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After Hurricane Harvey, dentists form lasting friendship

Retiree helps successor rebuild practice damaged by storm

February 13, 2018

By Kimber Solana

Photo of Drs. Do and Williams
First celebration: Drs. Gary Williams and Hieu Truong Do celebrate Aug. 8 a practice transition with a cake. Dr. Do closed on the practice run by Dr. Williams, who was retiring after 36 years. About two weeks later after the celebration, Hurricane Harvey made landfall, devastating the city of Houston and damaging Dr. Do's dental office.
Houston — Three years after dental school, Dr. Hieu Truong Do was ready to own a dental practice. She had held an associate job working in different locations, but after she had her firstborn, she thought it was time.
    
"I wanted to get a practice that was relatively close to home so I can have a flexible schedule and take care of both my newborn and parents," said Dr. Do, a military wife whose husband, Michael, works in Washington, D.C. "Traveling in Houston from one dental practice to another just became too difficult for me as a new mother. Houston is a large city and with traffic, it can sometimes take more an hour to get between places."
    
On Aug. 8, 2017, she closed on a practice previously ran by Dr. Gary Williams, who was retiring after 36 years.
    
Seventeen days later, Hurricane Harvey made landfall, which devastated the city of Houston.
    
"I still get emotional when I talk about Hurricane Harvey," Dr. Do said. "I was very excited to be a new practice owner and then two weeks later, it was all gone with the arrival of Harvey."

The next four months became a day-to-day grind to clean up, build and reopen the practice, she said. It was also a time, she added, made a lot easier thanks to the help of her fellow dentists, especially Dr. Williams.

The right person

Dr. Williams interviewed about 10 dentists over a course of a year and a half when Dr. Do came along. He was ready to retire and was looking for someone to take over his practice.
    
"I could tell instantly she was the right person," he said of Dr. Do.
    
The two have crossed paths in the Houston area, volunteering in dental events and attending meetings at the Greater Houston Dental Society. The first time Dr. Do met Dr. Williams was in 2016, during a Veterans Day event where dentists were providing dental care to veterans and low-income residents.
    
Photo of Dr. Do and family
Family portrait: Dr. Hieu Truon Dong, left, poses for a photo with her husband, Michael, and daughter, Isabella.
"It wasn't easy for me to walk away," Dr. Williams said about retiring. "I had a beautiful office and loved taking care of my patients. But at the same time, I felt proud and also grateful to hand it over to Dr. Do because I knew she would take care of it and of my patients."
    
The two dentists held a ceremony and served the staff cake at the five-chair dental office located in the city's northwest side. Dr. Do immediately began working four days a week after she acquired the office from Dr. Williams.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Harvey was already on its way.

"When I heard about Harvey, I figured we'll be OK and the office will probably be OK, too," Dr. Do said. "We've had hurricanes and tropical storms in Houston before and the office was never flooded in 20 years. That gave me comfort."
    
'We saved what we could'

That comfort would be short-lived after three days of rain.
    
"I saw the neighborhood where my practice was located on the news. The whole area was flooded," Dr. Do said.
    
It took about week for the water to recede enough for her to be able to stand at a Chase Bank parking lot to survey her practice across the street.

"I couldn't get to it," she said. "It looked so unbelievable; the sight of my practice being flooded."
    
Nine days after Harvey hit, Michael, who was in Houston for the Labor Day holiday, donned waders and walked through 2 feet of water towards the practice. It was the first time someone saw the extent of the damage inside. It was clear the floors, walls and cabinets would need to be removed and replaced.
    
"Anything below 2 feet was gone," Dr. Do said. "But supplies in shelves above water were saved. If I could save a toothbrush, I saved it."
    
The next day, Dr. Do's husband had to return to Washington, D.C., for work. After she dropped him off at the airport, she met her staff, a close neighbor of theirs and Dr. Williams to start the cleanup process.
    
"There was no time to waste," she said.
    
Dentists helping dentists

Dr. Williams said he couldn't be more impressed with his successor. Dr. Do put together a plan with regards to what she needed to do, including applying for a Federal Emergency Management Agency small business loan. She also arranged with a colleague, Dr. Tan Pham, to continue seeing her patients at his office nearby.
    
"On a scale of one to 10, she was a 12," Dr. Williams said. "She rose to the occasion."
    
Dr. Williams, like Dr. Do, saw the neighborhood where the dental practice was located on television.
    
"I live near the practice," he said. "As soon as the skies cleared, I got as close as I could. My heart sank to see everything I worked for 36 years underwater. Then I was more sad for Dr. Do, not for me. Her family is just the greatest people and I couldn't believe this happened to them."
    
Dr. Williams, who still owns the building, immediately hired a general contractor to start rebuilding the walls and floors.
    
Interior photo of damaged dental office
Damage: Hurricane Harvey caused major flooding in Houston, damaging Dr. Hieu Truong Do's new dental practice. The floors, walls and cabinets were removed and replaced.
"It was a disaster," he said. "We pulled out all the floors, all the cabinets, and we had 10 rooms of destroyed dental equipment, chairs and drywall."
    
Dr. Williams said he felt an obligation to help the military family. Dr. Do's husband, Michael, is a combat veteran having served three deployments in the U.S. Army — one in Iraq and two in Afghanistan.
    
"If I can help a bunch of strangers," said Dr. Williams, who organized the Veterans' Day event where Dr. Do first met him, "then I can do something for someone I consider friends and family."
    
Dr. Williams said he used much of his own money to get the practice back on track.
    
"Sometimes in life there are decisions that gives you peace," Dr. Williams said. "That's what this one was. I can sustain the financial loss more than they could. And honestly, I got the best end of the deal because we're on earth to help people."
    
About four months later, on Dec. 11, the two dentists held another ceremony — a re-grand opening.
    
"The practice looks beautiful," Dr. Williams said. "Dr. Do did a great job digitizing the office, choosing the colors and furniture. I look at the new office as something we created together."
    
The patients, Dr. Do added, seem to love the new touch she added to her practice.
    
Dr. Williams said he knows that their story is small compared to many others in Houston who lost a lot more. Hurricane Harvey is blamed for more than 60 deaths and nearly $200 billion in damage.
    
"But I'm glad to have been able to do my part in helping this new dentist get back on her feet," he said.
    
Dr. Do said she considers Dr. Williams a hero. She also thanked members of the Greater Houston Dental Society and the Texas Dental Association who offered additional help, including Dr. Tham, who offered his office for her to see patients during the reconstruction.
    
"I'm just so grateful for the dental profession," she said. "Dentists helping each other out. I see the experience with Hurricane Harvey that life is not going to be straightforward, but I can take comfort that God always has a better plan for me."