The blind get a helping hand in Nashville

Reuters
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The blind get a helping hand in Nashville

By Pat Harris

Wed 21 Nov 2007, 8:03 GMT

NASHVILLE, Tenn., Nov 21 (Reuters) - The tiny, 5-year-old girl from Calcutta is 
called Kajal. She is blind because an angry stepmother poured acid in her eyes 
in a now distant spat in her homeland.

She has come to this country music capital as have hundreds before her from 
across the United States and more than 50 other countries for a chance that her 
sight might be returned at the The Wang Foundation for Sight Restoration.

 Dr. Ming Wang helped establish the foundation in 2003 to treat without charge 
cases of corneal blindness through a combination of transplants and laser 
treatments.

"Kajal's world is dark and painful but she laughs because she is so happy," 
said the smiling, soft-spoken Wang. "Life itself is music with its 
inspirational beauty amid the suffering, and she has found that."

But for a moment, here on the dance floor of a Tennessee hotel ballroom, she is 
a star guided through a few well-rehearsed steps and an impromptu jig by the 
tall, slim physician.

There were several hundred doctors, physicists and scientific luminaries from 
as far away as Siberia at the foundation's recent annual "Eye Ball," a 
white-tie-and-tails fund-raising gala that his nonprofit foundation has held 
for three years, and where Kajal stole the show.

She was found abandoned at age 3 in a train station by a mission group, "The 
Society of Underprivileged People," which directed her to the Wang Foundation.

Grace Zaidl, the caretaker accompanying Kajal, said: "She had no chance -- 
blind and female -- much unwanted in a population of abused children whose 
limbs are sometimes amputated to arouse pity when sent out to beg."

She underwent her first surgery May 14, with more to come, though the outcome 
is uncertain as the damage was worse than initially thought. Wang, who has 
successfully performed dozens of surgeries, is optimistic.

The sight restoration methods used at the Wang Foundation include such things 
as amniotic membrane transplantation and corneal stem cell transplants -- 
techniques that are "standard and well-accepted in this country," according to 
Dr. Ivan Schwab, professor of opthalmology at the University of California, 
Davis.

He said there is work being done now around the world that promises to offer 
even more hope in future years to people whose blindness had been considered 
untreatable,

In the meantime, advanced beyond her age, Kajal explores the world, bursting 
with curiosity about the word "adoption" which she learned from foster parents 
who are caring for her in Nashville and who hope to adopt her.

A magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University Medical School with a doctoral 
degree in laser physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the 
46-year-old Wang is an associate professor of ophthalmology and attending 
physician at Nashville's St. Thomas Hospital.

He spun that career out of grim prospects -- in his native China he faced 
deportation to work camps in the aftermath of Mao Zedong's 1960s Cultural 
Revolution.

"Fortunately, my father was a doctor and was able to bribe professors to admit 
me to medical school to audit classes. I was studying to be a doctor I could 
not be -- I hadn't even finished high school," Dr. Wang recounted. "But the 
government soon found out and I was kicked out."

Undaunted, he set about learning to play the Er-hu, an ancient Chinese 
two-string violin requiring considerable skill that Maoist officials revered as 
a special talent and which Wang hoped would save him from deportation. The 
Er-hu is the primary string instrument in a Chinese music ensemble.

After Mao's death in 1976 Wang quickly gained admission to a university by 
cramming his remaining two years of high school into three days and nights of 
study.

"On February 3, l982, I managed to get a mentor and arrived in the United 
States with $50 cash and a Chinese-English dictionary," he said. "I was 21 
years old and entered Harvard, where I supported myself teaching undergrads 
physical chemistry while studying laser physics."

Wang said his drive to succeed came from starting out with nothing and the 
shadow of having no control over his life.

"But the drive is not based on material success," he said. "It is the third 
dimension that is more important than wealth. The drive is to create a magic 
moment when someone sees again -- the essence of human life. At the end of the 
day, that is what matters."

Wang also became so skilled with his beloved Chinese violin that one of his 
patients, Nashville's own Dolly Parton, called on him to play on two of her 
albums.

"She just came bouncing into my offices one day and hauled me over to her 
recording studio," he said. "We did it in one take, which I thought was 
amazing."

The doctor has also joined classical guitarist Carlos Enrique and cellist John 
Catchings to play venues around Nashville, and has won awards for the ballroom 
dancing he learned at Harvard.

When the fund-raising ball rolls around next year he may take the floor again 
with little Kajal, who he hopes will be able to look into his eyes and see the 
flashing lights and vivid colors of a world in which she is now very much 
wanted. (Editing by Michael Conlon and Eddie Evans) 


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