VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System
The Great Pursuit
It’s a California-fall day in San Diego, the ocean stands strong and calm as the sunlight dances on its surface. A cool breeze blows off the water and with it the winds of change as one man stands ready to receive the fruits of his labor. On October 24, 2020, Donald Sze, D.M.D, lead dentist, acting chief of Dental, and chief of Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery for VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System (VAGLAHS), was promoted to the rank of rear admiral lower half at the U.S. Third Fleet Headquarters in San Diego, Calif.
The Faith of a Mustard Seed
It is the early 1960s and three-year-old Sze is living in Beijing, China with his parents and older sisters. According to Sze, his parents wanted to leave China because of the communist government, so they charted a course for Hong Kong.
“My grandfather had a business in Hong Kong, which was a British Colony at that time,” Sze said. “My mother needed medical care, so she requested to have surgeries and get her care in Hong Kong. China approved the request for my mother, myself and my second oldest sister, so the three of us were approved to leave for Hong Kong and then to return.”
However, Hong Kong denied their entries so they went to the Portuguese colony of Macau and from there an attempt was made to smuggle the family into Hong Kong via a fishing boat. The moment they entered Hong Kong’s territorial waters, Sze, his mother and sister were arrested by the Royal Hong Kong Coast Guard and placed in a detention center. Fortunately, Sze’s grandfather was able to put up a financial guarantee for their release which enabled them to remain in the city and later become permanent residents of Hong Kong.
“After we obtained our residency in Hong Kong, my father told the Chinese immigration office ‘I miss my family, I miss my wife, I want to go and visit them in Hong Kong’. They let him leave, but they held my eldest sister as collateral so there was a reason for him to return,” Sze said. “I was told that the minute my father left China, my oldest sister went to the immigration department every day and cried. I was told she did it for one year and finally just to get rid of her, they said you can leave too. So, then she came out and the family reunited in Hong Kong, under the British.”
Then in the late sixties, Communist leader Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in order to reassert his authority over the Chinese Communist Party.
“There were riots on the street and homemade bombs,” Sze recalls of that time. His father realized that Hong Kong was no longer safe and began looking for a place to relocate his family. The first stop was Brazil, but he determined it wasn’t where he wanted to settle. Then he looked at the United States.
“America to most Asians is the golden mountain,” Sze said. “It represents the American dream where one can better oneself. The whole family was looking forward to leaving Hong Kong, but the minor anxiety was we didn’t know where and we didn’t know what life would be like in a new country, learning a new language.”
As luck would have it, Sze’s mother already had relatives based in California so after careful consideration, the decision was made that the family would move to the U.S.
A Dream Realized
“My father came to the United States with one hundred dollars in his pocket. He worked 16-hour days for two years straight, with only one day off,” Sze said. “Eventually the restaurant he worked at sponsored him for permanent residency as a chef because at that time, there was a lack of Chinese chefs.”
After two years, Sze’s father got his Permanent Resident Card, commonly known as a Green Card, and he used half the money he had saved from his time working in the restaurant to bring the rest of his family to the United States.
Two weeks after Sze's arrival in the U.S., he began the eighth grade. According to his teachers, Sze and his sisters were two years ahead in math and science, so he was excused from those classes for the next two years and placed in an English as a Second Language class instead. Approximately six months after his arrival, Sze was 50-60% fluent in English.
“Shortly after we got here, my family opened up a family restaurant in Santa Monica,” Sze said. “All 5 of us worked there. Right after school, I’d ride my bicycle and go to the restaurant and help out and work until about 9 p.m.”
Because he had to go work in the restaurant, Sze tried to leverage the time he had during recess and lunch to get all his homework done. His work ethic paid off and upon graduating high school, Sze was accepted into the University of Southern California (USC). It was at USC that he would earn his undergraduate degree and meet his wife.
“After I graduated from USC I got accepted to a few dental schools and chose the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey. Me and my wife’s honeymoon was driving across the country,” Sze said jovially.
After four years of dental school Sze completed his Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery certification in Jersey City, N.J. Upon completion of his specialty training, Sze became the attending oral surgeon at Jersey City Medical Center and he served in this capacity while simultaneously joining a private practice.
Sze and his expectant-wife decided to move back to California and upon their return to the West Coast, Sze completed the Craniofacial Implant fellowship at the University of California Los Angeles. He then went into private practice for three and a half years before deciding that he preferred institutionalized healthcare more.
“In a private practice, you have to do business marketing and I’m not the entrepreneur business type; I don’t like to wine and dine people,” Sze said. “There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just not for me, so I came to the VA. At the VA, you don’t have to do marketing you just take care of the patient the best you can, mentor the residents, share your knowledge and train the next generation.”
