BY ROBIN EISNER
A LANKY, DESPONDENT 28-YEAR-OLD MAN FROM HARLEM WALKED into Columbia’s ophthalmology clinic and pleaded for an operation to straighten his severely crossed eyes. For his whole life he had suffered insults and ostracism. He had few friends. He rarely looked up from the ground while talking to the doctor. On examination, the doctor found that the man had a large A-pattern esotropia, his eyes crossing grotesquely when looking up.
PHOTO CREDIT: ED ECKSTEIN
Surgery was orchestrated a week later. Gown. Glove. Lights. Operating theater. How similar to the concert hall, the surgeon thought. Surgery on four muscles around the eyes was performed.
At his follow-up visit a week later, the young man came back with his eyes straight and thanked the physician profusely. He looked up from the ground, eyes aligned, and reported with confidence, “I have a date this Friday.”
For Samuel Wong, M.D., the second-year resident who treated the man, helping him live a restored life was a particularly gratifying achievement in his new career. That’s because Dr. Wong is undergoing his own kind of transformation. For the past 15 years, Dr. Wong was active as an accomplished, internationally renowned conductor. In July 2005, he came to Columbia to continue the training in ophthalmology that was interrupted after his first year. After graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1988 and starting a residency in ophthalmology, Dr. Wong left medicine to become assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic in August 1990.
A serendipitous meeting on an airplane between Dr. Wong and Dr. John Truman, deputy chairman of pediatrics and P&S professor of clinical pediatrics, led to a chain of events that spurred Dr. Stanley Chang, the Edward Harkness Professor and chairman of ophthalmology, to create a special second-year residency slot for Dr. Wong. “What interested me in Sam was his tremendous background in medicine and music,” Dr. Chang says. “When someone is excellent in as many things as Sam is, I thought it important to help him out.”
Despite initial skepticism about how Dr. Wong would be able to make the transition from baton to scalpel after such a long absence, Dr. Wong is now like any other motivated and talented ophthalmology resident. He is a little older although he doesn’t look it and has an interesting and unusual extracurricular life: He continues to conduct throughout the world on a part-time basis and engages in other aspects of his musical career, such as teaching at the Manhattan School of Music and heading a foundation, called the Global Music Healing Institute, dedicated to understanding the medical benefits of music.
Passions for music and medicine have permeated Dr. Wong’s life, with one or the other dominant at different times. Born in Hong Kong, Dr. Wong moved to Canada with his family at age 9 and became a Canadian citizen. His family loved music and Sam Wong played piano from an early age. He also studied voice and sang with a children’s choir.
After graduating from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto in 1980 with a degree in piano performance, where he also studied composition, tuba, and violin, he decided he needed a more diversified education. He studied applied mathematics at Harvard College, graduating magna cum laude in 1984. He chose Harvard Medical School, Dr. Wong says, because he loved science and wanted to use his gifts to heal. But throughout his studies, Dr. Wong remained actively involved in conducting youth orchestras and conservatory orchestras.
After medical school, Dr. Wong opted for ophthalmology as a specialty because he enjoyed the physics of sight and the ingenuity of binocular vision. “When you look into the eye, you see a living nerve, you see an artery directly, and appreciate the effects of treatment firsthand,” Dr. Wong says. “No where else in the body can you do that.” After an internship in internal medicine, his ophthalmology training began at New York’s Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital. At the same time, he was director of the New York Youth Symphony. It was during one of the youth symphony’s performances at Carnegie Hall that Zubin Mehta, then music director of the New York Philharmonic, heard him conduct Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” He offered him the Philharmonic’s assistant conductor position. Soon after, he met his wife-to-be, Hae-Young Ham, a violinist with the Philharmonic. They now have a girl, Ariana, 9, and a boy, Christopher, 5.
Dr. Wong the conductor first came to international attention with his official debut at Avery Fisher Hall with the New York Philharmonic in December 1990, conducting a program originally assigned to Leonard Bernstein, who died that October. His notoriety climbed in January 1991 when he substituted in New York for Zubin Mehta, who was in Tel Aviv to conduct the Israel Philharmonic during the Persian Gulf War.
