Medical Care For Those Who Need It
Aloha Medical Mission has been saving and changing lives for 30 years, both abroad and in Hawaii with a free dental clinic at Palama Settlement. At AMM’s annual gala on May 17, Art Ushijima, president of Queen’s, Michael Gold, president of HMSA, and Dr. Brad Wong, president of AMM will be honored for their support.
With funds raised at its upcoming gala, Aloha Medical Mission will continue performing life-altering medical procedures – 15,000 to date
Almost every graduating medical student swears the Hippocratic Oath. Believed to have been written by the father of western medicine, Hippocrates, in the late 5th century B.C., it is an ideal of how to perform your duties as a physician. Yet few ever live up to its ideals quite like Dr. Brad Wong and his band of volunteers at Aloha Medical Mission.
For the past 30 years, AMM has been helping the less fortunate on our shores and beyond. It began originally as a small group of Filipino surgeons who wanted to help poor children with cleft lips in their native land. A simple operation that takes mere minutes in the hands of a capable physician began transforming these kids’ lives.
“With the cleft lip, they cannot suckle at their mother’s breast because they cannot get suction,” says Wong, who joined the organization in 1988 and now serves as its president. “They have trouble eating and speaking, but they live with it despite being ostracized – and yet in 45 minutes, with a trained surgeon, their life is changed.”
The mission has grown dramatically through the years, branching out from the Philippines into Nepal, New Guinea and several other Pacific islands with an all-volunteer surgery crew performing more than 15,000 life-changing operations.
While Hippocrates urged future physicians, “If he is in need of money, give him a share of mine,” how does one convince doctors to neglect their practice to go help others they will never see again and whom they actually have to pay to treat?
“It is my experience that people who are sacrificing the most don’t even think they are sacrificing; it is really a puzzle,” says Wong, who finds that doctors who volunteer come back again at an 80 percent rate. “We all want to help others, but, for me it was something that is not definable. It is kind of in your genes; it is not an altruistic thing, not a conscious decision to do this because this is better. It just kind of happens. It feels good to do.
“The odd thing is we pay money to go take care of their patients for free! It is $65 to get a temporary license, so I pay $65 for the privilege of taking care of their patients for free.”
For Wong, this is a small price for the enrichment he receives and is much more exciting than touring around France on a Europass or cruising the crystal blues of the Mediterranean.
“It is better and more exciting than taking a vacation, taking a tour or looking at a cathedral – that is pretty passive, and after three days I am pretty bored,” says Wong. “But on a mission, there is not a day of boredom. It is exciting every day to have this feeling you are helping this person, and not just one, but seven or eight patients a day.”
The surgeons have expanded from their original campaign to fix cleft lips and now specialize in a variety of safe, elective operations, but avoid risky procedures that might hurt their future acceptance into these countries.
“We don’t want to have anyone die. If we did, it would taint and color the mission,” says Wong, adding that occasionally they do have to perform lifesaving operations.
One of the most common ailments they treat these days is a prolapsed uterus, which is non-fatal and quite common in poor countries where women must return to the fields too soon after giving birth.
“A woman has delivered a baby, but after five days she has to go back to work. They haven’t healed from the delivery, so their uterus will fall out,” says Wong. “This is not life-threatening, but it is extremely debilitating. It smells, it bleeds, they can’t work, but it is not going to kill them. They live with it, they suffer through it, and they don’t have the money or hospitals to fix it, so we swoop in and fix 20 women so they can get back to work.”
Not all their work is done overseas. Locally, they launched Kokua me ka Laulima, “Help with Many Hands,” which offers general surgery services to the uninsured and the poor here on Oahu in a partnership with Queen’s and Castle medical centers.
“Over the years, The Queen’s Medical Center has been proud to support the Aloha Medical Mission,” says Art Ushijima, president of QMC. “One of the projects we are especially pleased to support is Kokua me ka Laulima, a collaboration among AMM, Castle Medical Center, private surgeons, anesthesiologists and community health centers to provide free outpatient surgery to the uninsured poor in the state of Hawaii. For Queen’s and our dedicated staff, it has been gratifying to experience the improvements made in the lives of those who have no means to obtain needed medical care.”
AMM always has been committed to helping those who need it the most, and to its reckoning, the biggest problem here in the Islands is in oral health.
There are 430,000 people in Hawaii – one-third of the population – who lack proper dental care because they cannot afford dental insurance. Because of that lack of service, a decade ago AMM opened the only free dental clinic in the state at Palama Settlement.
Since 2002, its dentists have provided $4.5 million in services, and last year demonstrated their commitment to the cause by hiring a full-time dentist, allowing them to keep regular hours.
“The first nine years, it was all-volunteer, so we couldn’t see more than 100 a month – that was why we made the decision to hire a dentist,” says Wong. “It allows us to be open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., five days a week. Before it was very erratic, because it was all volunteer.”