Dr. Plastic Picker: Hero & Avid Environmentalist - A Q&A With Dr. Vi Thuy Nguyen
Updated: Nov 2, 2020
By Arlene Nagtalon
Dr. Nguyen receives a certificate of recognition for “Best in Clinic HPV Teen Vaccine Rates.”
Our definition of what a hero is has undoubtedly changed due to the arrival of the coronavirus. No longer do we know them as people who simply wear capes and save lives through extraordinary feats. Now, heroes are those who risk their lives as essential workers wearing masks and providing critical health care, transportation, or food services to the public amidst a global pandemic. Worldwide, we’ve shown our appreciation to these front-liners through various acts of gratitude, whether it be sharing their stories, writing letters, or giving them employee discounts to thank them for their hard work. These people act as our role models, showing us that even in the face of adversity, it is imperative to remain hopeful and stand tall.
However, I’m here today to shed light on one doctor in particular who not only works to save lives, but the planet itself, picking up one piece of litter at a time. Dr. Vi Thuy Nguyen is a pediatrician that was born and raised here in my local area of San Diego, CA. While she may come from humble beginnings, Nguyen is also a Harvard alum who spent thirteen years of training in Boston, MA, but returned to be a medical practitioner in her hometown. Rather than solely focusing on medicine, she takes pride in picking up other’s litter often found on beaches or near her home during her free time. Because of her efforts as an avid environmentalist, Dr. Nguyen is truly deserving of recognition for all she does in and outside of the office.
AN: Tell me a bit about yourself as a healthcare practitioner and an environmentalist.
VN: I am a general pediatrician. I grew up right next to Rohr Park right here in Bonita and left after high school to train and go to college in the Harvard system. I was away for a long time, but I came back. I practiced general peds basically where I grew up, which I consider a powerful thing. I’m your normal doctor who takes care of kids, but I believe I have a very interesting perspective about life. I’ve done work on HIV in Vietnam and worked for the CDC doing research. Still, I consider myself a general pediatrician, which is the most important role I have. In terms of the environmental stuff, I’ve cared about the environment my whole life. I have solar panels and hybrid cars. About a year ago, youth activists like yourself truly inspired me. When I was going through a difficult time in my own life with long working hours, hearing Greta Thunberg talk on the news with the climate strike truly struck me as a pediatrician. There was a need for adults to step up. As a pediatrician, it’s heart-wrenching to see these kids do these unbelievable things like taking a year off from school. As an adult, I’m here thinking, “Gosh, if these kids are doing big things and I’m an adult, I really need to step up my game!” So that’s how I kind of came to where I am now. And honestly, I’m a generally happy person, but I’m very scared about the direction where the environment is heading. I fundamentally think it’s an existential crisis, therefore, I think you gotta put everything into it. I think my role as an environmental activist is more powerful because I still work, and I try to think of changing it from the inside. I still support the protests, but I consider myself as a quieter environmentalist who tries to agitate from the inside.
AN: What impact did Harvard make on your career?
VN: Don’t get me wrong, Harvard is a great university, but it’s just like any other. I went to Harvard and trained at Massachusetts General Hospital, which is one of their main three hospitals. I was a pediatric resident, then chief resident, and did two years in endocrine research. It’s interesting that I have all these connections across the country to people in Boston, and it’s actually through the environmental movement that I reconnected with them. Tending to the environment pretty much an “all hands on deck” situation. It’s funny since I’ve always been so close to my friends over on the east coast, but now it’s even more important. The medical community is very small, which is something that I realized after I returned home. There’s not that many pediatricians in the country, so we kind of have a small network. My husband and I met at Harvard, and we were advisors there for a long time. On my Instagram, I connect with a lot of old students from there and what I learned is that it’s not so much where you go, but what you do with the opportunities that are given to you. I think that with that perspective of going away and coming back, the power of the world is shifting west. My dream had been for my kids to go to Harvard, but at some point, you need to commit to whatever home is for you. For me, coming back to San Diego was one of the best things I’ve ever done because this is my home. This is where my family is, this is where I’m connected. In a sense, I don’t think I would be as environmentally active if I wasn’t connected with the community because San Diego is where I was raised. That sense of connection is so important these days, and it’s harder to have if you leave where you’re from. But it’s a crazy world. The idea of jetting off isn’t sustainable, and it doesn’t ensure that you remain committed to your roots, wherever that may be.