Dr. Wong led more than 35 performances of the New York Philharmonic and has been a guest conductor throughout
the world, appearing with major orchestras in Toronto, Seattle, Houston, London, Brussels, Prague, Tel Aviv, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur, Mexico City, Spain, Italy, Australia, and New Zealand. He was principal conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic from 2000 to 2005 and the Honolulu Symphony from 1996 until 2005. In March 2006, Dr. Wong conducted soprano Renee Fleming in a program of Mozart, Strauss, and Verdi in Honolulu, and he will conduct for Samuel Ramey in March 2007. He has collaborated with such distinguished artists as baritone Thomas Hampson, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Sarah Chang, violinist Gil Shaham, cellist Ha-Na Chang, pianist Lang Lang, pianist André Watts, pianist Peter Serkin, mezzo soprano Marilyn Horne, mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade, and soprano Deborah Voigt.
|“What interested me in Sam was his tremendous background in medicine and music,” Dr. Chang says. “When someone is excellent in as many things as Sam is, I thought it important to help him out.”
Hundreds of articles in newspapers and magazines throughout the world have praised his performances. The Washington Post commented on his “clarity, confidence and passion.” From the Honolulu Advertiser: “The Honolulu Symphony has risen to grand heights under the direction of popular maestro Wong.” The Irish Times: “In its Dublin debut under Wong, the Hong Kong Philharmonic made a strong impression…Wong conveyed the music’s exotic atmosphere with pointed character and brightly clashing colours.”
So, Why Return to Medicine?
Making the transition melodious
At the pinnacle of musical success, why change course? Dr. Wong says that throughout his years as a conductor he followed progress in ophthalmology and occasionally thought about finishing his residency and returning to medicine. He acknowledges that the success of his musical career took a toll on his personal life. Traveling for months at a time meant sacrificing family time. The pace of the past few years increased his thoughts of finding a way to return to the stability of medicine and to bring a little music to medicine.
Meeting Dr. Truman on a plane about two years ago turned the thoughts into action. They met on a plane from Toronto, where both had been visiting their mothers, to New York. Dr. Truman, ever the pediatrician, was impressed with Dr. Wong’s communication with his daughter. “The conversation was so mature and appropriate, clearly reflecting a high level of insight, sensitivity, and intelligence,” Dr. Truman says. “I started talking to him and realized we had a lot in common. We both went to Harvard, are Canadian, and love music.”
They exchanged cards and later e-mails. When they met for lunch, Dr. Truman sensed that Dr. Wong might want to return to medicine so he played up the exciting things happening at Columbia. He was confident Dr. Wong’s ability to shine so brightly in music would allow him to excel in his return to medicine.
Dr. Truman told Dr. Chang about Dr. Wong. Drs. Wong and Chang met and the rest, as they say, is history. Because Dr. Chang created a special position for Dr. Wong, he needed additional funding to support him. William Rhodes, a hospital trustee, provided the resources to pay for malpractice insurance, salary, and fringe benefits as Dr. Wong finishes his residency.
To ensure the addition of a second-year resident would not impact the education of the other second-year residents, Dr. Chang and other leaders spent time discussing the issue, says Dr. John T. Flynn, the Anne S. Cohen Professor of Pediatric Ophthalmology, vice chairman of the ophthalmology department, and pediatric ophthalmology division chief.
“There are only so many surgeries and residents like to get as much experience as possible,” Dr. Flynn says. “We
were concerned about why he wanted to return to medicine. We met him and found him erudite, cosmopolitan, and engaging. Sam has proven himself a quick study. He hadn’t forgotten a lot of his ophthalmology and he picked up new material quickly. The residents appreciated that.”
|“With music, some patients can feel whole again, regain the self, and recall a world inhabited by loved ones, a world filled with passion and curiosity, a world ordered by knowledge and profound meaning.”
