Interview with Dr David Chong, keynote speaker at the RAVN conference

19 October 2016

Find out more about our keynote speaker at the RAVN conference – Dr David Chong and his motivation to change the world with a smile.  Dr Chong is a Melbourne-based plastic surgeon who specialises in facial differences in children. He has volunteered with the Mercy Ship and Operation Smile and has done more than twenty five missions in various developing countries. 

What led you to become a plastic surgeon?

I always knew from an early age that I wanted to make a difference. I was fortunate to come to Australia at age five. On moving to Australia I began to realise what it was like to be different. Initially it was fun and then when I entered my teens I met some not ‘so’ fun people. People treated me differently because of my appearance. I remember feeling this sense of injustice and thinking how can they claim to know so much about me just from the way that I look?

I believe every cloud has a silver lining and for me that experience led me to where I am now. It helped me understand what it is liked to be judged on your outward appearance and that was an early impetus for me to develop empathy for children who are born looking different but are fundamentally no different to you or me. The fact that I can change this experience for kids and give them a life free of being judged on who they are based on the way they look was something that naturally gravitated to me. I love what I do. I love the instant gratification I get by looking at someone and knowing I would be able to help them.   

You volunteer regularly. What ignited your passion for volunteering?

There is something quite liberating and gratifying for your soul when you are able to do something for someone else. Life is such a mystery. Each day I encounter something that demonstrates to me how miraculous life is. I find something spiritual happens when you take your eyes off yourself and do something for someone else just because you can. In some ways you then bring a healing to yourself. In a time where there is a lot going on in the world that is out of your control, I feel there is something you can influence and that is how you use your time and that might be choosing to volunteer.

A passion is something you can do and like to do even if nobody pays you. I think that is the key to volunteering, finding something you are passionate about and in your own way you start to change the world. You might be changing the lives of one or two people but you are changing their world. I think that becomes infectious and the more you do it the more you love doing it. You also come back from your time volunteering and you start to look at your life a little differently and with a lot more gratitude. 

What has been a highlight of your volunteer experience?

Nineteen years ago as a young doctor I went on the Mercy Ship, at the time it was called Dr Madagascar. It had a profound influence on me as a young man. I didn’t want to leave that ship, and I wanted to stay on as a general doctor. The lead surgeon on that ship encouraged me to leave and train in plastic surgery. He then advised me to come back to the ship where I could further assist. Some 19 years later, just last year, I returned to the ship. It was a very different experience. The same surgeon was still there. It was just one of those moments I went ‘wow - what I set out do I actually achieved’. It was also a reminder of why I do what I do. I am looking forward to doing more work with that organisation.  

Do you have a memorable moment from volunteering?

You have so many wonderful moments with people that you meet. That is the amazing thing to me, that’s why you go. The magic is what is left after you leave each other, what you created through your interactions. It is an equal relationship. I take something away from each interaction I have when I am away volunteering.

The most memorable person, or person who has influenced me whilst volunteering was a 14 year old boy I met who had a tumor the size of his head on the back of his head. He had it all his life and it became malignant. All he wanted to do was play soccer, that was his big dream to get out on the field and he never could because of his tumor. Before he passed away, we were able to get him out to play a game at soccer. That moment really stuck with me, especially in terms of gratitude for the things we can do. So often I look at what I can’t do or what I wished I had but to be able to see a young man whose biggest wish was to play soccer and then had his life taken from him, it puts everything in perspective.

Some people don’t like talking about the sad moments, but for me that experience just had such a profound impact on me, to actually go through and witness. 

Who has been your greatest inspiration?

Dr Gary Parker, he was the lead surgeon on the Mercy Ship who encouraged me to study plastic surgery. He has worked with the Mercy Ship for nearly thirty years. His passion is caring for the poor, those who do not have a voice. He has made this a part of his life. He doesn’t want any accolades or reward. He just wants to do what he feels he has been called to do on this planet. So often we can say what we believe but live differently. Whenever I am around him I am absolutely inspired by the way he lives what he believes.

What three pieces of advice would you give a returned volunteer?

I don’t think I can presume I know enough to benefit my fellow volunteers who have had such a variety of experience and lengths of time away but the advice I give myself when returning back from volunteering is:

1. Our adventure is not over.

All the wonderful life lessons and values we have acquired, foster them in our home. Let our local people benefit from the light we have to share.

2. Build our community

Whatever we do in the future, we need a place called home. People who we love and who love us and who know and can support us whether we are right next door or tripping off on our next overseas experience.

3. Keep our senses open

For those of us who love volunteering, the world is such a part of our life. What group of people, what condition, what situation will lie next on my heart? Stay ready to answer the niggling, sometimes inconvenient, but always inspiring whispers of the soul that beckon us to benefit our planet in this miraculous life.

Dr Chong will be giving a keynote speech on ‘Changing the World with a Smile’ at the Valuing Volunteers conference. He is looking forward to sharing his experience of the magic of volunteering and will talk about not only what it does for the world, but importantly, what it does for the volunteer.

Last Updated: 19 October 2016