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February 13, 2007 > Courage to face tomorrow

Courage to face tomorrow

By Steve Warga

When Milpitas dentist, Marlene Mao, was awakened by her father calling to say, "The building is on fire," she first thought he meant his own home. But that was because the Vietnamese language does not include words to identify a particular type of building; every structure is a "building." What he was trying to tell her was, "Your office is on fire!"

Once she understood her father's message, Mao rushed to the scene and confronted her worst fears come true. Most likely triggered by a faulty extension cord, a fire had gutted not only her offices and equipment, but also those of the other businesses leasing space from her in the storefront building on the corner of North Milpitas Blvd. and Dixon Landing Road.

Nearly 30 years after she and her family risked their lives to escape the tyranny of a post-war Viet Cong regime in Vietnam, the young girl who learned to love America had pushed herself to a high level of success. This only came to her after surviving as one of the "boat people" who risked harrowing and deadly passage across the South China Sea to Malaysia and its teeming refugee camps. Thanks to United Nations assistance, Mao, her siblings and parents ultimately found their way to the Fremont area. Her once prosperous family counted all of $100 dollars to their name.

Following in the footsteps of her father and grandfather, Mao finished college and went on to study dentistry; established a thriving practice on that Milpitas corner and saved enough money to purchase the building from her landlord at the dawn of our newest century. At a certain age when many women (and men) begin to feel that life is passing them by, this woman of pure Chinese heritage and Vietnamese childhood found herself on top of the world in her adopted homeland.

All was well until the awful night when cruel fate struck another bitter blow. "I lost everything in that fire," Mao told the Milpitas City Council last December, then immediately apologized for the emotion she could not entirely quell. She haltingly explained to council members that the loss of all she had accrued in her beloved profession left her thoroughly despondent, even to the point of wanting to quit dentistry entirely.

Compounding her loss was the fact that her insurance coverage was out of date. With the exception of two, ultra-modern digital x-ray machines, Mao's office equipment and furnishings were all paid off. However, updating her insurance coverages was one of those mundane chores she had delayed addressing. Ironically, she very nearly reached for the phone to call her agent only hours before the fire struck.

"Since I see patients on Saturday, I usually take Thursday off. But that Friday in November of '04, I had promised my sister and mother I would go to a concert in the city with them. I stopped by the office about 4:45 that afternoon and looked at the pile of insurance policy papers on the corner of my desk. I remember the time because I thought, 'I could still reach my agent before five.'"

Mao has wondered ever since whether she had a premonition of the next morning's events. Not acting on her thought to call the agent meant she was clear of any suspicion from fire investigators trying to determine the blaze's origins. But it also meant her insurance settlement would be far less than the actual value of her losses. This made the task of rebuilding all the more daunting and contributed to her growing inclination to quit altogether. She struggled with her decision for many weeks, until a chance encounter at a shopping mall only a few days before Christmas.

"I went shopping, but I wasn't really there, you know? The body was there, but the soul was not. Have you seen the dentist offices that are going up in malls lately? Well, I walked by one of those offices and could see into one of the rooms. There was a lone dentist working on a patient in the chair. Out in the mall, I could hear the song, 'Jingle Bells' playing."

"I thought to myself, 'How sad for the patient and for the dentist who had to work late right before Christmas. Suddenly, I realized, 'That's me! I should be doing that right now.' So I knew that I'm all about dentistry and dentistry is all about me. That's when I decided to pick up the pieces."

This was easier said then done. But like a broken bone that heals stronger than ever, Mao faced 2005 with renewed energy. She talks of gaining courage to let tomorrow be what it will be. "Three years ago, before the fire, I thought I knew what my future would be. I had a thriving practice and I was in a relationship that had me thinking about starting a family. Then the fire happened. Now I know to take one day at a time."

Mao may be small in stature, but she walks with giant steps through the land she feels fortunate to live in. Evidence of this can be found in how she has chosen to go well beyond a simple renovation of her existing building. Working closely with San Francisco architect, David Mena, Mao secured approval from the city to build a structure, larger, taller and far more attractive on her corner lot. Its three stories will triple the total floor space of the old building. She envisions occupying the entire second floor while leasing the ground floor to other professionals or retail vendors. The top floor will enclose three residential apartments.

Along with Mena, Mao credits Milpitas' new city manager, Tom Williams, with suggesting a more dramatic exterior design. While still the city's Planning Director, Williams pointed out the high visibility location of Mao's land. Situated at the city's northern access from Interstate 880, any building at that location attracts a lot of attention from motorists. He and Mao urged the architect to soften the building's edges and corners. Changes have resulted in a graceful, flowing structure that promises to be most appealing. Ground-breaking is planned in May and the project should be completed around the end of summer, 2008.

Once finished, all visitors and residents entering Milpitas from the north off Dixon Landing Road will be treated to the sight of a building attractive and distinctive enough to become a favorite landmark. But beyond its appearance, perhaps only a few will ever fully appreciate how that building will symbolize the realization of one woman's American dream.

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