Dr. Eric Wolf, chief resident from 2005 to 2006, echoes Dr. Flynn’s description of the original concern about Dr. Wong and the smooth transition of Dr. Wong the resident. “He integrated himself into the department almost overnight. He must have hit the books hard and developed a knowledge base that was appreciated by his colleagues. He was at a level where he could participate in the program, which is quite rigorous.”
Not only was he facile at being able to diagnose conditions, perform the correct tests, and develop a treatment plan for patients, he also did not shy away from doing surgeries, an important part of becoming an ophthalmologist, Dr. Wolf says. “I never have heard of anyone doing such a thing as what Sam has done. It is truly amazing that he could integrate himself back as a resident after such a long time. He is quite an asset to the residency program, and his time management skills are incredible.”
Excited about the Future
Dr. Wong gets very animated when he talks about all the changes that have occurred in the field in the years since he left, ranging from new surgical techniques for vision repair, such as LASIK, to phacoemulsification, which allows the removal of cataracts through smaller incisions in the eye. He also points to new agents that have come on the market, such as an antibody fragment to vascular endothelial growth factor (or VEGF), to treat age-related macular degeneration by preventing the growth of new blood vessels in the eye.
PHOTO CREDIT: COURTESY OF THE HONOLULU SYMPHONY
Now in his senior year of residency, the music director (M.D.) turned practicing medical doctor (M.D.), is excited about the possibilities before him and hopes to stay at Columbia. Drs. Chang and Flynn are urging him to consider working in low-vision visual rehabilitation, where fewer emergencies would allow him to continue his musical career. “As the population ages, there will be more of a need for ophthalmologists who can care for the elderly with macular degeneration, cataracts, and glaucoma,” says Dr. Flynn. Dr. Wong is involved in a joint study between Columbia and the Jewish Guild for the Blind in Manhattan to assess the quality of life of the patients, many of whom are elderly, who use the Guild’s facilities.
The Global Music Healing Institute Dr. Wong started also keeps him busy (www.GlobalMusicHealing.org). The foundation, which was inaugurated at a black-tie dinner and scientific symposium held at the United Nations in June 2005, aims to stimulate research, increase public awareness, and enhance knowledge of the medical benefits of music. “With music, some patients can feel whole again, regain the self, and recall a world inhabited by loved ones, a world filled with passion and curiosity, a world ordered by knowledge and profound meaning,” says Dr. Wong.
The organization strives to apply research data about the health benefits of music to programs offered by hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, universities, medical schools, assisted living facilities, homeless shelters, prisons, and
rehabilitation programs. As part of a research project about the impact of music on the brain, Dr. Wong underwent an fMRI as he listened to Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” and as he read the score without sound to see the difference in the images in his brain. “I hope to continue to participate in the rich environment Columbia has to offer regarding the importance of the humanities in medicine,” Dr. Wong says.
|“I hope to continue to participate in the rich environment Columbia has to offer regarding the importance of the humanities in medicine.”
Dr. Wong is grateful to everyone who has helped him during what he calls a “very rich” time of his life: working at the finest institution in the world for ophthalmology and being in the greatest city in the world for culture. He particularly thanks Dr. Chang. “I am amazed at the energy, passion, and teaching prowess of this busy chairman, arguably the greatest living retinologist,” he says.
One milestone in his residency exemplifies the help he has received from faculty and other residents in the department: “I keenly anticipated my first cataract operation. I had trouble sleeping the night before, rehearsing the steps in my mind. A 54-year-old woman from the Dominican Republic had entrusted her sight to my hands. She had a dense white cataract with only hand motion vision in the left eye. The operation started late in the afternoon and each step was a revelation and a thrill. Everything did go well after all, even if a bit slowly and deliberately. Within weeks she had regained vision of 20/25. She told me her life had been transformed and was going dancing that night. I savored my first surgical success but also realized the most remarkable thing of all: how my teacher, Dr. Steven Kane, had guided a novice surgeon into a perfect result on his first cataract operation.”