AN: Have you always envisioned yourself working in the medical field?
VN: Honestly, I can tell you, and I don’t know if others would openly admit this, but I think I went into medicine because my parents told me. I'm from an immigrant family, and medicine was a safe choice. You get to help people, it’s secure, you make a decent income. For me, that’s probably what I always envisioned myself to be. It was a tunnel vision and I was very focused on what I wanted to do. You have to be that way to be a pre-med, even now. In retrospect, I believe I made the right decision, and I don’t think I would ever see myself as anything but a pediatrician or OB-GYN. I think the environmental movement helped me tap into various facets and skills that the medical field calls for, and I love that you’re writing now, and I think that’s beautiful. I had wanted to write when I was younger, and I even majored in humanities and did a lot of history writing. Still, it wasn’t the type of writing I enjoyed. It’s pretty crazy how I’m in my mid-forties and only now am I understanding that part of my personality, so I love it how you’re starting early. It’s truly an important skill because since I’ve begun my blog and write for myself, it’s helped me in my career quite a bit. I may be quite far into my job, but the ability to express yourself, and the ability to communicate your ideas and your passions is so powerful. It’s funny how it took me to this day and age into my career for me to utilize all the stuff I learned in high school, for me to make a difference. I had the typical, diverse high school experience doing speech and debate and really loved it. But in college, you’re pigeon-holed more into being pre-med, the sciences, whatever your major. Now, with the environmental movement, I felt the need to go ahead and put myself out there. All the training I had from high school is what helps. It’s crazy, right? You’d be surprised how many physicians and physician leaders don’t know how to write, they don’t know how to give a speech. Being on the debate team at Bonita Vista High School back in the day, I did impromptu extemporaneous at the State Level, so it’s very helpful looking back on it now.
AN: What motivates and inspires you to do what you do?
VN: You know, I’m really impressed with kids these days. In my blog and through the American Academy of Pediatrics I have my four interns that I advise. Even kids I see as patients in the clinic are such powerful examples. I see children put themselves out there all the time. Sure, adults may get what I’m doing, but some may not support what I do. At some point, I just decided that I didn’t care about what people thought anymore, which was when I chose to live my truth. But when I talk to kids about it, they understand what it is I’m doing and why I’m doing it. They’re the ones who are the president of their ReUse-It clubs. I had this one kindergartener who was a leader of their own club that invited me to speak, there’s kids making their own trash art, doing their own advocacy, even when it comes to being student body president. I honestly think it’s all the responsibilities adults have that makes them live in fear. I felt that sometimes in work that people are so afraid of this and that. At some point, when you truly come to terms with how bad the global environmental situation is, what is there left to fear? The worst is going to happen if you don’t do anything. For me, I just let go of my fear. Initially, when I started blogging, there were a lot of grammatical errors that I scrutinized, but it’s honestly just a lot of trial and error. I think that kids are an example of that. What comes to mind is a twelve month-old learning how to walk, right? They just go for it. It’s one of those where you’ll definitely stumble and make mistakes, but, gosh, you don’t have time to overthink it. And it drives me crazy how much adults overthink it. I have people asking me all the time, “How do you do it?” but I’ve only done a couple of trainings like the Climate Reality Changing Project. You can spend your entire life training, but by then, the Arctic Ice would’ve melted already. There’s not enough time. In general, everybody else thinks that you’re providing a service to the environment, but when you’re deep into this movement, you’d be amazed at how much work there needs to be done. The American Academy of Pediatrics is our professional association for pediatrics, and I think we have fifty-four state chapters, so basically, the whole country is carved out into little areas where pediatricians kind of work. Even a year ago, we didn’t have some states represented. If you think about it, it’s a HUGE thing to be the chair of the climate change and health committee. It's not a paid position, but it’s still one of great significance, but no one was stepping up. In San Diego, no one took the initiative. Therefore, my colleague Dr. Sally Kaufman and I saw that vacuum. We thought, “If we don’t do it, no one’s going to do it.” So suddenly, when you put yourself out there, people will follow or join in. I’m just amazed that youth writers like yourself and other youth who discuss racial justice and environmental health are really stepping into this vacuum that has been left gaping open by adults, you know? WE adults should be doing what you guys are doing, but it’s inspiring to see your generation taking action and trying to right the faults we’ve made back then.
