Mission Possible

THE SCENE UNFOLDS: Dr. Brad Wong and his medical team arrive in the Philippines and are warmly embraced by the townspeople of Bohol, who gather at the humble provincial airport with welcome signs, lei and smiles. Aloha Medical Mission has just touched down for an altruistic trip that, over the course of five days, will entail performing 90 major surgeries, 120 minor surgeries and 540 dental extractions – for free.

To Wong’s nurses and staff, repairing a cleft palate and removing an abscessed tooth are routine, 45-minute tasks. To Bohol’s underprivileged, these are life-changing miracles, offering freedom from a lifetime of pain and ostracism, and a chance to experience the oft-overlooked luxury of simply leading a normal life.

Cases like these are what drew Wong, a Honolulu-based general surgeon, to join Aloha Medical Mission (AMM). More than 25 years ago, Wong became a part of the cause started by several Filipino doctors as a way to give back to their homeland’s poorest populations.

“In 1987, I saw a TV newsreel of seven docs and nurses coming back from the Philippines – I think this was the second trip Aloha Medical Mission had taken,” says Wong, who is now AMM’s board president. “I saw this trip on the news and said, ‘I want to do this.’ ”

Wong served as surgical director on his inaugural trip, and as AMM dedicated its first few years solely to Philippine missions, he became a regular participant. These annual cross-Pacific treks also began drawing more doctors, nurses and volunteers, slowly expanding AMM’s reach to more underserved towns throughout the country. The missions, according to Wong, have morphed from 60 people going to two cities, into three groups of 15 people, each covering a different area.

Inspired by their success overseas – and the encouraging level of volunteerism in Hawaii’s medical community – Wong turned AMM’s attention to providing free medical services locally. In the early 1990s, AMM paired with Waikiki Health Center and embarked on bus caravans to Mokuleia. Along the way, they bandaged the wounds of the homeless, gave out medicines and antiseptics, and witnessed firsthand the untreated problems of Hawaii’s “hidden” population.

“I remember we saw a guy stuck living in an old deserted car,” Wong recalls. “His legs were swollen – he was diabetic. So we arranged for him to go to the hospital. That blossomed into a free clinic at IHS, which became a permanent clinic. Then we went to Palama Settlement, where for seven or eight years we’ve run free medical clinics.”

AMM has sinced turned over those clinics to Kalihi Palama Health Center to maintain, but the organization still carries on with other local projects. Its free dental clinic is the only one in the state and treats more than 150 patients a month. Wong also recently began working with major local hospitals to implement free surgery clinics.

As of this writing, the project, called Kokua me ka Laulima (“Help with many Hands”), is set to provide free surgical care to its first patient at Queen’s Medical Center. Wong is excited at the prospect of how many more patients AMM can impact by expanding these local services.

“As this matures, I hope to expand it to more hospitals and different specialities. Not just general surgery, but GYN (gynecology), orthopedics, neurology. There are patients out there. This is just a baby step,” he says.

Wong acknowledges that all of AMM’s philanthropy could not be possible without the “many hands” of those who donate their time, skills and financial resources. In turn, he says AMM is a willing catalyst to help volunteers carry out their own personal philanthropic goals. Missions to Bangledesh, other Pacific Islands and even Nepal all have been organized through the initiative of AMM’s volunteers. It all ties back to Wong’s own credo about service: Every contribution is interconnected to making this world a better place.

“I’ve found that everybody does something for charity,” Wong says. “People doing it out of their own heart may believe they are playing a small part, but it’s a big role. And it all comes together.”

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