Editor’s note: This story is part of a series about Oklahomans who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read the stories of other Oklahomans here. Have you lost a loved one to COVID-19? Help us tell their story.
At age 76, Dr. Yee Se Choa Ong had no plans to retire. He saw as many as 80 patients a day, working 100 hours a week or more.
Born to Chinese immigrants in the Philippines, Ong was Muskogee’s first cardiologist when he arrived in the late 1970s after searching for a community that needed more doctors.
He continued his breakneck work pace after the coronavirus pandemic reached Oklahoma in early 2020, urging his patients to wear masks and practice social distancing, daughter Jasmine Ong said.
“He just really wanted people to look for themselves and look after each other. And he’d spent 41 years trying to make that community well— not not just take care of people’s emergent needs, but also teach prevention and teach good lifestyle habits,” she said.
She believes he convinced some patients to take precautions against the coronavirus who wouldn’t have otherwise. Her father was dismayed by Oklahomans who didn’t take the virus seriously and the lack of a statewide mask mandate.
“It was heartbreaking to watch how frustrated he was with that,” she said.
The Ongs opened the Cardiology Clinic of Muskogee in July 1979. Dr. Ong was the sole practitioner and Ann Ong worked as the office manager.
The clinic eventually became CCOM Medical Group and it grew to include other specialties including nephrology, endocrinology, and rheumatology.
Ong was born Aug. 31, 1944 in Quezon City in the Philippines, the fifth of six children born to Chinese immigrants Ong Pac and Choa Siu Eng. He started working at age 6 at his family’s grocery store, stocking cans.
Ong’s father died when he was 9 years old after an unknown illness that was treated at home. The family lived in a rural province without adequate access to medical care and Jasmine believes this may have inspired her father to later study medicine.
Ong went on to earn an undergraduate degree in medical technology from the University of the Pacific. During the Vietnam War, Ong worked as a medical technician at Clark Air Force Base on Luzon Island providing triage care to wounded American soldiers. He graduated from medical school at the University of Santo Tomas in 1972 in Manilla.
Ong then immigrated to the United States and married Ann Barker on Oct. 10, 1974 in Brooklyn, New York while he completed a residency at Coney Island Hospital.
He later completed a cardiology fellowship at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where the Ongs’ first child, Jasmine, was born.
Ong was working late at night the weekend after Thanksgiving in November 2020 when he collapsed in the cardiology unit and hit his head at Saint Francis Hospital in Muskogee.
Ong’s family doesn’t know what caused him to collapse at the hospital, but Jasmine believes exhaustion played a role.
He was hospitalized for a traumatic brain injury after the fall and also had cardiac surgery.
Even during his weeks of recovery in the hospital, Ong urged his caregivers to let him return to work.
He asked for his keys and patient notes and even tried to recruit a nurse he liked to come work for him.
“He really believed he would be going back,” Jasmine said.
After more than 40 years serving patients in Muskogee, Ong believed the community needed him more than ever, she said.
Ong was still recovering from surgery at Saint Francis Hospital in Tulsa when he began experiencing respiratory distress and tested positive for COVID-19.
He died just after midnight on Dec. 21. He is survived by his wife of 46 years Ann Barker Ong, children Jasmine and Emil Ong, siblings in the Philippines and several nieces and nephews.
Ong never stopped working for his patients, and often kept trying to revive a person long past the point where other doctors would have given up hope, Jasmine said.
“Once in a while, he would save somebody that just about anybody else would have walked away from,” she said.