Giving Mission

The next best thing to being a doctor is helping one

Bonnie Uytengsu stands with Dr. Joyce Liao in front of a laboratory at the Mary M. and Sash A. Spencer Center for Vision Research at the Byers Eye Institute.


IF BONNIE UYTENGSU could go back in time and pick any career she wanted, she would have made her way in medicine, as a doctor or as a researcher studying the intricacies of the brain and what makes it tick.

“I wanted to be a doctor, but as you see, I’m not,” she said with a smile in an interview in her Atherton, California home. “The next best thing is helping doctors.”

Even without a doctorate, Bonnie and her family—her late husband, Wilfred Sr.; daughter, Candice; and sons, Michael and Wilfred Jr.— have made an enormous impact on medicine and other important disciplines with their family foundation by targeting their philanthropy to research and clinical care that will help people live healthier, happier lives around the world.

The Byers Eye Institute at Stanford, where Bonnie got the care she needed at a critical and scary moment in her life, is a major beneficiary of that generosity, and as a result is pushing forward innovative work to address challenging eye diseases.

Bonnie's journey to the Byers Eye Institute started with a stroke. She remembers in detail the unusually tiring day about six years ago, when she stayed in bed with a headache that wouldn’t budge.  

It was her daughter Candice who, returning from a vacation, knew something was off when her mom wouldn’t get up to chat. She called paramedics, who rushed Bonnie to Stanford Hospital. The doctors there estimated she had two strokes that day.

One of the most disturbing stroke side effects were a type of visual hallucinations that would manifest as a person’s nose disappearing or people or things that didn’t belong would appear in the room.

“I’d be watching television and the person would step off the screen,” Bonnie said. “I thought, ‘I don’t think I can go through life seeing people who are not really there.’”

A small subset of survivors have such visual disturbances when the stroke happens in the midbrain, where visual processing happens, says Joyce Liao, MD, PhD, professor of ophthalmology and of neurology.

“Loss of vision is what people usually talk about after a stroke, but this kind of visual phenomenon that is more fantastic is rare,” Liao said. “In general, people don’t think they’re going crazy, so it is very different from visual hallucinations that we see in psychosis, for instance.”

Liao treated Bonnie for her vision issues and assessed her overall health in the aftermath of her strokes. The two have since formed a strong doctor-patient bond that has lasted longer than the visual hallucinations did.

 “There was definitely a connection, and it’s very special,” Liao said.

The feeling is mutual: “I love her,” Bonnie said of Liao. “I think she’s wonderful. I think she’s brilliant. I can sense the intelligence and she’s modest.”

From curiosity to philanthropy

One thing that is immediately obvious about Bonnie is that she is a naturally curious person. Her daily routine includes reading an entire newspaper front to back and she has books of all genres stacked in neat piles and along shelves in her home. That’s probably why Bonnie can hold a conversation on nearly any subject with some kind of interesting fact or nuanced viewpoint.

So she was quick to learn about eye disease and Liao’s body of research in the wake of her own vision issues. 

Her initial gift to the Byers Eye Institute went to support research into the complexities of the eye-brain connection, studied by Liao and other faculty. 

Her most recent gift to the Byers Eye Institute will help advance research for patients struggling with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which affects about 20 million Americans and can cause significant, irreversible vision loss, especially in people aged 50 and older. 

 “A lot of this research wouldn’t be possible without philanthropy,” Liao said. “It gives clinician-scientists a lot more flexibility to pursue the things that we think are the most important for our patients.”

Bonnie and her family have long been philanthropic, a trait she says she adopted largely from her husband. 

The couple met in the Philippines shortly after Wilfred returned to the country with an engineering degree from Stanford University to open a flour mill. He pursued food manufacturing at the behest of his father, who wanted him to advance in a stable industry. 

His father’s advice steered him to success as an entrepreneur and founder of several food manufacturing businesses as well as the head of Sunshine Biscuit Co., which made a slew of popular snacks, including Cheez-Its.

Bonnie and her husband felt that with success came a moral mandate to contribute to causes that would improve lives and instilled those values into their children who have gone on to help oversee the family’s foundation and give to causes around the world.

After years of philanthropy benefitting Stanford engineering education, local hospitals, schools, disease research, and more, Bonnie has just one regret. “I just wish that I had started giving earlier and done more of it,” she said.

Janice is the web and communications specialist for the Byers Eye Institute at Stanford.