Ming Wang: Giving Thanks for the Gift of Sight
Dr. Ming Wang shares a heart-warming story of restoring sight to one of his patients. He gave the gift of sight, and received an unexpected gift in return.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Ming Wang is a world-renowned laser eye surgeon and philanthropist. He performed the world’s first laser-assisted artificial cornea implantation and has several patents under his name, including the amniotic membrane contact lens, which utilizes the regenerative and healing properties found naturally in placentas. I first met Dr. Wang years ago when he gave a talk at an event I attended. I was immediately struck by his story of overcoming tremendous hardship, heart for helping others, passion for faith and science, his humility and generosity, and faith in God. His story has stuck with me all of these years, and I wanted to invite him to share with our audience a small glimpse into his life story and work.
This is an edited and abridged excerpt from his autobiography “From Darkness to Sight: A Journey from Hardship to Healing,” which was recently adapted into a movie called “Sight.” This excerpt describes the extraordinary story of Francisco, a teenager who lost his sight in a chemical accident, and Dr. Wang and his team’s journey to help restore his sight using the most cutting-edge technology available at the time. Dr. Wang gives Francisco the gift of sight, and receives an unexpected gift in return. You can learn more about Dr. Wang’s work here.
It was the summer of 1999 when I received a call from Carole Klein, a former nun who taught visually impaired students at a high school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She told me about one of her blind students, Francisco Salazar, a seventeen-year-old from Mexico whose mother, Clementina, had brought him to the States in search of a miracle to restore his eyesight. After multiple failed surgeries, numerous doctors had told them that Francisco’s eyes were beyond repair, but Clementina refused to give up hope.
I examined Francisco’s eyes and discovered that his left eye, which had already received the failed corneal transplant, had already shrunk. It had no light perception and was indeed irreparable. So our only hope was to try to restore sight in his right eye, which could only see light due to severe scarring and blood-vessel growth.
Treatment would involve a special microsurgery and a complex stem cell transplantation. However, it would be extremely risky in Francisco’s case because if it failed, the right eye would shrink just as the left eye had, and Francisco would be plunged into total darkness for the rest of his life. As Carole translated, I explained to Francisco and his mother the difficulty of this special microsurgery, the limited benefits, and the risks. After praying together, Francisco and Clementina decided to proceed. I resolved to do my very best as an eye surgeon to help Francisco. As he sat across from me, I told him honestly, “Your sight restoration process will be a very long and difficult journey, like walking all the way from Nashville to New York City on foot. But I’m going with you every step of the way.” By this point in my life, I was quite acquainted with long, hard journeys, so I knew I would honor the promise I made to Francisco.
“Your sight restoration process will be a very long and difficult journey…But I’m going with you every step of the way.”
The long and difficult journey to restore sight
On August 11, 1999, three weeks after his initial eye exam with me, Francisco returned for the first stage of surgery on his right eye. I removed the scarring and blood vessels that had formed over his right cornea, and sutured an amniotic membrane in place to prevent his eye from scarring again as the tissues were healing.
Francisco was then to return a few months later for a corneal transplant and stem cell graft from adult donor tissue, but before we had a chance to perform the surgery, things went horribly awry. The chemical injury had damaged his right eye so badly that the cornea actually perforated, producing tiny yet dangerous fluid leaks. Consequently, we had to perform two emergency corneal transplants in his right eye within a matter of months just to salvage the eyeball itself. As we anticipated, vascular scar tissue quickly grew over the eye again in the same disorderly scarring process that had repeatedly blinded countless numbers of patients with such severe corneal injuries.
At this point, the only way we would have any chance of restoring sight in Francisco’s right eye was to perform a complex corneal stem cell transplantation surgery, a procedure which was only being performed in a few centers in the country. The stem cells are found in a ring of tissue that surrounds the cornea, and they are the key to the eye’s ability to heal. The chemical burn in Francisco’s right eye was so severe that it had destroyed all of Francisco’s own corneal stem cells, which was why his eyes healed abnormally with such aggressive, repeated formation of scarring and blood vessels. Though the odds were against us, we were able to successfully perform the surgery, and for several months it seemed that his eye might actually heal and his vision finally be restored.
Over the decades of medical training and growing faith, I knew without a doubt that I had been called and was equipped to help blind kids just like Francisco. I had experienced my own darkness when I was his age, and now with everything in me, I wanted to pull him out of his darkness into the light.
But by late November of 2000, Francisco’s eye was rapidly deteriorating again. The surgery began well, but halfway through, something unexpected occurred. The assisting surgeon and nursing staff grew very quiet and tense as they witnessed an impending disaster unfold on the large monitor. As I attempted to remove the old corneal graft, the inner matter of Francisco’s eye clung to it stubbornly, threatening to spill out. If this occurred, there would be no possibility of reconstructing the eye at all, and all hope for any sight in his right eye would be permanently lost. I was sweating from the severity of the situation. I had to do everything I could to prevent this disaster from happening. My heart pounded as I moved quickly and decisively. Finally after an intense moment, during which I felt I wasn’t even breathing, I was able to successfully reposition the content back into the eye that was threatening to come out. I paused and took a deep breath of relief. At least the eyeball itself was saved, for now. I asked a nurse to wipe the beads of sweat from my forehead, and give me a sip of water.
