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Sonny Duong smiling.
Sonny Duong has made a career helping low-income patients. His path to becoming a dentist began with a nail salon and a path-changing friendship. (Courtesy photo)

By Leah Small

University Public Affairs

A child of refugees, VCU School of Dentistry alumnus Sonny Duong (B.S.’05/H&S; D.D.S.’10/D) worked arduously to help his family pay bills. A string of odd jobs held by his parents — ranging from food service to a family business sewing garments and car seat covers in their Orange County, California, home — ensured survival.

Duong, who is of Chinese and Vietnamese descent, fled to Hong Kong from Vietnam in 1978 at age 6 with his older sister, mother and father. They settled in the United States two years later.

“I remember my parents working multiple jobs and we hardly ever saw them, even on the weekends,” Duong said. “At the time, we didn’t think much about it, but my sister and I kind of took care of ourselves. We had to cook and learn how to fend for ourselves while our parents went from job to job.”

Duong said his upbringing “instilled in him a work ethic” that propelled him through dental school and fostered “empathy and understanding for people who don’t have access to health care.” For 10 years, Duong has been part of a team of practitioners at the Community Health Center of the Rappahannock Region that provide behavioral, medical and dental health services to low-income patients.

But the 47-year-old said that at one time he believed he “didn’t have the capacity” for such a successful career.

Sonny Duong stands with five of his dental practice colleagues.
Duong and his staff at the Community Health Center of the Rappahannock Region in Fredericksburg, Virginia. (Courtesy photo)

“I had only graduated from high school. I didn’t have a college degree or any college experience, so I didn’t have the confidence to do anything,” Duong said.

As a self-described troubled teen, Duong had a few run-ins with the law before moving away from his family to Central Virginia in the early ‘90s. He supported himself by working as a nail technician.

That was until a path-changing friendship with Hazel Luton, who held teaching and administrative positions in the School of Dentistry for 42 years before retiring in 2017. Her career was marked by community service and student mentorship. Luton met Duong as one of his customers in the nail salon where he worked and encouraged him to study dentistry after taking note of his intelligence and dexterity.

“I remember I was very rebellious [as a young man],” Duong said. “There’s no one that could tell me anything or encourage me to do anything, but somehow Hazel did.”

Guiding the way

Duong is one of numerous VCU School of Dentistry alumni who describe Luton — who died March 12 after battling uterine, breast, liver, back and brain cancer for several years — as a surrogate mother who was even known to open her home to students in need.

From 1975 to 2016, Luton served as a dental assistant instructor, HIPAA compliance coordinator and an assistant to the dean of clinics at the School of Dentistry. Two endowments have been established in her name — one that rewards outstanding service to students by a staff member and one that funds a scholarship for students with high academic achievement who share Luton’s compassionate nature and commitment to community service.

A smiling woman holding a telephone receiver to her right ear.
Hazel Luton (Courtesy photo)

Luton was a beloved mentor of Duong’s for over 20 years and encouraged him through his academic career. Prior to graduating with a degree in dentistry in 2010, Duong earned an associate degree in dental laboratory technology from J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College and a bachelor’s degree in biology from VCU. He is the first person in his family to graduate from college. Throughout Duong’s undergraduate studies in biology, Luton remained his customer at the salon where he worked after morning classes.

“Hazel said something like, “well, you know, it might take you 10 years to [graduate], but in 10 years you could be a dental lab technician or a nail technician, or you could be a dentist,” Duong remembered. “Time will always pass.”

Duong was one of hundreds of people from the School of Dentistry who visited Luton in her last days. As a final gesture, Duong did her nails one final time the night before she died.

“Since my mother is not here on the East Coast, [Luton] has always been someone who was a constant in my life,” Duong said. “She was more than a mother. She was a friend who gave me guidance.”

This article was originally published by VCU News.

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