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After 24 years of praying, a war hero receives a deathbed baptism

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“If you get baptized in the Catholic Church, I will follow in your footsteps and get baptized, too.” 

The words of Trang Doan’s father lingered in her mind for 24 years. Dr. Ba Doan had witnessed his daughter’s baptism at Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Church in Arlington, and yet he had never followed through on his promise. Trang spent the next two dozen years ardently hoping and praying for his conversion. When her father grew ill, she decided to enlist the help of Father Stefan P. Starzynski, hospital chaplain at Inova-Fairfax Hospital. 

Over the weeks Trang’s father spent at the hospital, Father Starzynski stopped by his room often. He learned about Ba’s heroic service during the Vietnam War, his harrowing escape from the country and his years spent raising Trang and caring for the sick in his adopted country. He witnessed Ba’s natural virtue and care for others. A few times, Father Starzynski asked Ba if he would like to be baptized, but the elderly man always demurred. The chaplain didn’t want to pester the man, but he could sense Ba’s interest in the faith. 

One day when Trang was visiting her father at the hospital, she asked Father Starzynski to ask Ba one last time if he wanted to be baptized. This time, Ba responded with a clear yes. Trang and Father Starzynski looked at each other in astonishment, and the chaplain asked again. Ba responded again — “yes.” 

Father Starzynski told the pair he needed to leave for a moment to retrieve the sacred chrism. “(Ba) put his hand on me and said, ‘Make sure you come back,’ ” said Father Starzynski.

Life in Vietnam

Long before he was baptized, Ba learned about the faith while attending Catholic schools in Vietnam. As a young man, he attended the University of Saigon Medical School and later served in the military as the surgeon for the Vietnamese Airborne Division, called Red Berets, and in military hospitals. He fought for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. 

In 1968, Ba came home to celebrate Tet, or lunar new year, with his family in Hue. Unexpectedly, North Vietnam’s Viet Cong launched a massive attack now known as the Tet Offensive. Ba found the Americans and offered his services as a doctor. He and just one other doctor cared for hundreds of wounded for the next two weeks. When they ran out of supplies, he led a successful raid across enemy lines to a medical supply depot. Years later, the U.S. government awarded Ba the Bronze Star for his life-saving efforts. 

In 1971, Trang was born, followed by her little brother, Tung Van. At a young age, both siblings contracted dengue fever and became very ill. Though Ba lovingly cared for both of them, Trang’s brother died. A few days later, Ba was taken to a Vietnamese Communist concentration camp where he spent the next four years. He was released in 1979. 

A new life

By that time, most Vietnamese doctors had fled the country, so Ba was given a good post at a hospital, said Trang. Still, Ba was determined to leave Vietnam. The family attempted to flee three times before making it to Thailand. Trang recalls patrolmen firing machine guns at their boat as it crossed into international waters. Then their captain said he wouldn’t take them all the way to Thailand. When they protested, the captain jumped overboard and Trang’s uncle, who had been in the navy, took over. 

The first Thai ship they came across gave them food and water. But the second carried a band of pirates who separated the men from the women and children, and began to search for valuables. When Ba rebelled, the pirates whipped him with a stingray tail. “I got on my knees and I (begged) them to let go of my father, and they did,” said Trang. Finally, the refugees made it to the shores of Thailand, where they scuttled their boat and started a new life.

Trang Doan poses for a photo with her father Dr. Ba Doan after her baptism at Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Church in Arlington in 1997. COURTESY

 

v vietnamese doctor From Thailand, the family went to Indonesia, where Ba worked as a doctor for the Red Cross. They then went to Singapore, and Ba was given the choice to resettle in France or the United States. He chose America. “He thought he owed a lot to the American people and he loved them dearly because he fought side by side with them during the war,” said Trang. 

After living in California, Trang and her father moved to Arlington when Ba got an internship at a hospital nearby. By that time, Trang’s mother and father had separated, so just she and her dad drove across the country in an old Ford Pinto. “We didn’t have money, so we packed all of our stuff in the back. When we’d sleep, he and I would move everything to the front and we’d sleep in the back of the Pinto,” she said. 

Once he began his new job, he worked nonstop. “Sometimes my dad wouldn’t come home for days, and I would wait for him by the window,” she said. “Those are the days that are very precious, you know. When you don't have a lot. It was just my dad and I.” 

Bringing him home

Like her father, Trang had attended Catholic schools as a child in Vietnam but she learned much more about God after meeting her husband, Paul, who is Catholic. The year before they were married, Trang entered the Catholic Church. They had two children, Justin and Melissa. And she continued to pray for her father's conversion. 

Ba had been sick for a few years, but in recent months the cancer spreading throughout his body made him weaker and sicker. After dropping her son off at community college, Trang would visit her father, massaging him with one hand and praying the rosary or the Chaplet of Divine Mercy with the other. 

Though she was surprised when her father decided to be baptized, she also was prepared for the day. In her purse, she kept a bottle of holy water from Lourdes, which Father Starzynski used when he baptized Ba at 3 p.m. Sept. 20. He also confirmed him and gave him holy Communion. It was the last thing Ba ate before he died two days later at age 83. 

Father Anthony J. Killian, pastor of Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls, Trang’s home parish, offered a Mass of Christian Burial for Ba. And Father Starzynski presided over the burial at St. Mary of Sorrows Church Cemetery in Fairfax Oct. 13.

Trang Doan stands with Fr. Stefan P. Starzynski, hospital chaplain of Inova-Fairfax Hospital, after the burial of her father, Dr. Ba Doan, in St. Mary of Sorrows Church Cemetery in Fairfax. 

Trang Doan stands with Fr. Stefan P. Starzynski, hospital chaplain of Inova-Fairfax Hospital, after the burial of her father, Dr. Ba Doan, in St. Mary of Sorrows Church Cemetery in Fairfax. COURTESY

 

 

v doctor 4 Trang feels incredibly grateful for Father Starzynski’s hospital ministry, which allowed him to develop a relationship with her father and be there to receive him into the church at a moment's notice. Father Starzynski credits Trang’s faith and tenacity with bringing her father to Christ. Trang believes it’s why God spared her life when battling dengue fever or fleeing from Vietnam. 

“God wouldn’t let me die for a reason,” she said. “Looking back through this walk, it seems like I'm very blessed to see (God’s) work come to life. It's finally bringing (my father) home to the Lord.” 

Find out more

To learn more about the hospital ministry, go to arlingtondiocese.org/hospitalministry or padrepioministry.org

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020

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