Young lawyer’s inspirational story highlights the importance of mentoring

A lawyer who recently lost his father to cancer has undertaken an altruistic project to help others in similar shoes: He says his story highlights the importance of mentoring in the profession

James Nguyen spent countless hours staring at the blank walls of the waiting room in the Cancer Therapy Centre in Liverpool Hospital while his father was undergoing chemotherapy.

But rather than dwell on the darkness of his situation, Nguyen, a legal counsel at Rabobank, decided to do something that would make the experience a little bit more positive for other people in similar shoes.

As a result, he undertook a journey to ensure that the waiting room walls received some colour and hope.

He successfully organised for 13 paintings from the local Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre to be hung up in the Cancer Therapy Centre for patients and their carers to enjoy.

In an interview with Australasian Lawyer, Nguyen says not only is his story is an example of the importance of lawyers serving altruistic purposes, but it also highlights the huge value in having mentors.

His father, who sadly passed away just a couple of weeks ago, had been fighting colon cancer for the past five years.

Nguyen would accompany him to the centre to have his chemotherapy treatment, a gruelling process that can take hours at a time.

“While I was sitting in there for hours on end, I was noticing how bare the walls really were,” he says.

So he decided to do something about it. Wanting to keep it local, Nguyen’s searches led him to the doorstep of the Casula Powerhouse, an arts centre that boasts an extensive collection of more than 30,000 pieces.

He got in contact with the registrar there who absolutely loved his idea and agreed to support the cause.

With the art problem solved, Nguyen’s next hurdle came in getting traction within Liverpool Hospital.

Although staff were supportive and thought the project would be of value for both patients and their carers; those that Nguyen approached were understandably extremely busy saving lives and with the day-to-day running of the hospital.

“I thought, ‘I just need an in to pitch this at a high enough level’,” he says.

He didn’t know it yet, but his ‘in’ was closer to home than he realised. Nguyen has a business and legal mentor, Richard Alcock, who he meets up with on a regular basis.

As well as being the managing director, head of government transactions at Merrill Lynch, Alcock also just so happens to be the deputy chairman of the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Networks (Randwick and Westmead).

Nguyen was surprised and delighted to discover this fact after mentioning his project over a business lunch with Alcock. The mentor liked the idea, and agreed to bring it up at the next hospital board meeting that same week.

“He came back and said, ‘I think they’re excited about the project’,” says Nguyen. “It just took off from there – we went to meet the hospital and got all the approvals.”

The next task was selecting the pieces to be hung on the Cancer Therapy Centre walls from among the multitudes of artworks sitting in the Casula Powerhouse archives.

For this honour, Nguyen enlisted his dad, who looked through scores of photos of the paintings to select just the right ones.

And then it was time to hang the work on the walls.

Although Nguyen’s father sadly passed away the weekend before the project’s official launch, he did manage to see the work on the day it was hung.

“I’m chuffed he got to see the final project, he’s been a part of this the whole way,” says Nguyen.

And in another lovely surprise, the general manager of the hospital announced that the corridor leading to the room will be called the “The Van Man Nguyen Walk”, in memory of Nguyen’s father, the man who inspired it all.

The young Nguyen says his father encouraged him to be everything he is today, including a lawyer.

“He always [taught] me the value of education,” he says. “When he was 10 years old, his old man got forcibly taken away from the family…he had to become the man of the house and quit school for two years.

“He used to walk by the school gate and just look in. I remember him saying to me, ‘all I wanted was to be a part of that’. That image stuck with me throughout my schooling and education…it makes you realise whatever discomfort you may be feeling, here is an opportunity that someone else wasn’t afforded.”

It’s a message Nguyen has always lived by, and he’s also heavily involved in the Ngoc Tram Nguyen scholarship through the University of New South Wales, where he studied law.

The scholarship to study law at UNSW is awarded to disadvantaged students from South West Sydney each year.

Over the past three years, Nguyen has helped raise an impressive $140,000 for the project.

He says just about helping out and using your skillset where there is a need.

In another example of this, he recently got chatting to the daughter of a woman that had been diagnosed with the fast-growing pancreatic cancer.

To ease the burden on the family, the lawyer offered to draft up Enduring Power of Attorney and Enduring Guardianship documents for them, something he’d just had to do for his father.

“You look at the doctors and the nurses and say that what they’re doing is amazing, but even then I was able to help with the skillset I have as a lawyer,” he says.

He’s now looking to his next project, and is in talks with the hospital to launch a similar concept of artwork for the Palliative Care Ward where his father also spent a lot of time.

He thinks photos, rather than paintings, will be a neat thing to put up this time around.

He says the invaluable altruistic feats he’s achieved would not have been possible without good mentors, role models and networks.

“Unless you have a great team around you, great ideas remain just that – great ideas.”

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