longer get high,” he says. “You’re just doing it to keep from getting sick.”

“I know what it means to be disadvantaged.”

CUHCC’s lobby brightens again. This time, it’s Koushik. He and his family are asylees from Bangladesh. Survivors, he says, of ethnic genocide because of their country’s natural resources.

Settling in as farm workers in Minnesota, Koushik’s family soon faced another challenge.

How to afford healthcare, especially after Koushik’s father developed diabetes from the radical change in diet.

Koushik, in response, dreamed big: Becoming a doctor who cares for families like his.

But then his father died and, with it, Koushik’s dream almost did, too—until Dr. Pham intervened.

“He was the one person who told me my dad would have wanted this.”

“I’m a person of color, too.”

Dr. Pham emerges from CUHCC’s maze of hallways.

His family were “boat people,” Vietnamese who risked all when Saigon fell. Dr. Pham was just a baby then, but on a visit to Vietnam when he was 16, the poverty shook him.

He decided, from that day on, that his life’s work would be to provide primary care for our most vulnerable people – especially refugees.

Then, the opioid crisis hit. Dr. Pham was tapped to lead a team to respond to this rapidly growing crisis. Years into the work, people ask for his secret sauce.

There’s that smile again. Dr. Pham says he simply listens more than he talks. Unless, that is, he’s sharing his own story.

Stories, he says, connect people. Connections build community. And community boosts the effectiveness of the medicine he prescribes.

Of course, it sure helps to have a place specially built for such interactions.

Dr. Pham says: “My heart is with CUHCC.”

The Community-University Health Care Center (CUHCC) was founded in 1966 by the University of Minnesota as the first community health center in Minnesota. The clinic provides medical, dental and mental health care, legal services, advocacy for domestic abuse and sexual assault, and much more for nearly 10,000 patients—all in one place. In addition, CUHCC trains future health professionals to serve a culturally-ethnically diverse patient population.

Community-University Health Care Center »


M Physicians are an extension of the University of Minnesota Medical School. As Medical School faculty, they are always looking for new and better ways to treat patients, whether in the laboratory or the clinic. And through clinical trials, cutting-edge therapies are sometimes available to patients when the standard of care is no longer enough.

What is Academic Medicine?

Most medicine is practiced within what is called “the standard of care.” Simply put, “standard of care” is the treatment that is commonly accepted for treating illness. This is a good thing! It means that patients receive treatments that are known to be generally effective and reliable.

The goal of academic medicine is to treat patients while looking for better therapies. It takes the toughest problems from the clinic and looks for solutions in our research. Many of our physicians — leaders in their fields — are also scientists.

When a patient faces an illness that requires treatment that exceeds the standard of care, academic medicine can provide access to newer therapies.

Dr. jakub tolar
Dr. jakub tolar
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