Social Worker Overcomes Trauma, Grief, and Injury to Pursue Her Dream Career

Listening without judgment, connecting patients with resources, building bridges, helping families stay strong. Handling stressful situations with compassion and empathy.

These are just a handful of the attributes of health care social workers, especially the more than 70 who work at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health.

“Social work breaks barriers” is how the National Association of Social Workers describes the profession, as the organization commemorates Social Work Month in March. The association credits social workers with empowering people for more than a century to overcome challenges so they can live to their fullest potential.

“We are miracle workers,” said Huyen “Kiki” Vo, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and mental health clinician for the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry outpatient clinics. “We wear multiple hats and do the best to advocate for patients.”

Helping meet the needs of families and children

“We help families make decisions that honor their children’s needs. We strive to meet people where they are,” she said. “We do this with great humility.” Vo and her colleagues understand that having a sick child can be emotional and overwhelming for parents, and that staying in the hospital is frightening for children.

Vo, who has worked here since 2022, has firsthand experience in what it’s like to be hospitalized. The Vietnam native had more than 30 surgeries after a devastating fire back home left her with third-degree burns at age 9. The fire eventually took the life of her mother, when the family did not have the means to sustain her care, and also injured two of Vo’s four sisters.

After her mom passed away, her dad brought his daughters to the United States to get the medical care that wasn’t available in their rural town. For more than 10 years, Vo was treated at some of the best hospitals on the East and West coasts, having plastic and reconstructive surgeries for the injury.

Today, she’s a vibrant 31-year-old professional, wise beyond her years, and grateful for the new life and career she courageously made for herself. Vo understands grief, having lost both parents before she was 18. She recalls years of overwhelming anxiety and crippling depression and is grateful for the kind social workers who helped her through her darkest days. “Being burned as a child was traumatic; however, trying to survive adolescent years felt even tougher,” she recalled.

“I know what it was like to be a kid in a hospital. My interactions with providers and social workers changed my life and helped me cope,” she said. “I was a child who didn’t speak English, an immigrant in a new country, bullied because of my burns, and having to navigate everything and cope. The hospital was my safe place. Outside I had no control, but in the hospital I was safe.”

Pursuing a career to give back

These experiences informed her desire to pursue a social work career. She earned a scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley, and completed a master’s degree from California State University, East Bay in 2018 to become a licensed clinical social worker.

Vo spent four years as a community social worker before joining Stanford Medicine Children’s Health to help teens experiencing depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. She provides individual therapy for teens with a history of self-harm and suicidal behaviors at Stanford’s multiple outpatient clinics.

“One of my wildest dreams was to be able to work here. I want to pave the pathway for others who may not get opportunities like this. I want to be a resource to motivate and inspire people, especially immigrants. I want to give back.

“My personal experiences have enhanced my ability to be a competent social worker, in general,” she said. “I can often understand the full psychosocial picture of what these young people are going through. I strive to create a safe space and lead with empathy and compassion in each of my encounters with patients. I can listen and advocate for them, drawing them out to discuss how they’re feeling without judgment. Teens need to be seen, heard, and validated.”

There is a lot of pressure for teens in today’s world, according to Vo. “I help teens learn how to tolerate distress and regulate their emotions skillfully so they can respond in ways that are safe and effective. Most often, teens behave in a certain manner as cries for help.”

Resiliency and resourcefulness

Vo attributes overcoming her own trauma to a sense of resiliency. “Resourcefulness is one of my superpowers,” she said with a smile. But she humbly honors those who have helped her and appreciates all the support she’s received. “From foundations to universities to nonprofit agencies—all those who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.”

As for her career plans, Vo hopes to continue learning and giving back. “It is an incredible opportunity to work here. I want to pay it forward.”


One Response to “Social Worker Overcomes Trauma, Grief, and Injury to Pursue Her Dream Career”

  1. Jennifer Apostol

    Thank you for sharing your story. And a big thank you for all you do!!


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