AN: As a parent, do you think it’s beneficial to teach children the importance of caring for our planet?
VN: I do, and it’s actually pretty interesting you say that since a lot of current magazines and newspapers are bringing up the term “climate or eco-anxiety.” This idea of depression and true despair over the state of environment which children and teenagers may have. So, as a pediatrician, I’m very cognizant of the balance. I want parents to understand the reality of it. On Facebook and Instagram, I’m honestly there to influence other family units. Although I have a lot of kids that follow me, I’m truly there to influence adults. I think it’s very important to teach children how to take care of the environment, but sometimes, I think kids know a lot more about these things than we do. My kids are fifteen and twelve years old, but the more I learn about this kind of stuff, the more they tell me that they’re already informed. They already knew about Ecosia, that one search engine that plants trees for searches. They know about that one YouTuber who raised money to plant twenty million trees. For me, as an adult, there’s not much I’m teaching kids since they knew it already. All I can do is add more support, be a cheerleader for them, and try to reach families who aren’t aware of how empowering the environmental movement is. That’s what I’m trying to show the world: big and small acts have the power to make impact, especially with the #BeTheChange movement. You have to own a change in yourself first before you create a change in the world. I’ll be honest with you and say I LOVE picking up trash and making trash art. I’ve accepted my oddness, and so have my kids. Realizing little acts that you make, whether it’s being a litter picker like me or a writer like yourself, is what inevitably leads to bigger changes. The problem with the world now, especially with COVID, is this sense of powerlessness. We’re helpless against a pandemic, the environmental movement, against the oil lobbying, use of plastic, and food subsidies. What I try to tell kids is that the health of our population is also in great detriment with more people becoming obese. Although it isn’t our own individual fault, the world is to blame. We still have power, despite all this. I don’t usually tell people I go to Harvard or the fact that I’m an assistant boss since I want to showcase how normal I am. A normal person can go around to pick up trash to being in the LA Times, which is crazy. The more people change their mindset about their potential, the more we can achieve. I’m very hopeful now because people from work, my friends, my connections in Boston all tell me how inspired they feel because of me. I may not see eye to eye with everyone I meet, but we can all agree that the Earth is ultimately dying. So yes, I generally do think it’s important to talk to kids about the environment, but also, in a positive way that they can make change. I’m mentally an introverted person, but I love picking up trash with younger kids because they feel so accomplished after picking up one can they see lying on the ground. It’s not about the biggest bag of trash, it’s about the trash YOU pick up. It’s a metaphor for anything. Anyone can pick up trash, anyone can be an environmentalist. I never thought I’d call myself that, but I’ve come to embrace the identity as an eco activist.
AN: How frequently do you pick up litter and what kinds of things do you find?
VN: I typically pick up litter at least three to five times a week with a goal of at least twenty bags of trash a month, but I enjoy it. Initially, I felt like I needed to go to the beach to do it, so I would jog around there since I lived close by. I was never a beach person unlike most typical San Diegans. I never go into the water, but I wear my tennis shoes, I get my grabber and my gloves, and get reused bags. It’s so cool, too, because every day is different! Some days, you’ll only pick up a couple of pieces, on others, you’ll pick up a huge bag. Sure, I may be a doctor and feel good about what I do. But in a sense, I feel obliged to do it because it’s my career and I get paid for it, so I better do a darn great job. There, more responsibility is attached. Nobody orders me around to pick up trash, and it’s fun! With every piece of trash I pick up, I think to myself, “Nobody would have picked this up in the first place!” I think trash is really interesting, just because if I walk by the same piece of litter on the ground for a week, nobody would have picked it up. The assumption that somebody else is going to pick up the litter is false because it’s been the reality for me in my neighborhood for at least a year. A great example would be those flattened aluminum cans people run over all the time because nobody seems to pick them up but me!
AN: What things do you write about on your blog?
VN: I have a goal of picking up at least twenty bags a month and I keep track on my blog. I keep my tabs on how many cans I’ve picked up and how many bags I’ve recycled just because I’m a very number-oriented person. On my blog, I do some things on personal finance where I also record how much money I put towards environmentalism. When I panic about the state of the environment, all I have to do is look at my blog and I feel more at peace. Part of me never realized how popular my blog would be since some of my colleagues tell me that they’ve read my latest posts. I may be writing for myself, but I refer to my blog for that sense of peace. In my mind, I calculate, “Okay, if I salvage one hundred shirts, I donate them back, wash them, recycle them. then I will have saved two hundred thousand gallons of water since that’s how much people in Pakistan would need to make a shirt.” I know these numbers from the back of my hand since I’ve saved about seven thousand acres of rainforest, as well as saving and planting about two hundred eleven thousand trees through donations. I honestly haven’t spent that much, though, since I’m very strategic about how much I spend towards organizations that match and/or triple my funds.
