Doctor at Sea - By Georgina Ainsworth
A self-described “wandering wonderer”, Dr David Chong is passionate about surgery, the bigger meaning of life and ensuring he stays real to who he is.
When talking to pediatric plastic surgeon David Chong, it doesn’t take long before you get caught up in his energy, passion and pure zest for life. A man who, when asked to describe himself in two sentences, says: “I only need two words.” This “wandering wonderer” is a surgeon by day, a searcher in life and a seriously cool guy all round.
Dividing his time in Melbourne, Australia between a children’s hospital and his own private practice, this laid-back Aussie also finds the time to volunteer six to eight weeks a year with Mercy Ships on the world’s largest charity hospital ship – the same organisation that 20 years ago determined his path into plastic surgery.
With a volunteer crew of more than 400 people from 35 different nations, the Africa Mercy hospital ship provides free, life-saving surgery to some of the poorest nations in the world. And it’s here that the real story begins, back in 1997 when young Dr David stepped onto the ship for the first time in Madagascar. After struggling with faith and how to live a life that reflected what he believed in, he felt he had some searching of his own to do. “I grew up in such a conservative church background, but I was put off by the whole thing – people saying things and not doing them. The hypocrisy drove me crazy,” recalls David. “Consequently, I felt like I had to adapt my life to look clean on the outside yet I felt completely different on the inside… so I went searching.”
It was this moment when David says he “found his calling”, after coming onboard and hearing about the vision of Mercy Ships and why it existed – to bring hope and healing to the world’s forgotten poor through life-changing surgery. During a welcome speech, David listened to Dr Gary Parker – the lead surgeon at the time – and describes the pivotal moment where he suddenly realised that he was meant to be used for something good: “Dr Gary Parker walks his life to the beat of a different drum. He’s listening to something so invisible yet so real. My life made sense all of a sudden. I knew why I had been called into medicine – I felt called to help those who need it most.”
When the time came to leave the ship six months later, he didn’t want to go and begged Dr Parker if he could stay: “I loved that the ship was not just talking about how people should act, they were doing it. They don’t just tell you what they believe, they use what they believe to genuinely change lives.” Dr Parker was clear with David, telling him he’d be more use to the ship if he went away and became a specialist surgeon and then came back to work for them.
“So I did,” says David coolly.
He left the ship to specialise in Otorhinolaryngology (or ears, noses and throats), but soon changed fields after speaking with Dr Parker: “I called him and he said to me, ‘Hmm… I think it would be better for you to be a plastic surgeon.’ So I changed!
“Plastic surgery suited me, particularly the face,” says David. “I always thought: ‘What is it about that face that we assume so much about each other just because of the way we look?’”
David’s parents fled Malaysia shortly before he was born due to political and racial persecution and set up in Australia, so David was no stranger to discrimination and the casual racism of the 1970s: “I have had a few bad experiences because of where I was from and how I look, but it was enough to give me empathy for those who are judged by what they look like, not who they are. That drew me into facial surgery – so much of how you are perceived is on your face. I love that many of the operations I do can alter someone’s life and how they are accepted into society.”
But it would be another 20 years to the day before David stepped back onto the ship as a specialist plastic surgeon to work alongside Dr Parker – once again in Madagascar. “It took me many years of wandering before I came back. I got lost and was doing my own thing.” But it was this time of being “lost” that gave David the ability to relate to people. “It was not wasted time,” he recalls. “There are things I wish I had never done, people I wish I had never hurt, but I can either choose to hold onto those things or not. I chose to move on with my life, to let go and to forgive. I think the world would be a better place if we all learned to do that.” And with that, he packed his bags and headed back to the ship that sparked his vision all those years ago.
For patients on the Africa Mercy, plastic surgery is far more than mere cosmetics. Devastating accidents resulting in burn contractures, and craniofacial deformities that should have been corrected at birth are all too common in the countries the ship visits where access to quality, affordable health care is scarce: “The stuff that we do here, it’s so preventable but they just have no access to health care. It gets to the point where it’s almost better to have a malignant tumour than a benign one because you have a chance of a quicker death and not one that slowly suffocates you. It’s shocking seeing what things can become when neglected.”
