Community Service Award Winners Bring Needed Medical Care to Impoverished Areas

Feature Story
Dr. Maxwell Cheng surrounded by children from the Philippines.
Children in the Philippines affected by Typhoon Haiyan gather with Dr. Maxwell Cheng, who gave them their first eye exam.

For more than a decade, the David Lawrence Community Service Award has recognized Kaiser Permanente employees and physicians throughout our regions who champion outstanding volunteer activities and initiatives to improve the health of our communities. The annual award is named in honor of David M. Lawrence, MD, former chairman and CEO of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Hospitals and a lifelong advocate for improving community health.

Two awardees are selected annually in each region for their significant contributions to improving the overall health of a community or population. Their commitments are focused on health and social issues, including increasing access to health care for the underserved, eliminating disparities in health outcomes of racial and ethnic minorities, and addressing the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age that can impact their health.

The 2017 Kaiser Permanente Southern California Region winners are Maxwell Cheng, OD, and the Kaiser Permanente Fontana/Riverside Volunteer Subgroup of InterFACE. They will each receive a $10,000 charitable contribution from Kaiser Permanente to the nonprofit organization of their choice.

Maxwell Cheng, OD

While many of us take for granted the ability to go to the doctor when we are ill or need treatment, about 90 percent of the world’s population lacks access to seeing an eye doctor.

Maxwell Cheng, OD, an optometrist at the Kaiser Permanente West Los Angeles Medical Center, is working hard to change that.

For more than seven years, Dr. Cheng has helped develop and led more than 25 medical missions to Peru, the Philippines, Nepal, Mexico and Jamaica. He has also collaborated with the Alliance of Jamaican and American Humanitarians to coordinate health fairs that provide medical and eye care services to the diverse homeless population on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.

“Knowing that I have the ability as a doctor to help such large numbers of people in a profound way, I feel a responsibility to share my skills and experience,” said Dr. Cheng, who uses five weeks of his personal vacation time a year to complete the humanitarian trips.

Dr. Maxwell Cheng examing a young Jamican boy's eye with mother looking on

Dr. Maxwell Cheng provides a young boy in Jamaica his first eye exam and pair of glasses.

Whether Dr. Cheng is performing free eye exams or organizing cataract surgeries to restore sight, assisting victims of natural disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, or teaching seminars on eye care locally and internationally, his efforts are making a tremendous difference.

He has provided life-changing eye care to thousands of patients living in poverty around the world. For many impoverished families who must choose between eating and buying glasses and medications, the medical mission may be the only place where they can obtain treatment.

Dr. Cheng is building the capacity of other optometrists and individuals in the countries he visits to continue his work well into the future. He offers educational support, serves as a consultant, and shares best practices to support optometrists, ophthalmologists, ophthalmic assistants, students and other volunteers on how to improve treatment and conduct effective medical missions.

In areas with few eye doctors, Dr. Cheng often spends many hours educating politicians, physicians and communities about the importance of expert eye care. In Jamaica, for example, many residents are unaware of the extremely high incidence of glaucoma, a disease that will lead to blindness if not diagnosed early and treated.

Dr. Cheng’s work has been well recognized. In addition to media attention in the countries he visits, other recent accolades include:

  • Alliance of Jamaican and American Humanitarians Honoree of the Year 2015
  • Kaiser Permanente Southern California Optometrist of the Year 2016
  • Kaiser Permanente West Los Angeles Community Star 2017

“If people can see, they can be independent and have more options in life, no matter their ethnic group, socioeconomic class, education level, or where they live or work,” said Dr. Cheng. “Through my humanitarian work, I feel fortunate to be able to help many people lead healthier and more productive, fulfilling lives and to inspire others to get involved.”

Kaiser Permanente Fontana/Riverside volunteer group

Congenital and acquired deformities, ranging from facial disfigurements and extra fingers to burn scars, can be debilitating. Those affected often suffer physical pain or disability, as well as endless teasing and stares from strangers.

For nearly three decades, the Kaiser Permanente Fontana/Riverside volunteer group has traveled three times a year to Mexico to help give impoverished children with complex deformities the best life possible. The group is a subgroup of InterFACE, an international nonprofit organization based in San Diego, California, whose volunteer surgical team offers no-cost, reconstructive surgery for children in need.

“In the United States, if a child has a deformity, there are many more resources to help him or her receive the appropriate medical treatment, regardless if their family can afford it,” said Valerie Sedor, a certified registered nurse anesthetist at Fontana Medical Center who has participated in the group for the past 17 years. “In Mexico, children living in poverty will likely never receive care for their deformity, and may needlessly suffer.”

Belinda Shalhoub, a certified registered nurse anesthetist who takes part in the Kaiser Permanente Fontana/Riverside volunteer

Belinda Shalhoub, a certified registered nurse anesthetist who takes part in the Kaiser Permanente Fontana/Riverside volunteer, attends to a young girl in Mexicali.

The group of up to 90 medical team members commits to these journeys. The team consists of:  surgeons, anesthetists, anesthesiologists, nurses, technicians, speech pathologists, translators and other Kaiser Permanente staff who spend three days performing 50 to 75 surgeries in either hospital or mobile operating rooms. The group partners with medical professionals from the U.S. Navy, University of California, San Diego and the Kaiser Permanente San Diego Medical Center. Team members also collaborate with the Mexican Red Cross and local physicians and nurses, and share their new techniques and best practices.

Each year, the Kaiser Permanente Fontana/Riverside volunteer group travels twice to the border city of Mexicali and once to the city of La Piedad in the state of Michoacán. Since retired Kaiser Permanente anesthesiologist, Douglas Flores, MD, launched the collaboration 27 years ago, the group has performed more than 4,500 life-changing surgeries.

Whether the team repairs a patient’s cleft lip and palate or malformed ear, or removes a hemangioma (noncancerous tumor), “We are dedicated to changing the dire circumstances for every child in need that we encounter,” said Sedor.

The group also provides postoperative care, and if time and resources permit, surgically treats adults with deformities.

The team’s goal is to increase its number of volunteers and surgeries performed in Mexico. Team members help coordinate volunteers, gather the necessary materials and supplies, and partner with other organizations to enhance the group’s capacity. The team is working to expand its much-needed surgeries to a third city in Mexico.

The volunteer group has already received the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Everyday Hero Award for its impressive work. The Mexican media has also recognized the group’s efforts and promotes the program to the residents of Mexico.

“Helping to transform these children’s lives and seeing them and their families so happy is the best reward,” said Sedor.