Vanderbilt University Medical Center

News and information for the Vanderbilt University Medical Center community

Toggle navigation
Employee Spotlight

On a whim, Kaylon Bruner-Tran checked her family’s DNA. It led to family she didn’t know she had and a mother-son reunion after 50 years.

"Cultures can be very different, nothing is more powerful than family.”

by September 13, 2021

Kaylon Bruner-Tran. Photo by Erin O. Smith

Kaylon Bruner-Tran, PhD, professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, is a researcher who has extensively studied the effects of dioxin, the toxic component in Agent Orange which continues to cause disease and birth defects in veterans, children of veterans and the people of Vietnam.

While her research has brought her close to Vietnam in a professional setting, on a personal level she was already close to that country: Bruner-Tran married a Vietnamese man in 1999, and they had two sons.

But it was the spontaneous purchase of AncestryDNA kits for her family that brought her still closer to Vietnam by revealing a connection she never knew existed.

Bruner-Tran was interested in learning more about the DNA profiles of her children. She purchased four AncestryDNA kits for the family, who submitted saliva samples, and sent the samples off for analysis. Two weeks later, results came in.

Her first son to receive results was 47% Vietnamese, 3% Chinese, 40% Northern European, 7% Irish and 3% German. Her results were next — mostly Northern European, with a hefty dose of Irish. Next was her children’s father, who was 70% Vietnamese and 30% Chinese. Her other son had almost identical results to his brother, but more Irish.

Kaylon Bruner-Tran, with son Kendrick, ex-husband Ken and son Keaton. It was a curiosity about her sons’ DNA that led to a family member they didn’t know about, and reunited that family member with his birth mother. Photo courtesy Kaylon Bruner-Tran

“I just thought it would be interesting to see what the boys’ DNA results were,” Bruner-Tran said. “It was interesting, and the results all made sense, but we forgot about them pretty quickly.”

A few months later, Bruner-Tran was reminded of them when she received an email from someone through the Ancestry website with a DNA match to her family.

Bruner-Tran realized the man who reached out was related to her children and to their father. The man who wrote’s file showed he was Nigerian, Congolese, Ethiopian, Vietnamese and Chinese.

Bruner-Tran was puzzled because she thought she already knew all of her Vietnamese family. Naturally, she wondered who the man was.

After connecting with the man, named Kale Evans, she learned that he had grown up in California, raised by his father, an African American Vietnam veteran, and his mother, also African American. He had a somewhat lighter skin tone than his parents, but his loving family and comfortable home environment led him to ignore the questions that sometimes troubled him.

But after both of his parents died, Evans made a discovery that changed his knowledge of his background. He was going through papers at their house and found a Vietnamese passport. The name on the passport was not familiar to him, but the date of birth was very familiar.

It was his.

Evans decided to have his DNA tested, which confirmed that he was part Vietnamese. From there, he connected with the Bruner-Tran family’s profiles in hopes of finding his biological mother.

But after both of his parents died, Kale Evans made a discovery that changed his knowledge of his background. He was going through papers at their house and found a Vietnamese passport. The name on the passport was not familiar to him, but the date of birth was very familiar. It was his.

Bruner-Tran quickly joined the effort, calling her ex-husband’s family for answers. She learned that her husband’s aunt had had a child with an American serviceman, and the serviceman had taken the child back to the United States where his wife agreed to raise him as their own. She also learned that her husband’s aunt, Evans’ birth mother, had moved to France after the war.

Even as the decades passed, she never forgot about her son. Across the years and across the ocean, she would think of him and hope that he had a happy life in the United States.

In December 2019, the series of connections and coincidences came together. With the help of a translator, Skype and Bruner-Tran’s sleuthing skills, after 50 years, Evans, who had lost both of the parents who raised him, connected with his birth mother.

Kale Evans and his birth mother Marguerite Pham. The two had not met in more than 50 years. Photo courtesy Kale Evans

Bruner-Tran has now written a fictionalized version of the discovery of her family’s long-lost relative, a book called Time Intertwined.

“I realized I was a conduit for this story, but that it wasn’t my story to tell,” she said. “Then it occurred to me I could write a fictional story inspired by this experience with Kale’s permission. He was very happy for me to do it and even shared a copy with his mother.”

With her background researching Agent Orange, she was able to tie that component of so many veterans and Vietnamese citizens’ lives into her book. Millions of people have suffered from illnesses caused by exposure to Agent Orange, a tactical herbicide the U.S. military used to clear leaves and vegetation for military operations during the Vietnam war.

“As I was writing the book, I realized it was an opportunity to talk about Agent Orange and bring some awareness to the topic,” Bruner-Tran said.

“I’ve learned so much throughout this process,” she said. “It’s helped me understand my sons’ family more. I’ve learned that although cultures can be very different, nothing is more powerful than family.”

Kaylon Bruner-Tran, Obstetrics and Gynecology, DNA