Taking care of his elderly grandmother for two years was a turning point in Randy Luu’s life, persuading him to turn his back on a business career and become a nurse.
“It’s the most important job I could have that requires me to use my brain and have the most impact,” said Luu. “I wanted my life to have some meaning.”
Luu didn’t know his grandmother very well when he quit his job to become her full-time caregiver. He had only met her a couple of times as a child before she emigrated to California from Hong Kong in her mid-80s. But with few relatives and his parents busy working, there was no one else to look after the 92-year-old, who was suffering from progressive dementia.
Every day, he bathed his grandmother, prepared her meals, and maintained a watchful eye to prevent her from wandering off. Often, he was up with her all hours of the night.
“The experience was humbling and eye-opening,” said Luu. “It taught me a lot about compassion.”
But her diminishing memory and a language barrier also made looking after her a challenging experience.
“She didn’t know who I was, so it was kind of sad,” said Luu.
Nevertheless, the experience convinced him that healthcare would be a better choice for him than his previous career in the insurance industry.
Shortly after his grandmother was placed in a board-and-care facility, Luu enrolled in SMU’s Entry Level Master in Nursing program in case management on the Sacramento campus in January 2017.
Luu dove head first into his SMU education and has been elected to the Student Body Association twice. Earlier this year, as part of his community health course, Luu raised funds and helped to organize a health fair where homeless people were provided with hygiene kits, HIV testing, dental services, nutritional counseling, and even a pop-up beauty shop.
“I chose to work with homeless and transient people to get more exposure to that population and see what I could do to help,” said Luu.
Though Luu was born and raised in San Jose, his parents’ journey to California was long and arduous. When the communists took over Vietnam in 1975, ethnic Chinese like the Luus were persecuted by the new government. After several failed attempts, the Luus fled Vietnam with few belongings and were forced to spend more than a year in a refugee camp in the Philippines en route to the United States.
“They went through quite a bit of trauma,” said Luu, adding that his parents offer few details about their experience as refugees.
Knowing little English, they initially settled in snowy Montana. It was a culture shock for them and a year later they hit the road for California. His father did odd jobs while going to school to learn electrical engineering, eventually landing a job at IBM, while his mother first sewed clothes and later worked on computer drives.
“By the time they were my age, they had to flee their country and completely start over,” Luu said. “I am forever grateful.”
With his parents busy building new livelihoods, Luu described he and his brother as latch-key kids who took care of themselves most of the time. He bonded with his mother on the weekends by watching her cook and together they viewed cooking shows. Luu said he developed an affinity for cooking and an aspiration to become a chef — a revered profession in Chinese culture.
“I think it’s one of the greatest gifts she’s given me,” said Luu, who still finds cooking therapeutic.
But instead of going to culinary school, he worked his way through college and relied on scholarships, ending up with a finance degree. Luu spent eight years working in the insurance industry, an experience he describes as “soulless” and unsatisfying.
Now 33 years old, Luu has no regrets about his career change.
“Insurance is not as rewarding; it’s all about money,” he says. “Healthcare for me is about making a worthwhile impact.”