Dr. Michael Wong has been fortunate to have a strong support system both in his associates at the Princeton Eye Group and his family, that allow him time to help those in need.
“I simply see the work I do overseas as an extension of what I do here locally. There are no borders to humanity,” explains Dr. Wong. His many international contacts through organizations such as Surgical Eye Expeditions and Vision Outreach International helps tremendously in the logistical planning. He plans on making annual missions in the future in addition to the significant amount of charity provided locally by the doctors of the Princeton Eye Group.
You coordinated an “eye camp in Oshakati, Namibia. Tell us about it.
Surgical Eye Expeditions connects a host ophthalmologist from a needy country with a willing volunteer such as me. Namibia is fortunate to have a dedicated “Blindness Secretariat” by the name of Helena Ndume. After a brief correspondence, I gathered my son Matthew, age 16 at the time, and hauled surgical supplies along with a caravan of Red Cross volunteers and nurses, to this impoverished area of Namibia near the Angolan border. This area had been ravaged by a civil war and drought. Those in need of eye surgery basically wait, years at a time, until an “eye camp” can be set-up, and only hope that they make it on the list. There was more work than expected, but undaunted, we worked 16 hour days and actually took care of every last person who had come, some from hundreds of miles away, many by foot. The medical situation was challenging, but the people couldn’t have been nicer or more appreciative.
Twice you’ve gone to remote villages in the Andes mountains of Peru under difficult circumstances. You performed 75 cataract surgeries and 25 surgeries for individuals with crossed eyes in Juliaca and repeated that program in Huamachuco. Describe those trips.
It was a compelling story, one to which I had to respond. The indigenous Indians of Juliaca, descendants of the Incans, are amongst the most impoverished in South America, caught between neglect and civil war. At nearly 14,000 feet elevation, the extreme UV light has caused an epidemic of cataracts. Without supplies, the local ophthalmologist was hamstrung. This adventure included my son Scott, and the two of us completed the first cataract surgeries done in that region in decades. Unprepared for the elevation and freezing temperatures, this was the most difficult trip for me from a physical point-of-view. I suffered the worst headaches of my life and developed asthma. Still worth my going, nevertheless.
The Huamachuco trip presented other challenges. Arriving at this site, the entire country of Peru underwent a general strike. The town services shut down, including the nurses at the hospital. So I “deputized” the handful of teenagers who volunteered for the trip, taught them operative technique and transformed them into operating nurses. My daughter Julia, 16 at the time, who came along thinking she would be doing some paperwork and taking pictures, was “first scrub-assistant” for the very first modern-day cataract operation in Huamachuco. I learned how much youthful exuberance and enthusiasm can do when push comes to shove.
You’ve included your family in some of your service trips. Tell us about that.
It’s more fun when you can share and learn, and never better than with your family. All three of my children have been on overseas missions with me, and they did so eagerly and have not been disappointed. My wife, an R.N., switched gears and went from being a cardiac nurse to an ophthalmic nurse so that she can come on these missions with me. It has become a family affair and an enriching one at that. I learn from these trips: about humanity, about other peoples, about myself. What the kids learn is different, as they come from a different perspective, but learning they do. Not sure what, but the experience is so different from the book learning in Princeton. I encourage young people to explore in these directions. Many say it’s life-transforming.