Student Spotlight: Dr. Michael Lao Gives the Gift of Sight

Dr. Michael Lao has made it his mission to help the blind see. On an average day, he and his team perform more than 1,000 cataract surgeries in churches and schools. Not only does he travel around the Philippines to serve patients, but he doesn’t charge them a single cent. 

His passion to become a missionary developed when the devastating 2011 Japan tsunami flooded more than 200 miles of coastal land. “I was there during the tsunami, so I saw what it did,” says Michael. “I had a fellowship in Japan and saw how many people suffered. By experiencing this, I knew that a materialistic lifestyle was not for me. Life has to be about something bigger. Anything can be taken away from you at any given time. After that, I decided to become a missionary.” 

Michael began going from town to town, helping anyone with medical issues. He soon realized he would have to make this a sustainable effort. “Once I reached the age of 40, I told myself that I would completely stop charging patients. I started doing a lot of surgeries for free and needed to know how to make this a sustainable process. No one would ever have to pay and I could still cover all the expenses of surgery.” 

Everything fell into place when Michael’s patient, an 80-year-old farmer, insisted on giving him raw coffee as payment. “I like serving farmers and teachers because they’re the ones that are very underserved. They started giving me things like chickens, fruit, and vegetables. This one woman was going to go blind and had been turned away by three hospitals because she couldn’t afford it. I ended up saving her vision and she gave me raw coffee from her incredible farm in the mountains.”

At first, Michael wasn’t sure what to do with the raw coffee. “The funny thing is, I was a tea drinker and didn’t know anything about blends,” jokes Lao. He ended up bringing it to one of the best roasters in Japan and asked if he could please roast it for him. The roaster tried it and said it was the best coffee he had ever tasted. “I went back to that patient and she said she had more coffee. She had been picking it by herself in the mountains for years. She said she had neighbors that also harvested coffee and needed help with their sight. I started taking care of them and realized they were getting paid very low for their coffee. I said I would pay them double and they would be my patients for free. That’s how the coffee business became my thing.” 

Michael began selling the coffee in Tokyo and the funds drastically increased the amount of surgeries he could perform. “We ended up going to another area in the Philippines to serve those people. My patients took me to a cacao farm and my wife said, ‘Why don’t we try this, too.’ So, I started trading cacao in the same model. I had to study coffee like I was studying chemistry. I had to study chocolate fermentation of cacao like I was studying pharmacology. Of course it’s scary because you have to learn everything from scratch. The thing about being a missionary is that you’re not so scared to make mistakes. That’s life. You have to have the same mentality for business. You have to have the resilience and the grit to move on.” 

The resilience of Michael’s medical efforts to help patients has now turned into a work of art. Within two to three hours, he and his team clean and set up makeshift clinics in churches and schools. They can see more than 1,000 patients per day. “One cataract surgery would probably cost them 1,000 dollars. We do it for free. These people can’t afford these surgeries in our healthcare system. That’s unacceptable to me. So, we go to the people.” 

Michael is changing thousands of lives every day and has seen the miracle of receiving sight. “You do what you have to do to help people and every time you do, it’s a miracle. I couldn’t believe that people would crawl just to get to me. They cannot see. They have to crawl. So, I wash people’s feet and their hands. After the surgery, you start to see the miracle take over. They can be independent now and they start to cry. I always joke, ‘Please don’t cry because you still have sutures on.’” 

In order to impact the greatest number of people, he knew he would need as much business knowledge as possible. “I have to split my personality in two. I have a schedule when I am the CEO of a company and for the rest of the week, I am a missionary. You really have to have a strong mind to separate both aspects because one is about making money to sustain your efforts. These are hundreds of thousands of people that need our help. My company has 20 people, but it’s not about that. It’s about the people you impact; The farmers, the teachers, the fisherman. If I can’t fight for them, who will?” 

Michael realized that Quantic would be the perfect option to gain this business knowledge and pursue his Executive MBA. “Quantic gave me my shot and taught me a lot of things on the business side. Quantic is a multiplier. Whatever I learned from Quantic, I can multiply and serve more people and encourage other people to do the same.” 

Now, in his free time, Michael continues to expand his missionary work. He is helping to bring doctors together and develop solar power and fresh water innovations for communities. “We’re harvesting clean water, producing vegetables, and using the same free surgery method. I keep telling them that they will find the courage to move forward because they are directly seeing the stakeholders, which are the patients. Once you see them, you get enough courage to do anything to help.”