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Toronto doctor offers free eye exam to visitors

Dr. Phong Bui

The year was 1992, the place, Toronto Pearson International Airport. Dr. Phong Bui stepped off a flight from Vietnam as a 19 year old with five of his siblings. They had only U.S. $2 in their possession.

For a teenager who barely spoke a word of English, he has come a long way. Today he is an optometrist, running his own practice, I Optical, and leaving his mark on others and allowing them to see the world much brighter, by offering his service free of charge to those less financially able.

Dr. Bui who has persevered in the face of adversity, has become a redeemer to many, offering free eye examination to new immigrants and Canadian visitors. He has endured the ravages of war while growing up in a battle-scarred country. As a teenager, he watched as his older brother fled communist Vietnam on a boat in 1988, leaving the family behind in search of a better life in Canada.

Though he humbly asserts his impact on the community as being minor and the normal thing to do, the optometrist has been changing and affecting many lives.

“I work not only as a doctor, but I work as a brother or a son,” he says. “If you can do something small that makes you happy that’s worth your life. You work to pay the bills, but there are some things money can’t buy, like loving people.”

Dr. Bui’s passion for giving free eye examination to immigrants stems from a lesson he learnt from a physician who cared for his mother.

“When I came here, my mother did not yet obtain her necessary papers for Canada and she needed to go to the doctor,” he said. “She didn’t have any money to pay her family doctor, yet he examined her for free.” Such generosity has stuck with Dr. Bui and has given him the inspiration to return the same favour to others.

The thought of optometry as a career grew from a frustrating incident to a gradual love affair. The doctor had gone to get his eyes tested and because of the language barrier, neither he nor the optometrist could understand each other. In a light bulb moment, he thought this was a profession for him. “I thought I could help the people of my country who migrate here, especially the elders and the uneducated, who do not know English well.”

Becoming an optometrist however, was a far reaching dream for the Waterloo University graduate. Frustrated by the difficulty associated with learning a new language and being forced back into high school- a task he had already completed in Vietnam, he quit school. Dr. Bui found a job as an upholsterer at the company where his brother was working.

As fate would have it, he took the wrong bus to work one day, which diverted him to York University campus. Mesmerized by the enormity and the grandeur of the campus surroundings, he instantly changed his mind about going back to school. He enrolled into a correspondent program, dedicating any spare time he had to studying. The same bus that rerouted him became his study lounge, while commuting to and from work each day.

When Dr. Bui quit his job to attend university, his manager was less than impressed with his decision. “I told him, I came here with nothing to lose. If I didn’t make it in school, I can come back to work, but whatever I will learn is in my head and you cannot take it away.” The situation got worst when Bui influenced two other co-workers to quit and follow him on his quest for a higher education. They both listened and are now Waterloo Computer Engineer graduates.

Coming full circle, the doctor pointed to the sitting area of his well-maintained office, gesturing that the chairs that his patients now sits on in the waiting area is a congratulatory gift from the same boss when he opened his practice.

Dr. Bui’s unselfish nature has allowed him to establish more than just a doctor-patient relationship with his clients. On many occasions he has to strip away the doctor title to deal with patients suffering from eye problems who struggles to come up with the necessary funds for his service. He says, “If they are poor and don’t have a job, I say to them, ‘don’t worry, pay me next time.’”

The hardship that some of his patients convey, is all too familiar to Dr. Bui. When asked how life in Vietnam was for him, with much emotion, he repeatedly stated, “Very tough, tough, too tough. Many, many afternoons I walk home and what’s on my mind is, ‘I don’t know if we still have food today.’ I don’t know where my mom gets it sometimes,” he said. “As a child sometimes we would go to other families and ask if they had food.”

These are childhood experiences that stand as reinforcement for the doctor to have no hesitations in giving back to his patients and giving thanks to his brother who helped to sponsor him.

“My brother gave me a big opportunity. I can remember when I came here; it was nine of us living in a basement that my brother shared with someone else.”

The optometrist has come a far way from those days, now married with a three-year-old son and another baby on the way. An avid soccer player, he was a member of the United Vietnamese Student Association of Ontario league, with many trophies in his office to boast of his talent.

He has professed his appreciation to the country that has taken him from the dark days in the country of his birth and has fashioned him into an ambassador for those suffering with vision problems.

“Canada is a haven for immigrants, but you just have to take it,” he says. “If we came here, if we remember what we had and what we came here for, then we can do anything.”

Dr. Bui’s aim is not just to extend his service to Canadian visitors, but hopes one day to visit third world countries to give his service for free to those who desperately needs eye care. Vietnam is one of such countries. When he does go back, he doesn’t want to be treated as a doctor. He would rather the people in his community not know of his profession. He wants to blend in just like everyone else – a difficult task for an optometrist who has an eye for those in need and the heart to do something about it.

I Optical
1066 Wilson Ave, Downsview, ON

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