By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Susan Lieu was just 11 years old when she saw her mother for the last time.
That morning, Lieu and her mother, Phuong Ha, got into a fight — Lieu had been forbidden from trying out for the volleyball team. Distraught, Lieu told Ha she hated her.
And with that, Ha set out for the day.
On Sept. 27, 1996, Ha entered Dr. Leslie Moglen’s clinic in San Francisco, Calif. and planned to get three cosmetic surgeries done: a tummy tuck, nostril reduction, and a chin implant. At 38 years old, Ha was healthy with only one elective surgery done 12 years prior.
Two hours into the operation, Ha went into respiratory arrest. The human brain suffers from permanent brain damage if it goes longer than four minutes without oxygen. It was only after resuscitating Ha for 14 minutes that Moglen decided to call 911. Ha was brought to Mount Zion Medical Center in San Francisco, where she remained in a coma for five days before she died. The medical examiner stated the cause of death as unknown.
According to the Washington Advocates for Patient Safety, 440,000 people die each year in the United States from preventable medical errors, such as doctors performing the wrong surgery. It is currently the third leading cause of death in the country.
Uncovering her mother’s story
It wasn’t until Lieu was older that she discovered more about Moglen’s past. Facts like how he’d been on probation at the time of her mother’s surgery, how he didn’t have medical insurance and no American company would ensure him, or that there were 24 lawsuits against him for botched plastic surgery.
This research was not done by Ha.
Moglen advertised his skills in a San Francisco newspaper and offered free reconstructive surgery to those who had fought in the war. This earned him goodwill locally as well as recognition when Moglen started to advertise in weekly Vietnamese magazines. This targeted advertising, said Lieu, earned him a favored reputation among local Vietnamese.
After pursuing degrees at Harvard University and Yale University, Lieu still felt she had unfinished business with her mother’s death. Despite her academic achievements and years separated from the incident, Moglen was still on her mind.
“I still felt powerless in that part of my life’s history,” said Lieu. “With all my contacts, maturity, and privilege, I wondered: Could I have changed anything given what I know and who I am now? Would it have been different?”
Though Lieu holds a master’s in business administration and currently works as a consultant, she’s always been a natural performer. Lieu has performed stand-up comedy at historic comedy clubs across the country, including the Purple Onion in San Francisco and Caroline’s on Broadway in New York City. But It wasn’t in my improv class but my solo performance class that I gave my 5-minute talk on my mom
When asked to give an impromptu speech during an improv class, Lieu instantly knew what she wanted to talk about. She prefaced her turn with, “I don’t want to sound like a Greek tragedy, but I’m here to avenge my mother’s death.”
What followed was a 5-minute speech that dissected her feelings about Ha’s death. This experience, coupled with the opportunity to perform a 25-minute solo show at Pocket Theater, encouraged
Lieu to dig deeper into what happened to her family.
Lieu also discovered that theater was her niche. “I’m in my power of storytelling when I can weave in emotional capital,” she said of the discipline. “I’m not obligated to get laughs the way I am with comedy — I can focus more on the message I want to share. That was big for me.”
Patient advocacy through performance
Debuting November 2017, Lieu’s first show is referred to informally as Episode 1, which focused on the juxtaposition of young Lieu and her present 32-year-old self. A second show, Episode 2, explored the good and bad in Ha’s life, as well as examining Lieu’s relationship with her.
Titled “140 LBS,” Lieu’s current and third installment of the show investigates Ha’s final day alive. A one-woman show, “140 LBS” is an experimental performance that includes monologues, video interviews, and projected photos. The show continues to unpack previous themes from past episodes, such as parent-child relationships, grief, and physical perfection. The show is one of 16 performances that will be featured in On the Boards’ NW New Works Festival.
Although Lieu’s family pursued legal action against Moglen, it resulted in only a brief suspension and extended probation. Moglen was still permitted to practice thereafter. Referred to as Dr. X in her performances, “140 LBS” also answers whether Lieu can forgive Moglen, who died four years ago. This is a tough issue for Lieu, who regrets the opportunity to have confronted the surgeon before his passing.
Lieu, who has four siblings, has received mixed reactions about the shows from her family. Although they’ve since come around, Episode 1 was initially met with disdain. “[My siblings] would say, ‘Don’t air your dirty laundry,’ and insist that I was making this tragedy about me.” But Lieu is quick to clarify this show isn’t about her or self-therapy — it’s about patient advocacy.
“We spend more time researching food we want to eat, instead of the people who actually treat us,” said Lieu. “Researching our doctors and their backgrounds is actually in our control.”
Lieu hopes the show resonates with viewers to expose the growing issue of medical malpractice while educating about patient rights, and to inspire viewers to be courageous and confront their personal pasts.
“The amount of processing I need to do to put on this show is big,” Lieu said. “It takes a toll on me.”
But when Lieu sees the laughing, crying, and processing the audience does at her shows, she becomes filled with purpose. With past shows, attendees have approached Lieu with their own stories of loss.
“That’s the point of being human — creating a human connection,” said Lieu. “If I can do that with my show and help remove blocks to let people be more intimate with their emotions … well, that’s the equivalent of going to Harvard and making money. That’s my currency.”
“140 LBS” runs from Jun. 8–10 at On the Boards. For more information, visit ontheboards.org/nw-new-works-festival.
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.