Since returning to the ship in 2015, David has volunteered each year for several weeks, visiting Benin, Cameroon and Guinea along the west coast of Africa. He’s given his time and skills to help those in need, conducting 145 surgeries on 135 unique patients over the past three years with Mercy Ships. “The moment I arrived on this ship I had an overwhelming feeling that I was being used to do something good. The look of desperation in the eyes of someone who knows that they are going to die and then seeing that same person after surgery, after they’ve been given a hope… I never tire of seeing that. It’s what captivates me most about this place. It’s impossible not to get swept up.”
Despite countless lives saved and people’s hopes restored during his professional life, David never really thought he’d end up in the field of surgery: “I never wanted the life of a surgeon,” David jokes. “I always thought they worked too hard and too much!” But after one particular day as a junior doctor when he was required to step into an OR to fill in for someone, he was blown away by the work that took place: “The medical marvel for me every time is our body’s ability to heal. I am amazed that my job involves crazy things like taking faces apart, putting them back, reconstructing bone etc. But it all means nothing if the body won’t take what we’ve done and start to heal.”
It was this realisation of the complexity of the human body and its intricate design that led David to continue his search on what he felt this life was about: “Without the ability to heal, surgery would not even work. Whatever you believe, whether you think we evolved from a series of cells or from God, the ‘maker’ gave us the ability to heal ourselves! I believe that doesn’t just go for outside, but the ability to heal on the inside too.”
As he recalls some of his most special cases on this ship, he begins to share the story of a woman who received more than just surgery. As a Congolese refugee, she arrived in Cameroon with no money, no company and no hope. A craniofacial deformity should have seen her die years prior, and those around her treated her as if she was nothing: “When I first met her she wouldn’t even look me in the eye,” recalls David. He soon realised that her scars from being rejected had caused as much internal damage and pain as her condition: “The amount of love that the ship showed her was incredible. The power of her being loved was far greater than any surgery we could have given her. It’s not just the physical we heal on this ship, we also free them from their emotional pain. I love that.”
Even when he’s not on the ship, David believes he lives his life differently since he started volunteering with Mercy Ships. Taking his eyes off himself allows him to live out what he believes in and finally understand the saying that giving is better than receiving (see Acts 20:35): “I made a choice – do I believe this is all complete luck and it doesn’t matter what I do, that I can live the way I want, and do whatever I think will bring me pleasure at the cost of others? Or, maybe there is some kind of meaning to it all.” Fed up with watching what his life could be like through a screen, David threw out the iPhone and ditched the news, with the aim of finding more time to do what was meaningful to him.
To this surgeon, life is an adventure. One with innumerous paths to explore and enjoy. When he’s not playing tennis or surfing, he’s meeting his patients and getting to know their stories. When he’s not transforming lives or travelling the world, he’s marvelling at the beauty of the creation around him and expressing his gratitude for life.
“The older I get the more I realise that there’s so much more in this life that cannot be solved with money. You can get caught up in things that just are not that important. When you’re around people who think the same, it’s contagious. There’s something about doing something for someone else – that’s what life is about; that’s what I get from coming and volunteering on the Africa Mercy.”
So now you too know a bit more about David Chong, one of the most down-to-earth, genuinely nice and humble men who also happens to be a renowned surgeon. He can say with first-hand experience that there’s a huge world out there to discover, and enjoy what you believe in. “Explore your passions. Find time to do things that are meaningful,” he says. “Mercy Ships is a great place to start but it does not have to be here. It’s what’s important to you. As a young, almost 50-year-old, believe me when I say time passes by too quickly. We all have the miracle of life, how do we want to use it?”
David’s pursuit of specialised plastic surgery, his love for those around him and his ability to take his experiences and mould them for the better has led to the passionate man that we meet today. And even though he knows he probably won’t ever see his patients again, he knows he’s been part of a ship that is making that kind of difference every day. And that, according to David, is “pretty cool”.