Interview and Photos by Geoff Oliver Bugbee
Geoff Oliver Bugbee is Visual Communications Consultant at ORBIS. He has worked in documentary and international development photography for over 15 years.
Michael Chen, MD completed his ophthalmology residency at the University of California, San Francisco, and is currently training as a fellow in cornea, external disease, and refractive surgery at the University of California, Davis with Dr. Mark Mannis, ORBIS Volunteer Faculty Member. Michael has had the privilege of serving as an Associate Ophthalmologist with ORBIS in Da Nang, Vietman as a resident and more recently in San Salvador, El Salvador as a fellow. He enjoys learning about sustainable eye care systems and hopes to increase his involvement with international ophthalmology in the future.
Why were you drawn to eyes in the first place?
In medical school I knew I wanted to do international work and I noticed the abundance of international opportunities in ophthalmology. As I looked into those opportunities, I began to realize how much impact an ophthalmologist can have, given the burden of treatable and preventable blindness in developing countries.
How was coming onboard as a Cornea Fellow of Dr. Mannis in El Salvador different than your previous experience on an FEH program earlier in the year in Da Nang, Vietnam?
Both opportunities gave me the very valuable and rewarding experience of witnessing the ORBIS team in action. Returning as Dr. Mannis fellow allowed me to see the issues that face El Salvador specifically with cornea and external disease. I enjoyed the opportunity to shadow Dr. Mannis as he educated and trained the local ophthalmologists and to see them benefit from his expertise.
There was one gentleman in his 80s who was essentially blind on whom Dr. Mannis performed a penetrating keratoplasty (full-thickness corneal transplant). One eye was irreversibly blind, and the other eye that was to have surgery was blind from a swollen, decompensated cornea. When we took off his eye patch the day after surgery, he was looking around at the world with his improved vision, enthralled with the square tiles on the floor and the faces of the people around him. This case was particularly rewarding, as this patient was previously dependent on his sister at home to take care of him, and now he has regained some independence.
What exactly do you do at UC Davis and how was a day in the field different on a Flying Eye Hospital program?
I am completing my one year fellowship in cornea, external disease, and refractive surgery, seeing patients in the clinic and performing surgery in the operating room. A week on the Flying Eye Hospital Program gave me the opportunity to see a greater number of patients with severe corneal problems than what we see at home in a similar time period, because the local ophthalmologists and the ORBIS team work hard to refer patients with the greatest need.
It must be interesting to watch patients recover from surgery and be able to see again. Your thoughts?
This is certainly one of the most rewarding aspects of ophthalmology, and I am extremely fortunate to be able to witness these situations. Of course not all cases are like this, but there are many instances in developing countries where somebody comes in completely blind, led or carried by a family member, completely dependent on others and in a sense a burden to society. After surgery, the individual is jumping for joy, and walks home on his or her own. It is interesting to think about the impact that we can have restoring sight not only to an individual, but to his or her immediate community, and to society at large.
What do like most about ORBIS?
I appreciate how ORBIS aims to work with its local partners to help establish sustainable eye care in developing countries. It is really exciting to see the transfer of knowledge and skill between world-renowned experts and the local ophthalmologists.