Volume 16 • Issue 51 | May 14 - 20, 2004

Hospital vet returns from Iraq

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Kingston Lam, N.Y.U. Downtown Hospital patient advocate, center, at his welcome back party with Dr. Lester W. Blair, left, acting chief of medicine, Dr. Bruce D. Logan, the hospital’s president and C.E.O., John Tsoi, director of patient advocacy and Dr. Warren Licht, chief medical officer.

The air-conditioner was broken in the party room at N.Y.U. Downtown Hospital, but Kingston Lam didn’t seem to notice as he hugged the friends and colleagues who had gathered to welcome him home.

Staff Sergeant Lam, who works as a patient advocate at the hospital, experienced much warmer temperatures during his yearlong stint in Iraq. Some days, he said, the mercury rose to 150 degrees.

“It was that hot — I was personally there,” said Lam, 25, who returned to the U.S. on April 12 after serving for nearly one year in the Army’s 602nd Cargo Team in southern and northern Iraq.

When he signed up for the reserves in 1998, the Brooklyn resident never expected to go to war. But when asked in February of 2003 whether he would volunteer to replace a member of his reserve unit, Lam felt he could not say no.

“I understood this was my obligation,” Lam said.

For their part, his colleagues at the hospital are overjoyed that Lam has returned home safely, albeit some 20 pounds lighter than when he left. With his gentle manner and language facility — he speaks Cantonese, Mandarin, Fujianese, Japanese and English—he has endeared himself to patients and co-workers alike.

“Almost everyone adopts him as a son,” said Dr. Lester Blair, acting chief of medicine at the hospital.

Lam worked with Blair on a project to promote living wills and other end-of-life care among Chinese patients, for whom death is a taboo subject, said John Tsoi, Lam’s supervisor. Seventy percent of N.Y.U. Downtown Hospital’s in-patient population and 80 percent of its out-patient population is Chinese.

At his May 11 welcome-home party, Lam showed a slideshow of his time in Iraq working on convoys between the north and south. He regaled co-workers with talk of the ever-present dust that blanketed the soldiers’ existence. Excessive sweat and dust made his pants so stiff by the end of the day that they could stand up on their own, Lam said. To ease the hardship, hospitals staffers sent him care packages of baby wipes and beef jerky, and his family sent him Chinese noodles.

Lam encountered some mortar fire but never engaged in serious combat during his time in Iraq. He said he learned of the abuse in Abu Ghraib prison only after returning home.

“I don’t think that is what the army is trained for,” Lam said of the abuse that has rocked the country and deepened many Americans’ doubts about the war. “From what I know, all camps we had, everyone did their job. I didn’t witness any abuse.”

Lam immigrated to the U.S. 11 years ago with his mother and three older siblings from China’s Fujian province to join their father, who had come earlier. He became a U.S. citizen two years ago and lives with his family near Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Lam said he was proud he had the chance to serve his adopted homeland: “I love this country.”


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