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Most people put a lot of thought and money into planning their annual summer holiday. And while Whitechapel resident Dr Leo Cheng does the same, for the past seven years he has gone to great expense to spend his annual leave using his skills to transform other people’s lives. Jessica Odubayo went to meet him.
DR Leo Cheng is a consultant oral and facial reconstructive surgeon with Barts and the London Trust.
For his holidays, he pays his own travel costs to go to the west coast of Africa, where he volunteers his time and skills performing life-saving operations on some of the poorest people on the continent.
During his annual trips, Dr Cheng works on board the world’s largest non-governmental hospital ship, the Africa Mercy. Before the vessel arrives in a country, leaflets are dropped into the area, from a helicopter.
At weekends, Dr Cheng gets off the ship and visits orphanages in remote areas. And such charitable undertakings run in the Cheng family. This year, his teenage daughter Kat volunteered as a catering assistant. Kat also served as an eye clinic assistant in war-torn Liberia two years ago. Three years ago his wife Hilary, a Methodist minister, volunteered as a chaplain for patients and carers both on board the Africa Mercy and on land-based community projects and clinics.
Explaining why he does it, Dr Cheng said: “I want to use my skills to bring hope and healing to desperate people with no money or access to medical services.” During the first week of Dr Cheng’s visit this summer, 3,000 people flocked to the ship each day. He rebuilt noses, upper lips and cheeks,removed benign tumours and carried out other treatment on people who have endured years of suffering. The surgeon has worked on patients, ranging from a man with a 14-year-old growth, to a four-dayold baby with a tongue condition.
“After surgery, we give patients a goody bag which contains a mirror. They have to prove [see] that the tumour is gone,in order to come to terms with it,” Dr Cheng said. He said many of the areas he visits have little or no drinking water, electricity and sanitation.
In a country like Liberia, only one in three children reach their fifth birthday, there are few qualified doctors and dentists, and simple medical problems often result in the patient’s death. Mercy Ships are crewed by teams of volunteers including doctors, nurses,water engineers,physiotherapists,cooks and agriculturists.
In addition to the dramatic transforming surgery on board the Mercy Ships, medical and dental teams establish land-based field clinics carrying out free vaccination programmes, dental care, minor operations and medical screening, as well as supporting the training of local doctors and nurses.
The volunteers also run education programmes in hygiene, nutrition, basic health care including AIDS prevention and microenterprises to generate income for the poor. The surgeon, who is a committed Christian, also fundraises to buy medical equipment to take on his trips. Quoting American author and clergyman Edward Hale, Dr Cheng concluded: “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything,but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.”
Dr Cheng told East End Life about Lawson, a former football player with a Ghanaian national team. With the growth of a huge tumour in hisface, his wife left him and his family shunned him. Desperate, Lawson travelled to Togo to seek help. It took three surgeons eight hours to remove the lump and reconstruct Lawson’s jaw. Dr Cheng carried out further surgery to close a tunnel between Lawson’s mouth and nose. And the following year, the grateful patient returned to the ship to thank the surgeons and volunteers who treated him.