Now, after more than two decades of dedicated military and federal service and attaining a rank that many only dream of, it is the people Sze serves who remain at the center of the pride he takes in his work. His gusto for serving others has not gone unnoticed.
“A promotion to flag rank in the Navy demonstrates the confidence that our national military leaders have in Admiral (Dr.) Sze’s potential for innovation and operational leadership. He demonstrates that here at GLA every day,” said Steven E. Braverman, M.D., director, VAGLAHS. “We’re proud to have Admiral Sze as a leader and expert clinician on our GLA team.”
And after nearly 24 years of service at VAGLAHS, Sze says he’s never been more proud to work at the VA as he is during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“Whatever I have accomplished, it is because of my team. I’ve got great people to work with who are supportive and not just within my department. Within the dental department, 99% of the people just rogered up and put their personal fears aside to take care of our patients,” Sze said. “It’s just so good to work with this team especially during the pandemic and I’m totally supported by the leadership, my people and my colleagues from other departments.”
It was about three years into Sze’s tenure at VAGLAHS when he started thinking to himself what else he could do to thank the country for the American Dream.
“It was President Kennedy who once said ‘ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.’,” Sze said. “I think of the country as a bank; every citizen should make a small deposit because if you just take and take and take, sooner or later the country will go bankrupt. My way of thanking the country is by my service so I thought to myself ‘what can I do’?”
Summiting the Mountain
The first thing Sze did when he got the urge to serve was ask his wife what her thoughts were on him going into the military. She was in full support and out of respect, Sze told his parents next.
“I went up to dad and asked him his thoughts and his response kind of surprised me a little bit because he has very traditional thinking,” Sze said. “The traditional thinking is you don’t get a job with the government because in Chinese history, there’s a lot of corruption with the government officials and the military. But when I told my dad he looked at me and said ‘you should, you’re an American now’.”
First, Sze looked into the Sheriff’s Reserve, then the Police Reserve, then the U.S. Air Force Reserve before deciding to join the Navy Reserve. He was commissioned as a lieutenant commander.
“Joining the Navy was a little bit like a boy scout adventure. I’m going into this unknown, I’m going to challenge myself, see if I can survive or adapt and see what comes of it,” Sze said. “The minute I joined the military I liked it because things have structure. Everything has rules, regulations and policy and that just fits me perfectly.”
For Sze, the transition to military life was not a difficult one and he looked forward to the two weeks a year of active duty so that he could go to a different part of the United States to practice his specialty.
Over the course of his 22 year military career Sze has served as executive officer for Naval Dental Center Southwest; senior dental executive, director for administration, and executive officer for Operational Health Support Unit Camp Pendleton; executive officer for Operational Health Support Unit San Diego; acting deputy commander, Naval Medical Center San Diego; deputy commander for Navy Personnel, Landstuhl Regional Army Medical Center; chief of staff, Navy Reserve Expeditionary Medicine, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, for Expeditionary Medical Facilities (EMF) Dallas, Great Lakes, Camp Pendleton, and Bethesda; reserve fleet surgeon, U.S. Third Fleet; and chief staff officer for Defense Support of Civil Authorities.
His command tours include Naval Dental Center Camp Pendleton; 4th Dental Company, 4th Dental Battalion, 4th Marine Logistics Group; Operational Health Support Unit San Diego; and Navy Expeditionary Medical Unit 15, Landstuhl, Germany.
“In the Navy, I’m most proud of the ability to take care of my Sailors and Marines, lead, and being given the chance to lead,” Sze said. “I always love new challenges so that’s what drives me partially and the other part is giving back. I also have the mentality of ‘somebody has to do it, why not me?’ Unless I’m totally unqualified, but I’ll never know if I don’t try.”
Sze was looking forward to the 2020 Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) as his last hurrah before his retirement, which was set to take place later this year. Then in late July, Sze was confirmed by the senate for promotion to rear admiral lower half. Following his promotion, Sze was assigned as the deputy commander, Naval Medical Force Support Command (Reserve); deputy medical officer of the Marine Corps; chief, Navy Reserve Dental Corps.
“My proudest accomplishment in the military was leading my Navy Reserve Medicine team when I was stationed in Landstuhl, Germany providing support to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and taking care of the wounded warriors. Serving in the military makes me better able to understand my Veteran patients because we can speak a common language,” Sze said. “I take care of service members on active duty and then when I come to the VA I take care of them after they’re discharged from active duty so from A to Z, I get to take care of the Veterans.”