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Reliving a young man’s terminal illness

Roy Vongtama was brutally honest when he interviewed for a residency post in 2001 at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine in Los Angeles.

Dr. Hubert Rodney Withers, one of the top radiation oncologists in the world, already had gone to school on Vongtama, and learned he also planned to interview at the acclaimed University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Withers asked Vongtama why an aspiring specialist who grew up and went to medical school in Buffalo would choose UCLA instead.

“Because I want to be an actor,” Vongtama told him.

“Great,” Withers said. “I wanted to be an actor, but my parents wouldn’t let me. If you train here, I think this is perfect for you. I like people who are really creative, and I’ll support you.”

Vongtama, 42, will return to his hometown next week to provide a glimpse of what has happened since he merged medicine and acting 15 years ago. “After the Rain,” a feature film he produced, will be shown at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Tonawanda Castle, 69 Delaware St., City of Tonawanda, as part of the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival.

The film is based on a true story of a young man with a terminal illness. It explores the man’s relationship with his girlfriend, mother, best friend and himself.

“It’s something I was interested in from a spiritual perspective: What questions does it bring up?” Vongtama said during a phone interview this week. “I’m not one to bash people over the head with the concept of God, but faced with this thing – and I say this to patients who come in a lot and say, ‘Well, Doc, how long do I have?’ – I always turn it around: ‘No one in this room gets out of here alive.’ That changes the temperature of the room a lot of times. It makes you take that question and think about it in a very real way and say, ‘One day this will happen, and when it’s not happening, what am I not doing now?’

“So the film has a message that comes not from the story itself, but the experience of the story.”

Vongtama plays a hospice nurse in the film. Cast members also include Catherine Hicks (the mom in “7th Heaven”), Daniel Bonjour (“Walking Dead”) and Steve Franken (“The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis”). Franken was diagnosed with cancer shortly before shooting began, chose to do the film, and has since died.

“After the Rain” is the latest chapter in an acting career that has made Vongtama’s parents uneasy at times. After he finished his residency, the trained radiation oncologist in 2005 bowed out of a couple medical job interviews because he had been offered his first part in a movie, “Beast Beneath.” His father was cool to the idea and his mother wouldn’t talk to him for months.

“They’re more supportive now,” he said.

Success helped. Vongtama played a doctor in the 2007 film, “The Bucket List,” acting in scenes with stars Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. He got to spend two days with Freeman and one with Nicholson, who told him he needed to get into the editing room if he wanted to have the creative freedom he craved. Vongtama also has been a guest star on shows that include “CSI,” “24” and “The Shield.”

He was last in Buffalo three years ago to debut a short film, “Crows,” also at the film festival. “After the Rain” is a 94-minute feature film.

Acting, Vongtama said, tends to be an up-and-down profession, so he supplements his income by subbing for other doctors in several Southern California cancer treatment centers, most of them UCLA-affiliated.

“People will tell me, ‘These are two disparate professions,’ ” he said. “It’s funny, because I don’t see it that way. Acting has taught me to learn how to listen, something doctors don’t always know how to do. They tend to know about giving advice. But what you really need, especially with cancer patients, is someone who can be empathetic. That’s something I learned directly from acting.”

His life experiences, and ongoing medical research, led him to believe that taking a holistic approach to cancer treatment tends to be the most effective. He’s also learned that approach isn’t for everybody.

“If I get a patient that says to me – ‘I have to eat vegetables?’ – that’s as far as I’ll go,” Vongtama said. “A lot of doctors say nutrition doesn’t matter, but there are plenty of studies that show it does.”

If he senses a patient is open to meditation, or exploring an unaddressed past emotional trauma – say a tragic event or family estrangement – he will discuss those possibilities.

“I always felt that healing can come from the outside, but a cure can only come from the inside. It’s something a patient has to take ownership of and responsibility for,” said Vongtama, who is working on what he called an evidence-based book that will be titled “Healing Before You’re Cured.”

Vongtama said he experienced “the good and bad” of growing up as one of the few Asian-Americans in a “culturally Buddhist” Southtowns home, and in Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school. He now follows a yogic spiritual path.

His parents, Vitune and Piak Vongtama, both practiced in Buffalo hospitals before moving about a decade ago to Stockton, Calif. His mother, an anesthesiologist, retired before the move; his father, and brother Dan, have a radiation oncology practice in Northern California.

“Canisius High School was interesting,” he said. “The Jesuits who ran it tend to be as rebellious as Catholics can be. They always encouraged a questioning attitude.”

Vongtama, who grew up in Orchard Park, has settled into Los Angeles nicely but looks forward to a visit here next week. “I really love it,” he said. “It’s multicultural, and there’s a lot of acceptance of different ways of being. Some people think it’s very superficial, but there are a lot of people around here who are among the best people I have ever met. With me being an actor, this is the place I need to be.”


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