• Image about Dee Nguyen
Berlin comes up to bat.
Laurie Vogt Hartman

At 10 years old, Berlin resembles his mom, with a sunny openness to his mien: When he first meets you, he’s all smiles and eye contact as he repeats your name, getting used to the sound. Yet as he taps his stick on the plate and stares at the coach who is throwing batting practice, a hint of the old man’s Diesel look flashes in his brown eyes.

“Let’s go, Berlin!” exhorts another parent. Several of the parents are in the field with the players, helping them keep their focus on the batter. Given the variety of cognitive and physical challenges the kids face — some have Down syndrome, and Berlin is one of two players in a wheelchair — they can be easily distracted.

Berlin bats lefty, gripping his purple aluminum bat with his right hand. (His left hand tends to stay clenched.) The coach tosses the first pitch underhand from about 20 feet away. Berlin takes his cut and makes contact, blooping it just past the pitcher. He misses the next half-dozen or so, then connects again, once more pushing it past the mound. He drops the bat, beaming as his father pushes him down to first.

“He loves baseball,” Dee Nguyen says after practice as he pushes his son back to their ramp-equipped Toyota Sienna. “I love the Lakers, so I keep trying to get him into watching basketball, but I think it just moves too fast for him.”

Caring for Berlin has been a full-time job since before he was born. But taking care of a child with special needs isn’t the first daunting challenge his parents have overcome.

Dee was born Dung Quoc Nguyen in Da Nang, Vietnam, in 1971. As far back as he can remember, his family was trying to get out of the Communist-controlled country and into the U.S. There were failed escape attempts, including one in 1981 after which both Dee and his father were jailed. Dee’s father made it to the U.S. in 1983. After a year in a Hong Kong refugee camp and six months in the Philippines, Dee and his mother joined Dee’s father in Long Beach, Calif., in 1985.

Both Dee’s mother and father operated their own nail and hair salons, saving up for Dee’s college education, while Dee Americanized his first name, earned excellent grades and took Advanced Placement classes, with an eye on medical school. “My parents, especially my mom, guided my head in that direction,” he says.

Dee started at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), in 1993. Linh Hua was also planning on becoming a doctor; she started at UCR the same year. Dee was best friends with Linh’s brother Ba Linh; when Ba Linh Hua was stricken with lupus that year and then died at age 21, Dee and Linh became very close.