Karen Hong, MD is a 2021 ASCRS Foundation Young Eye Surgeon International Service Grant recipient. This grant was created for aspiring humanitarian ophthalmologists who want to participate in and learn about the complexities of our global healthcare system. Read below about Dr. Hong's service project and her advice for other young eye surgeons.
ASCRS Foundation: How did you initially become interested in ophthalmology?
Dr. Hong: "I discovered the field of ophthalmology during medical school by chance. My friend remarked in passing that as a child, they had been placed in a learning-disabled class, even though what they really suffered from was poor eyesight that glasses could easily remedy. I shared my friend’s story in a local newspaper, highlighting how only 40% of American preschoolers received recommended eye screening. Prevent Blindness Northern California reached out to me after the article was published and we started a three-year long collaboration to bring eye-screening services to low-income preschools in San Jose, California. These one-on-one interactions with preschoolers were the highlight of my pre-clinical years. It inspired me to use my undergraduate background in Public Health to create change in ophthalmology."
ASCRS Foundation: How did you hear about the ASCRS Foundation and the Young Eye Surgeon International Service Grant program?
Dr. Hong: "My mentor, Dr. Erin Sieck, was the ophthalmologist that inspired me to apply. At the time, she was a glaucoma fellow at Washington University in St. Louis and had just been awarded a Young Eye Surgeon International Service Grant herself. The ASCRS Foundation International Division had been so supportive of her international endeavors despite the challenges of COVID. After hearing about my interest in international ophthalmology, she suggested that I apply. Since I was only a resident at the time, I was not sure if I would be qualified, but I am so glad she encouraged me to turn in an application!"
ASCRS Foundation: Can you tell us more about the service project that you are working on as a result of the grant?
Dr. Hong: "I am thrilled to be working with my friend and colleague Dr. Sunil Thakali, Chief of Hetauda Community Eye Hospital in Nepal. We are working together to realize his vision of integrating a preventative community eye screening program into the existing primary care services in the 19 wards of his district. Currently, we are collaborating with the Himalayan Cataract Project and structuring local government partnerships to create a sustainable screening model. I will be traveling from the U.S. to Nepal with an ophthalmology resident and a Nepali ophthalmic technician in December 2022. With Dr. Thakali, we will be traveling to several wards within Hetauda to set up the pilot screening program and assist with technician training."
ASCRS Foundation: What advice would you give to other young ophthalmologists looking to pursue the Young Eye Surgeon International Service Grant opportunity?
Dr. Hong: "Don't be afraid to apply! If this opportunity does not work out, seek out other ones. From personal experience, I have found the group of people interested in international ophthalmology to be kind, welcoming, and generous with their time. I remember meeting Dr. Alfred Sommer as a medical student and asking him for local people to connect with during my time in Nepal. It changed the course of my life. If you have a specific geographical interest, reach out to community leaders in that area. E-mail and set up phone calls with researchers who have carried out projects similar to what you are trying to accomplish. And then finally, there is no substitute to learning from first-hand experience! As you do more international trips, more opportunities will naturally occur. If you have specific questions, feel free to contact me!"
Dr. Hong can be found on Instagram at @karenchen.eye and on Linkedin. The Young Eye Surgeons International Service Grant was created to inspire young eye surgeons to become involved with global eye care on a long-term basis. The grant affords the opportunity to participate in health care systems, including teaching institutions and community programs, in developing countries. Email Violet Gehr, Foundation Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or if you have any questions.