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Posted: April 6, 2013

Service above self – a Cranbrook Rotarian goes to Ethiopia

Perceptions by Gerry Warner

So what do you do when you’ve hit that point in life where you’re retired, the kids have flown the coop, you’re staring into your corn flakes in the morning, the wife is at work and the house is awfully quiet?

Too quiet.

That’s how it was for me a year ago when the proverbial light flashed on. “I’ll go to Africa and help the blind to see.” Actually that’s the Reader’s Digest condensed version. The real story is a little more complicated, but I’ll tell it to you anyway.

Dr. Jim Guzek

It was actually almost a year ago to the day, and as a new Rotarian, I was attending a spring assembly in Spokane, when I met Jim Guzek, an ophthalmologist with the Pacific Cataract Laser Institute (PCLI) in Tri-Cities, Washington. Guzek, a graduate of the Geisinger Medical Centre in Danville, Pennsylvania with a fellowship in corneal diseases at Tulane University, has spent most of his career in far-flung parts of the world like Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Ghana doing what he likes to do best, delicately removing opaque pockets of gelatin – otherwise known as cataracts – from people’s eyes so they can see again and virtually begin a new life.

It may sound simple enough, but of course it isn’t, and Guzek spent many years developing his skills which he now practices in a unique form of outreach that for half a decade has touched hundreds of rural Ethiopians in the heart of Africa.

Tall, lanky with newly graying hair, Guzek is also a devout Catholic and his faith is central to his work. “I just want to live my life well and please my God and by helping the blind to see I hope I’m doing that.”

On a warm African evening sitting on the porch of the Daughters of Charity Convent in Dembi Dolo, Ethiopia, Guzek reflects on what brought him to this isolated enclave in one of the poorest countries on Earth, a Third World  country  prone to famine and ethnic violence that occasionally results in death. “I just feel that we’re put on this Earth for reasons other than to make money. I’ve lived a good life but I’m the kind of person that when I see a problem I want to fix it. These people are poor and they’re blind or partially blind and I can fix that. I believe that’s what God wants me to do  . . . if I didn’t do it I’d feel guilty and believe me I get more out of it than I give.”

Guzek points out in the developing world one per cent of the population is blind, which means millions of blind people, and of these, almost half can be easily cured through cataract surgery. Well, maybe not so easy. In Ethiopia, like many other developing or Third World countries, there’s a great lack of trained professionals who can do eye surgery as well as an extreme mal-distribution of eye surgeons available.

Gerry washing instruments prior to them being put into a pressure cooker for sterilization.

In the ancient country, next door to Egypt, there are about 110 ophthalmologists, 60 per cent of whom, practice in the capital city of Addis Ababa. With 60 per cent practicing in the capital and a growing population of almost 80 million widely distributed in the countryside, the imbalance is obvious. Outside of Addis, it breaks down to about one ophthalmologist per two million people, a tragic and unsustainable situation for Ethiopia and many other developing countries. Cataracts are an age-related disease. Most of us will get them before we die, but in the developed world surgery is available to restore proper vision. In Ethiopia, that’s not the case and when the elderly lose their sight it’s often a double tragedy because it usually means a young child in the extended family becomes virtually a seeing-eye dog for the grandparent and sacrifices much of their own life, including schooling, to be with grandma or grandpa through most of their waking hours.

Naturally, I knew none of this until I heard Guzek’s presentation at that Rotary meeting last year. As is the way of newly retired reporters, I asked a few questions after the presentation and no one was more surprised than me when Guzek came up to me as people left the room and asked if I would be interested in volunteering for his next Dembi Dolo eye clinic a year hence.

Needless to say, I was more than a little flabbergasted at the prospect, but I quickly recovered and asked him one question that bore heavily on my mind. What was that question? You’ll have to wait until next week for part two of this series.

Gerry Warner is a retired journalist, Rotarian and a current City of Cranbrook councillor. The views expressed are his own.

Above photo: The M*A*S*H* style operting theatre at Dembi Dolo, Ethiopia with Ethiopian opthalmologist Dr. Samuel doing cataract surgery. Photos by Gerry Warner

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