Ivan Tong’s cousin, Leon, is now in his mid-20s and preparing to graduate from engineering school.
Just a few short years ago, however, the family wasn’t sure Leon would have such a future due to an accidental drug overdose.
“We’re lucky (my cousin) is alive,” Tong said.
Recently nominated as a delegate to the prestigious Congress of Future Medical Leaders, Tong began pursuing the medical field in honor of his cousin, who is now 25 and living in Houston.
“Pursuing the medical industry would be such an honor for me as I can not only help others but can also work with people who share my same interests in science and medicine,” he said.
A Sugar Land resident and a soon-to-be junior at Elkins High School, Tong is not your typical 16-year-old.
And that’s the way he wants it. He’s using the memory of a harrowing experience as the driving force behind an educational journey meant to ensure other families don’t face the same fright.
Tong’s mission stems largely from one night about four years ago, when his cousin had gone out to a party.
Tong said he initially overheard his parents discussing Leon’s admission to the hospital one night while he was in seventh grade.
“Back then I had this sort of invincible mentality,” he said. “They said, ‘Your cousin’s in the hospital,’ and I thought to myself that he’d be better because he was being taken care of by professionals.”
But upon his first visit to see Leon, Tong said that notion came crashing down. He said his cousin was confined to the hospital, with bloodshot red eyes and eating through a tube. During one stretch, Tong said Leon could only eat ice chips.
That was the moment of truth, Tong said. His cousin had been found in a ditch coming back from a party, with signs of a drug overdose. And after seeing his cousin nearly lose his life, Tong felt the urge to make a difference.
“I really broke down. It wasn’t what I was expecting,” he said. “…After that, I realized there’s a lot more to this world than meets the eye, and there’s a lot of things out there that need help being solved.”
While Tong said he has his eyes set on becoming an anesthesiologist, he’s using the personal story to spread awareness of the dangers of prescription drugs such as those his cousin used.
Part of the reason for his medical congress nomination was his work in the community, where Tong has given speeches on the subject at Elkins as well as Sugar Land Middle School. He has also created a website, awarenessrx.org/, where he posts links to helpful information and videos of his presentations.
“I feel like it’s good to express this story now so other people don’t go through the same thing,” he said. “There are a lot of misconceptions out there about prescription drugs, and I just want to keep other families from experiencing what I did.”
The congress is an honors-only program for high school students who want to become physicians or go into medical research fields. Tong’s nomination was signed by Dr. Mario Capecchi, winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine and the Science Director of the National Academy of Future Physicians and Medical Scientists, so Tong could represent Texas based on his “academic achievement, leadership potential and determination to serve humanity in the field of medicine,” according to a news release from the organization.
Every 11 minutes, Tong said someone in the world is the victim of an overdose. And though he knows he is just a small cog, his passion for spreading awareness still burns strong.
“When all that trauma is happening worldwide, I had to start doing as much as I could,” he said.
During the three-day congress Nov. 21-23, Tong will join students from across the country and hear Nobel Laureates and National Medal of Science Winners talk about leading medical research and given advice from medical school deans on what to expect.
He will also witness stories told by patients who survived against all odds – those much like his cousin, who Tong has a heart for saving.
“If I can help one person, or just save one life, that will be enough,” he said.