AN: What are some of your favorite things about the environmentalist community? What are some things you dislike?
VN: It’s funny you ask that since, on Instagram, there’s probably around fifteen hundred of us worldwide who pick up trash and we make art out of it. It’s a positive community, so my favorite part would be comparing the litter we find and we’d say things like, “Oh my gosh, it’s so weird you found that doll head,” and the same would apply to fake fingers. It’s just odd what people find. I do some art for fun, but I know there are people who do that professionally. Some things I disliked at first was the scrutiny of picking up trash as an adult. I’m very open with my journey, and like I said, I do what I do mostly for kids and myself. We need to talk it up and let people know how we feel. Rarely, I’ve gotten those odd looks and remarks from adults who say, “huh-” when reacting to me being a litter picker. I’m just glad that I’ve never had to explain myself to anyone, even my own kids. They reassure me by saying, “I get you, mom,” when I’m in denial of what I’m doing is weird. I ask them, “Is this okay, is this weird of me?” and my children encourage me, telling me, “Mom, why be normal? No one’s normal!” They’re very cool kids, and I just don’t want to embarrass them. I also appreciate your support as well.
AN: How did you get the name “Dr. Plastic Picker?”
VN: On my blog, I write about everyone in my life as if they’re a character. For example, my best friend at work would be addressed as “Dr. Dear Friend,” but I don’t include names of people and places to keep some anonymity. It comes from this older book called The House of God by Samuel Shem that is typically read for fun during medical training. Half the reason why I’ve been so popular is because of the name, which was actually thought up by my husband. He’s also a doctor, so I refer to him as “Mr. Plastic Picker” on my blog. My husband majored in English in college and was the type to write short stories in high school. Everyone makes the assumption that he’s always been in the medical field, but I honestly don’t like those stereotypes. My husband is a phenomenal person, one of the reasons being that he’s brilliant and he’s been writing from a very young age. He doesn’t have much time to write anymore, but he’s my editor, so I give credit to him in all my pieces. I have to acknowledge him, a Harvard-educated Shakespeare major, as the creator of my name. In addition to that, Dr. Pimple Popper had to be my inspiration as well since the alliteration is very powerful and makes my name catchier. That way, people can sense the familiarity. Unlike her, I don’t want to monetize what I do, but I might trademark eventually. At one point, I actually had people approach me asking to buy my blog content, which I thought was pretty odd. I don’t have any ads either, and I like to think I give free entertainment, wholesome amusement for the world.
AN: Do you believe that COVID-19 has worsened the impact we have on the environment?
VN: There’s been a lot of conversation within the environmentalist community about COVID and the environmental movement. There’s definitely been a lot of masks and gloves I’ve picked up lately, but in the whole scheme of pollution, but I don’t think it’s that much more. People still litter, and it’s not as if they’ve stopped during quarantine. Sure, there may be more plastic pollution with food products from wrappers, PPE, and masks, but on the plus side, there is less greenhouse gas emissions from less people driving. During the environmental movement, there’s been this hesitancy to address the positives due to the pandemic. People are suffering being out of work, there are skyrocketing rates of depression and suicide, mental health worldwide is plummeting, and death is everywhere. Currently, things are restructuring and people are rethinking how they should live their lives. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I tell people that the one thing that COVID has taught me is that no one knows everything. Every week is different for some people, while for others, it could be the same routine. In the end, we should all take responsibility for the environmental movement, no matter what background we come from. What pains me is that, at the end of the day, we can’t save this Earth with only half the population. The damage that has already been done is prevalent. Everything is politically fragmented and COVID is taking a toll on a lot of us. We can’t do this only with the Democrats, or the environmentalists, so everything we do must be a collective effort. I grew up conservative, but I’ve been more liberal than everyone else in my family. My take on things is that if I can impact people like my family, the non-believers, then I’ve already made my contribution.
Written by writer Arlene Nagtalon