25 years of Aloha Medical Mission
POSTED: Sunday, November 02, 2008
They pay their own airfare and expenses, take all their supplies and go to remote regions that aren't in any tourist brochures to provide health care to impoverished people.
Lifetime Achievement and Distinguished Service Awards will be presented at the Aloha Medical Mission's Silver Anniversary Gala at 5 p.m. today at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Tapa Ballroom. The organization's 25-year record:
» Countries served: 15
» Overseas missions: 100
» Volunteers: 3,754
» Patients treated: 239,126
» Surgeries performed: 13,923
» Support: Donations. (Send to AMM, 810 N. Vineyard Blvd., Honolulu, HI 96817.)
They are Aloha Medical Mission doctors, nurses and lay people - all volunteers - from Hawaii, the mainland and other countries.
The organization is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a rare legacy of life-changing medical treatments and surgeries for underserved people in 15 countries. It also runs free clinics in Honolulu and Bangladesh.
"People always ask me, 'Why do you do it?'" said Dr. Ramon Sy, who founded the organization with the late Dr. Ernesto Espaldon.
"When you go on one of those missions and see the people and give them help ... it's a feeling you get that's in your heart. The effect is enormous. ... Just by merely touching their hands or talking to them, it's something like chemistry. It just hits you."
Dr. Bradley Wong, a general surgeon, is leaving in a week on his 16th mission to the Philippines and his third in Bacolod. He also has provided health care in Nepal, Mexico and elsewhere on his own.
"I think everyone feels it is good to help other people, and people we help are certainly ones who could not afford the care and would never get treated otherwise," he said, adding that he also regards the missions as "kind of an adventure."
Many patients can't thank the health providers because they don't speak English and they're shy and embarrassed, he said. "It's one of the purest things, to help somebody to not expect any money and not to expect any thanks but to know they are grateful."
Wong had been seeing patients at the medical mission's clinic at Palama Settlement but retired last November. "It's just a change of career, not an end," he said, explaining he spent two months operating in a small town in Nepal and a week in a small town in Mexico's Baja Peninsula. He's thinking of doing something in Cambodia after the Philippines mission.
Wong said he's also working with students, nurses and doctors to try to get the University of Hawaii's John A. Burns School of Medicine involved in doing more global health care.
Sy encourages medical students to participate in missions because in remote areas with little or no technology, "you become real doctors. ... You use your head, your mind and your hands," he said. "That's the best experience for any doctors."
He was one of seven doctors on the first mission in 1983 to Bicol in the Philippines, saying that Espaldon "enticed me to do this." Espaldon, a plastic surgeon, and his wife, Leticia, an anesthesiologist, had been returning to their homeland of Mindanao in the Philippines for years to treat people without access to health care.
Aloha Medical Mission began as a committee within the Philippine Medical Association of Hawaii. "I said, 'We should call it something more unique to Hawaii,'" Sy said. "Why don't we call it 'Aloha Medical Mission'?"
A nonprofit entity was formed and it obtained tax-exempt status in 1985. So many volunteers became involved afterward that it started "mission fever," and they began going to different countries, Sy said.
Dr. Carl Lum, an AMM veteran of 15 years, just returned Thursday with a team after his fourth mission to Myanmar (formerly Burma), doing about five major surgeries a day.
He said he has gone on as many as five or six missions in a year but has scaled that down to about four a year. Two years ago, he was on a five-month humanitarian mission to Southeast Asia aboard the Navy hospital ship USNS Mercy.
"It's very rewarding when you can treat these patients with no access to medical care," he said. "They're the poorest of the poor. ... It's really a joy to see them have their surgeries and recovery, and they're so grateful. That's the thing that drives me to go back and do what I can."
More than 1,000 selfless doctors, nurses and nonmedical people have volunteered over the years, coming from as far as Saudi Arabia, Sy said.
He said he's been on 20 to 30 missions. He was AMM president until two years ago, when Dr. Antonio Tan succeeded him. For about 23 years, Sy said, he ran his eye, nose and throat practice and Aloha Medical Mission from his medical office.
Mission volunteers began providing health care at the Institute for Human Services in 1995, working with the Bayanihan Health Clinic. It closed and AMM moved its clinic in 2002 to the Palama Settlement, 810 N. Vineyard. The Bangladesh clinic opened in 1997.
"Aloha Medical Mission has succeeded far beyond its early dreams," Executive Director Ann Miller said.