Doc saves lives 1 liver at a time
Fortunately for Aaron Okubo, Norman Choy, Jim Foster, Nancy Newell and many others, Linda Wong's career choice as a kid wasn't possible.
"I was too short to be a ballerina," she said.
So the 5-foot-2 daughter of two doctors became a surgeon specializing in liver, kidney and bone marrow transplants, hepatobiliary and other complex surgery procedures.
Linda Wong started the liver transplantation program in 1993 at Hawaii Medical Center, formerly St. Francis Medical Center-Liliha, and performed the first liver transplant that year.
She has done about 135 liver transplants, as well as many other transplants and surgical procedures. She is medical director of the Organ Donor Center of Hawaii and works to increase awareness of liver disease and the need for more lifesaving organ donations.
"We had a period last year when we had a lot of people who would be potential organ donors, but family members refused to sign consent," she said, even for some patients who expressed a wish to be organ donors. "It's really disheartening after you spend so much time on education of people about the program and how much good it could do."
Her father is Dr. Livingston Wong, who pioneered kidney and bone-marrow transplants in Hawaii, and her mother is Dr. Rose Wong, an internist. Both retired, but Linda Wong said her dad "comes to the office anyway; he likes it so much."
Wong said the Organ Donor Center is trying to get funding to develop an online registry so people who want to donate organs can sign up after discussing it with their family. A number of states already have Web site registries, she said.
Okubo, Choy, Foster and Newell are alive today because organ donors were found in time for transplants that Wong performed.
They will be among those honoring her at an annual recognition gala sponsored by the American Liver Foundation, Hawaii Chapter, at 5:30 p.m. today at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Tapa Ballroom. Entertainer Keali'i Reichel will give a special performance.
Wong says the party is really for the foundation. She helped to start the Hawaii Chapter in January 2005 with Wesley Yamamoto, who has liver disease, and Dr. Naoky Tsai, hepatologist at the Hawaii Medical Center's liver center. Yamamoto is the chapter's board president, and Wong is vice president.
"She's a humble person. She doesn't like the limelight," said Janice Nillias, the chapter's executive director, describing Wong's contributions to the community. "Because she is on the front line, she is able to articulate some of the needs of liver patients in our community, and we are able to provide needed services."
Nillias said Wong suggested going to high schools with basic information about the importance of care of the liver and dangers of hepatitis. As a result, a "Get Hip, Stay Hep Free" program was launched in high schools.
Wong also conceived a "Liver Buddies" mentoring program to assist new transplant patients. She is a surgery professor at the John A. Burns School of Medicine, writes scientific papers and is involved in many research projects. She is with Surgical Associates, which has six surgeons.
"We all do transplants, and now two of us are doing livers," Wong said. She has been doing 12 to 15 liver transplants a year -- a number limited only by organ donations, she said.
"We're proud of our program," she said, "but there is so much work to do. I hope to save many more lives."