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  • Apr 21, 2014
  • Updated: 8:27pm
NewsHong Kong
CHARITY

Doctor finds her calling deep in the African jungle

Hongkonger Joyce Samoutou-Wong is full of stories from Congo-Brazzaville, where she has set up the country's first eye surgery clinic

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 May, 2013, 4:22am

When Dr Joyce Samoutou-Wong is asked to share some of her experiences of working with patients in Congo-Brazzaville, she has no end of inspirational stories to tell - each one a tale of a life transformed.

The 36-year-old Hongkonger moved to the country last year with her husband Henri, an eye surgeon and native of neighbouring Gabon, to set up the nation's first eye surgery clinic.

"Once, I went to our ward to look for a cataract patient we had operated on three days earlier. I couldn't find him anywhere, and then suddenly, I heard a voice say, 'Doctor, doctor, I'm here,'" she says, describing one such story. "I couldn't believe it - he looked absolutely nothing like the man I had met before the operation. He had been quiet and downcast, but afterwards, he was glowing and full of life."

The couple arrived in Impfondo, a town in the northeast with a population of about 20,000, in April last year. Since officially opening in January, the clinic has performed an average of 160 eye consultations a month.

"Our eye centre is like the ultimate makeover reality show for so many of our patients. They often say to us, 'Thank you for giving me my life back,'" she says.

"Their confidence, independence and dignity are restored. Many of them even look younger. The transformation extends to their families. Patients become breadwinners again. Family members can be released from care to work and to study."

Samoutou-Wong says the sense of reward she feels from her work is invaluable, but that there is a price to pay. She, her husband and their three children left their comfortable life in Britain to start anew in a strange country. They ran the medical centre and financed their living expenses from donations by supporters.

And they found that things they had become used to obtaining easily in Britain were scarce in their region. Soy sauce and chocolate biscuits sent from abroad were "prized possessions" in Impfondo that she became reluctant to use and more inclined to keep safe.

Adapting to life in the middle of a jungle was difficult enough for a "city girl" from Hong Kong, but having to raise three children there, between the ages of two and seven, was even harder.

"I felt guilty when they asked to go out and there was no library or playground … I tried not to think about the snakes and scorpions in our garden."

Still, the challenging natural environment did not deter them. A year on, she has seen the children adapt to their new life better than many adults, overcoming the language barrier and making friends, and she now feels more confident about "surviving" there.

"I can never complain about our so-called hardship when I see how much we have in comparison. Fifty-four per cent of Congolese live in absolute poverty, which means that they live on less than US$1 a day. They need help."

With an increasing number of patients, more facilities are needed at the clinic. Instead of operating out of the local hospital, they are hoping to build their own dedicated eye centre, and are in the process of training locals to run it.

"It really is very humbling to think we can play a part in making a lasting difference to people in a country where living is by no means easy. The joy and hope of our patients and families are contagious. They never cease to touch and amaze me.

Those who wish to donate to the family's project can go to www.newsightcongo.com

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