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Vol. LXII, No. 22
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
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No Borders for Princeton Ophthalmologist as Ecuadoran Returns for Eye Surgery

Stuart Mitchner

“Doctors have no borders as far as these kinds of gestures go,” said ophthalmologist and UMCP medical staff member Michael Y. Wong, MD, of the Princeton Eye Group. “It’s a wonderful part of why we are doctors.”

Dr. Wong was referring to the May 14 operation he performed on a 27-year-old man from Ecuador named William Fernando Morocho Japa. He also waived charges for the procedure, which took place May 14 at a North Brunswick surgical center.

A year ago when Mr. Japa was in urgent need of specialized medical care unavailable in his own country, he found it in the form of a complex and life-saving brain operation provided free of charge by University Medical Center at Princeton (UMCP), its doctors, and Michael Horowitz, MD, from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who performed the operation.

The odyssey that took Mr. Japa from Cuenca, Ecuador, to Princeton began in October 2006 when a serious car accident caused injuries that included a potentially fatal intracranial aneurysm — a bulging, weakened wall of an artery that supplies blood to the brain. He also suffered nerve damage to his right eye known as Sixth Nerve Palsy which turned the eye inward so far that he could not see out of it. The growing aneurysm — with the potential to rupture and cause a stroke or even death — was the first concern. Mr. Japa’s doctors in Ecuador told him there was nothing they could do, but his relatives in Hightstown refused to give up and began an effort to bring him to the United States for care. When officials from UMCP parent Princeton HealthCare System learned of his plight from the Hightstown community, they arranged for UMCP to take the case and assembled a team of doctors who agreed to donate their services.

After the successful operation to repair the aneurysm took place at UMCP last June, doctors had hoped the procedure would also improve Mr. Japa’s eye, since the aneurysm had been pushing against the nerve affecting the eye, but after he returned to Ecuador it became clear that a separate eye operation would be necessary.

Calling Dr. Wong

Dr. Michael Wong has crossed many borders for humanitarian causes. He’s traveled to Oshakati in northern Namibia and Juliaca and Huamachuco in Peru under the aegis of Surgical Eye Expeditions International (SEE), a non-profit humanitarian organization providing medical, surgical, educational services by volunteer opthalmic surgeons.

Two weeks ago when Ecuador came to Princeton in the person of Mr. Japa, Dr. Wong was ready, and the prognosis is excellent. “He will be immeasurably better for the rest of his life for having done this,” said Dr. Wong.

“I want to thank everyone involved in helping me come to the United States for the operation on my eye, and everyone involved in my care,” Mr. Japa said through an interpreter. “I’m very happy and every day my eyesight is getting better.”

Known as strabismus surgery, the hour-long surgical procedure involved isolating two extra-ocular muscles that controlled movement in the patient’s right eye, disconnecting them, straightening the eye back to its normal position, and then reattaching the muscles. Dr. Wong noted that the anesthesiologist for the eye operation, Dr. Edward Steinman, had donated his services as well.

In 2006, in recognition of his eye care missions to remote and impoverished areas around the world, the Princeton HealthCare System gave Dr. Wong its Distinguished Physician Humanitarian Award.

Family Assistance

Asked about some of his experiences with SEE, Dr. Wong spoke of consulting with 600 patients and performing some 100 operations in Peru, where circumstances were such that his 16-year-old daughter, Julia, was enlisted as a first surgical assistant. His son Matthew, who at 17 assisted him in the same capacity in Oshakati, is now a first-year medical student at Robert Wood Johnson. “The experience in Africa had a lot to do with his decision to go into the field of health care,” said Dr. Wong, whose second son, Scott, soon to graduate from Dartmouth, was his surgical assistant in Huamachuco.

One of Dr. Wong’s most recent missions was the corneal transplant he performed last year on a nearly blind Palestininan girl named Ahlam, who was brought to Princeton by the Palestinian Childrens Relief Fund and put up by a local family during the surgery.

As for future missions, Dr. Wong had been planning on an excursion to Tibet, where a colleague he met in Peru has opened a clinic. “But I have to put that off until things settle down,” he said. Other goals include Guatemala, Mexico, and another mission to Peru.

Other Players

Others who played roles in Mr. Japa’s return to New Jersey included neurosurgeon Mark R. McLaughlin, MD., who worked with the U.S. Consulate to get him the medical visa that enabled him to return.

Robbie Alexander, RN, program coordinator of Princeton HealthCare System’s Community Education and Outreach Program, again coordinated with Mr. Japa’s relatives and advocates in Hightstown including Dr. David Abalos, PhD, a Latino community leader who first brought the Ecuadoran’s plight to UMCP’s attention last year.

Mr. Japa is recuperating at the home of a relative in Hightstown and is expected to return to Ecuador at the end of May.

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