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Doctor and Son Make Eye-Opening Trip to Africa

Dr. Michael Y. Wongs recent trip to Africa resulted in better vision for many people in Namibia; it also resulted in new perspective for the doctor and his 17-year-old son Matthew. Working in conditions very different from those at the Princeton Eye Group, which he cofounded, Dr. Wong restored over 100 patients from near total blindness to sight. On the journey, he also learned about the world, his son and himself.

The trip came about after Dr. Wong met someone from Surgical Eye Expeditions, a group thats the ophthalmic equivalent of Doctors without Borders, at a conference. After Dr. Wong indicated his willingness to volunteer his time and services, Surgical Eye Expeditions arranged for him to receive an invitation from Namibias Blindness Prevention Secretariat,” Dr. Ndume. Despite her grand title, she is the only ophthalmologist in charge of all the governments patients.

The Wongs met up with Dr. Ndume in Windhoek, the countrys capital and, carrying the lenses and sutures they would need, they headed out to Northern Namibia, near the border with Angola, to set up their clinic. Despite areas with US State Department safety warnings, they encountered no danger. What they did find were circumstances very different from those in Princeton.

Northern Namibia is home to a million people unserved by ophthalmology. The fact that the people there, for the most part, live in huts with thatched roofs and dirt floors posed no challenge. But, the fact that many of the people there believe in witchcraft made things difficult. They think that their cataracts,” Dr. Wong explains, are witchcraft punishments for earlier deeds, so they dont believe that modern medicine will help.”

Despite this common belief, the screeners who had been sent out before the Wongs visit had rounded up more than enough eager patients. Armed with penlights as their only diagnostic tool, these screeners found people whose eyes were clouded by cataracts that could be detected with the naked eye. Often, the patients could see some light and dark, but could not see the fingers on their hands.

We dont often see cataracts that thick in the US,” says Dr. Wong. Cataracts arent a big problem here, but they are the largest cause of preventable blindness in the world.”

At first, the team worked slowly because of communications difficulties with the nurses provided by the country. Soon, however, things accelerated to the point where 25 operations could be squeezed into an 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. day. In the end, the team did over 160 cases, with Dr. Wong doing over 100 of them himself.

The response from the Namibians was overwhelming. The Minister of Health sent his father to the camp for surgery. Patients who saw their children for the first time in years sang hymns for them and begged them to come back. Dr. Wong even got a call from the President of Namibia, Sam Nujoma.

Our short trip,” Dr. Wong says, could make a permanent difference in that area. For one, we left an autoclave and a microscope there for the next visiting doctors. More importantly, our patients will go back to their villages and spread the word that modern medicine can work.”

Despite all he accomplished, Dr. Wong is convinced he got much more out of the trip than he gave. The trip renewed his sense of why he went into medicine. When he was the age that his son is now, he had made the decision to become a doctor after reading about Tom Dooley, a medical missionary who served in Vietnam and Laos. He also gained some valuable insights.

His sense of geo-political realities was transformed by what he grasped about the lingering effects of colonialism and apartheid. Finding himself in the role of ambassador for the US, he gained new appreciation for the beauty and opportunity of his own country.

While he went to Africa out of a sense of their needs, he learned about one of his own. The lighting conditions in the eye clinic werent great, and he sometimes had difficulty seeing sutures. When I came back,” he reports, I had my brother Richard perform LASIK eye surgery on me to improve my vision.”

The most important learning, however, was about his son. Matthew, a trained Emergency Medical Technician, was invaluable on the trip. He tirelessly performed tasks beyond those usually expected of people with his training. I told him, Dr. Wong says, that the trip was the first time I saw him as a man, rather than a child.”

That, for Dr. Wong, is the ultimate value and irony of the trip. I went halfway across theworld and learned about someone who sits across the dinner table from me.”