Francisco was still sleeping deeply under general anesthesia. Looking at his young face, images flashed through my mind of myself at the beginning of my own long journey out of the darkness of the Cultural Revolution. Over the decades of medical training and growing faith, I knew without a doubt that I had been called and was equipped to help blind kids just like Francisco. I had experienced my own darkness when I was his age, and now with everything in me, I wanted to pull him out of his darkness into the light.
With a bit of rest, and renewed determination and mental clarity, I resumed Francisco’s surgery, starting with the risky process of trying to remove the old graft, while doing all I could to avoid repeating the problems experienced in the last attempt. I tugged delicately and slowly at the old graft, elevating and gently pulling it, like the ancient Chinese micro-sculptors did when they would carve a line of poem in Chinese characters onto the side of a strand of hair. After what felt like an eternity, the old graft was finally separated and removed from the underlying tissue. I then removed the cataract, implanted an intraocular lens, sutured the new cornea into place, and transplanted adult stem cells around the new cornea. After four long hours, the unprecedented and intense quadruple-step surgery was finally completed, and Francisco’s eyeball was saved. I dropped my shoulders and exhaled.
Dr. Ming Wang joined a dance and music troupe as a child to escape deportation in China’s cultural revolution.
An answer to prayer
The following morning, Francisco returned to my clinic with Carole and Clementina to find out the results of his surgery. Both Carole and Clementina were unusually quiet and looked as if they had been carrying the weight of the whole 7-year journey on their shoulders for longer than their strength could bear. I felt anxious, not knowing whether my best efforts had been enough to save this teenager’s sight. Before I removed the bandage from Francisco’s eye, we gathered in a circle and held hands—a Dominican former nun, a Mexican mother and son, and a Chinese-American doctor— and we prayed.
“Dear God, we know you have the power to heal this young boy who has lived in darkness these last seven years,” I said softly. I had done my utmost, and I had no idea if God would allow Francisco to see again, but I trusted Him. “Thank you God for bringing us this far. Thank you for Francisco and his courage. Thank you for all that Carole and Clementina have done for him. God, please help us to accept whatever your will is for this outcome. Amen.” I reached forward and peeled back the tape to remove Francisco’s bandage. He opened his right eye slowly, blinked and looked around in bewilderment. Then a broad smile appeared across his face. “Can you see?” I asked. He nodded. “Who do you recognize in the room?” I added. “My mother,” he said.
“Dear God, we know you have the power to heal this young boy who has lived in darkness these last seven years…Thank you God for bringing us this far. Thank you for Francisco and his courage. Thank you for all that Carole and Clementina have done for him. God, please help us to accept whatever your will is for this outcome. Amen.”
I turned toward Clementina, who was standing in a far corner. She burst into tears, made her way to Francisco and embraced him tightly. Carole jumped up and down, her hands raised up toward the ceiling, and thanked God over and over. I let out a huge sigh and said my own prayer of thanks. We had made it! Francisco could now see! After years of many failed surgeries, this final and critical microsurgery was the one that was finally successful!
In the ensuing several months, Francisco’s vision in his right eye improved to 20/40. He threw away his Braille books and replaced them with regular school books. He could now go on to live more independently than ever before. After seven years of being locked in darkness, Francisco came into light. He got his life back, he was overjoyed with happiness! While I helped restore Francisco’s sight, he also gave me something very precious in return.
A precious gift
Back in Chapel Hill with his newfound sight, Francisco read about my life story online, about the hardship and danger of the Cultural Revolution that had threatened to destroy me when I was around his age. Francisco then shared with his high school principal how my education had been cut short at age 14, how I faced deportation, poverty, and hard labor, how I later fought hard to get into college after years of no education, and in all the chaos, how I never actually received my high school diploma back in China.
“Dr. Wang helped me wake up from my long sleep of darkness,” Francisco told the principal. “In return, can we give him the one thing he deserves but has never received, a high school diploma?” So in 2000, twenty-three years after finishing high school in China, I finally received my diploma, an honorary graduation certificate from Chapel Hill High School in North Carolina. It now hangs on the wall in my office, right beside my undergraduate and graduate degrees. More than a piece of paper, these certificates represent to me the blessings that I have experienced against so many odds.
From college in China to medical training in America, influences from both the East and the West have made me who I am today. I have realized that life is truly a circle of give and take, and of helping and allowing yourself to be helped by others. On a wall in the Wang Vision Institute hangs another special memento from Francisco, a plaque with a thank you note in Braille at the top (the last time he ever used Braille) and below it, a thank you note in Spanish (the first time he had written since before his accident seven years ago). Out of my gratitude for all the opportunities this country has offered me, I waived my surgeon fees for all of Francisco’s surgeries, and out of his gratitude for sight, Francisco helped me complete a missing link in my own education.
After having taken care of thousands of patients like Francisco for nearly three decades, I have come to understand that people who live in physical darkness have the most intense appreciation for sight. I am thankful to those who have encouraged and helped me in the darkest hours of my life.
His gift was and still is special to me, and every time I look at it, I think of the wooden plaques that grateful patients had given my grandfather back in China some seventy years ago, and I’m proud to know that I’ve followed in his footsteps down this very rewarding path of helping others. After having taken care of thousands of patients like Francisco for nearly three decades, I have come to understand that people who live in physical darkness have the most intense appreciation for sight. I am thankful to those who have encouraged and helped me in the darkest hours of my life. My eyes are filled with appreciation for the cultural roots and traditions I was taught in China when I was young and for the opportunity and the gift of faith I received here in the West, which has allowed me to see the heart of God and experience personal transformation over the years.
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Gayle Boss | Let Compassion Take Root