DOCTORS APPRECIATION MONTH: A LIFE OF SERVICE AND SACRIFICE
It would be an understatement to say that the life of a doctor in a remote area of the world is challenging. Resources are scarce and there is often an acute shortage of — well — just about everything, including manpower and supplies.
Salaries do not come close to the U.S. pay scale, and yet many have chosen to live and work here in spite of the hardships. The doctors have given their time, their energy and their expertise to bring health care to the residents of American Samoa. Many have gone far above the call of duty to care for their patients.
One such person is our very own Dr. Ernest Oo, an ophthalmologist by profession, and his is a story which simply must be told.
Born in Myanmar — formerly known as Burma — Dr. Oo has worked at LBJ for 14 years as the head of the Eye Clinic. Here first on a short term visit, he was asked to stay on by hospital officials (who came to his door to ask) and he accepted.
Dr. Oo shared his story recently with Samoa News, and it’s the stuff of which movies are made. He grew up in the distant central Asian country once called Burma, where his family owned tea plantations and other businesses. In 1988, there was a bloody military coup there, and Dr. Oo barely escaped with his life, taking just one small bag of personal belongings. Those were dangerous times to be a doctor, he said.
He was, at the time, the secretary of the prestigious Burma Medical Association, which had 20,000 members who were openly opposed to the coup, as military leaders were brutally slaughtering the citizens of his country, and the doctors vocally protested the bloodshed and strife.
The coup leaders were unhappy with the doctors for their vocal opposition, and targeted them for annihilation; many doctors were forced to flee for that reason.
Dr. Oo was able to leave, with the help of the prominent family into which he was born. His first cousin is Nobel Peace Prize winner and democratic activist — held for 20 years as a political prisoner — Aung San Suu Kyi.
(Upon receiving her long-delayed prize in 2012, Suu Kyi received two standing ovations as she gave her acceptance speech. She had actually won the award 21 years earlier, when she was under house arrest for opposing the military rule. The 66-year-old woman has been hailed as a champion of political freedom worldwide. She credited the Nobel prize — both for saving her from the depths of personal despair — and for shining an enduring spotlight on injustices in Burma.)
Through his contacts in his home country, Dr. Oo made it safely out. He immediately sent for his own wife and children, and in 1989, they joined him in New Zealand and settled in Palmerston North, where he worked at Palmerston North Hospital.
After just a few months in New Zealand, Dr. Oo was offered a job to head up the Ophthalmology Department in Suva Hospital as well as teach at the Fiji School of Medicine.
Not long after arriving in Suva, Dr. Oo was asked by a well-respected doctor there if he would consider transferring to Lautoka. Why Lautoka? he asked. The answer was, there were no eye doctors in Lautoka; in fact there were few doctors there of any kind. Most of the doctors in Lautoka were Indian, and they had fled the country due to yet another coup — this time it was the Fiji coup of 1989 which had driven doctors out, when Rambuka took over Fiji’s government at gunpoint.
(It is not lost on Dr. Oo that he has survived two military coups. He prays he will never have to live through another.)
In 2001 — just before the world changing events of 9/11 — Dr. Oo came to the Territory on a “locum” (short term) contract. Before he left, hospital officials asked him to stay on permanently, and he accepted.
Dr. Oo was made LBJ’s Vice Chief of Staff for two years, and he worked for nine years as the chairman of the Continuing Medical Education (CME) program, in addition to his duties as the head of the Eye Clinic.
His wife, Khim Htay was also a medical doctor. Trained as a pediatrician in Burma, Australia and New Zealand, she had been by his side through his travels, and was also on staff at the Department of Health in American Samoa. In 2007, she learned that she had a brain tumor.
She fought the cancer for years, returning to New Zealand several times for treatment.
In 2011, she was back in the Territory, still struggling to recover. She developed pneumonia, and was taken to the ICU, desperately ill. Dr. Oo was by her side as the ICU doctors struggled to save her.
While there, Dr. Oo received an urgent phone call from an ER doctor. A child had been in an accident which nearly blinded the young man, and he needed emergency surgery. Dr. Oo immediately went to the child, performed the surgery, and the grateful parents thanked him with tears in their eyes.
He returned to the ICU, where his wife of 40 years had passed away while he was performing surgery on the young boy. Dr. Oo and his children laid her to rest here in American Samoa.
Did he regret leaving her side at that hour?
Dr. Oo says that the life of a physician is one of service and sacrifice. You dedicate yourself to your profession, and you don’t pick and choose the times when you are needed. You just go, and you give your best.
He added, “I knew that my wife would want me to take care of the child.” Knowing that made all the difference, he said.
His philosophy of life? He believes that nothing is permanent or predictable. Life is unpredictable, he says. “You never know what will happen, but you must follow principles, which lead you to do good things.”
In the intervening years, Dr. Oo has found the time to serve the community in numerous eye care outreach programs with the Lions Club of Pago Pago, as well as serving as chairman of the Eagle Scout advancement committee, on the board of the district council for the Boy Scouts of American Samoa.
“You reap what you sow,” he says. “If you do what is good, you will reap good things. Karma is real. It follows you everywhere you go.”
Each month of the year is given many designations, and March is no exception. National Nutrition Month and National March of Dimes are just two that come to mind.
Locally our hospital took the opportunity in March to celebrate all the Territory’s doctors, from the hard working and dedicated doctors of LBJ, to the hard working and dedicated doctors of the Department of Health, the Dental Clinic and those in private practice. For the entire month of March, the doctors, nurses and employees have honored and celebrated the profession, calling it simply “Doctors Appreciation Month.”
This is the first time they have done so, and rather than relegate it to one or two days, they felt it was appropriate to use the entire month to reflect upon their calling, and honor it.
As a group, they have visited schools to encourage students to enter medicine, visited retired doctors and ill colleagues, and paid their respects at the gravesides of those who have passed on. They have held sports days and appreciation luncheons, and all the while tended to their patients.
Last Friday evening they even held a formal ball at the Lee Auditorium to celebrate their accomplishments and enjoy one another’s company.