Editor's note: Retired journalist Gerry Warner traveled this spring to Ethiopia with Dr. James Guzek, a Tri-City eye surgeon, and other Rotarians. The group staged an eye clinic. Guzek, from Pacific Cataract and Laser Institute in Kennewick, is a member of Tri-Cities Sunrise Rotary. Several other Tri-Citians made the trip as well.
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?
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.
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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 in Kennewick.
Guzek, a graduate of the Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa., 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," he said. "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 percent 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.
In the ancient country, next door to Egypt, there are about 110 ophthalmologists, 60 percent of whom practice in the capital city of Addis Ababa. With 60 percent 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.
ODYSSEY BY PLANE AND FOUR-WHEEL DRIVE
I initially didn’t jump at the offer to go to Ethiopia as a volunteer because I’d never been near the equator and I was deathly afraid of tropical heat and humidity not to mention the bugs, critters and malaria.
However, I also knew that much of Ethiopia was made up of a high plateau bisected by majestic African mountains. I love mountains!
So I asked Dr. Guzek one question. “What’s the altitude of this little village?”
“Six thousand feet,” he replied. “Count me in,” I responded, knowing that at that altitude the tropical heat would be bearable.
That’s what found me on a United Emirates jet with eight other volunteers heading to Dubai for a pit stop on the way to Dembi Dolo, a small, tropical village tucked away in the Ethiopian highlands near the Sudanese border.
Our overnight stop in Dubai was long enough to catch a glimpse of the famous Burj Dubai, at 2,717 feet and 163 stories the tallest building in the world — a lot taller, needless to say, than the giant Wanza trees at Dembi Dolo.
But I couldn’t look at that great steel spire in the sky without thinking of the Tower of Babel. Not much time to think, however, because the next day we flew to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to spend another night before taking yet another flight, albeit a shorter one, to Gambella, a small African city of about 40,000 people, on the banks of the Baro River — a city as it turned out that we would get to know far better than we ever thought or wanted. But that was to come in the future.
From the air, Addis as it’s usually referred to, is quite impressive. It’s a city of close to three million and often referred to as the “political capital of Africa” because of all the foreign embassies and its long association with the United Nations and other foreign agencies. But on the ground, it appeared somewhat different, at least to my foreign Western eyes.
We spent the night at the Don Bosco Guest House, named for John (Don) Bosco, a poor Italian shepherd boy who became a priest and eventually a saint for the tireless work he did to protect and educate street youth in Italy and abroad in the late 18th Century and founder of the Salesians of Don Bosco, a charitable Catholic religious order.
Outside the walls of the guest house it could be easily seen that Bosco’s work was far from over as the dirt streets were alive with friendly, but obviously poor children, whose greeting often consisted of the well-enunciated English phrase of “hello, give me money.”
We were admonished not to do this and most of us gave out small gifts instead. But the experience served as a stark but pragmatic introduction to a developing country that’s lifting itself up by the boot straps but still has a long way to go. There were also some paved streets and bustling shops with new multistory apartment buildings looming over them. However, a closer look revealed that many of the new concrete high-rises were unfinished and unoccupied and the majority of people lived in crowded shanties with tin roofs.
While still dark the next morning, I was woken up by the mournful wail of a call to prayer being blasted by a loud speaker from a nearby mosque. But there was also an ornate, domed, Ethiopian Orthodox church just across the street from us in a country of many faiths and a long Christian tradition that includes being the possible site of the Garden of Eden according to some Biblical scholars. Whatever the case, it all felt very exotic as we crowded into a four-wheel Land Cruiser to head to the airport for a one-hour flight to Gambella, near the storied headwaters of the White Nile where we added our own story only two weeks later.
At Gambella the nine of us crowded into another Toyota Land Cruiser to begin the bumpy four-hour ride to Dembi Dolo and more adventures.
LONG, DUSTY ROAD TO DEMBI DOLO
Crowded like sardines in a tin, a sweaty but eager collection of volunteers from the Tri-City area packed into a four-wheel drive Land Cruiser for the last leg of their long journey to Dembi Dolo, a small African village half way around the globe in western Ethiopia.
The group led by Dr. Jim Guzek, an ophthalmologist at the Pacific Cataract and Laser Institute in Kennewick and a member of the Tri-Cities Sunrise Rotary Club, was about to spend a week at a Rotary-sponsored eye camp in the isolated rural village where Guzek and his Ethiopian ophthalmologist partner, Dr. Samuel Bora, would hopefully perform close to 200 cataract surgeries at a nominal charge for blind Ethiopians that otherwise had no hope of seeing their loved ones again nor seeing the green, hardscrabble countryside that nourished them.
Also with the team were two optometrists from the Tri-City area; Brian Johnson of Pacific Cataract and Gerald Wodtli of the Pasco Vision Center, who would see hundreds of patients themselves for a variety of eye ailments that didn’t require surgery. Several other Rotary members from the Tri-Cities also made the trip.
The volunteers were a diverse lot including a translator, an insurance salesman, a home builder, a scrub nurse, a former U.S. Navy SEAL and a school district rep, but they all shared one thing in common — an intense desire to make a difference in a country where almost any difference would be a step forward.
One difference that quickly became apparent to the intrepid crew was that the climate in Ethiopia quickly improves with altitude. About two hours after leaving steaming Gambella on the banks of the Baro River, the Toyota Land Cruiser started up a series of switchbacks that took us up to almost 6,000 feet in the Ethiopian highlands where the temperature dropped at least 10 degrees and we saw baboons swinging through the tropical forest that lined both sides of the rocky road that cut a narrow streak through the red, Ethiopian soil.
We also saw electrical lines laying on the ground, a fact that would become more significant to us later. Soon we began to pass through an almost continuous series of tiny farming villages with mango and banana trees hanging over the tin roofs and large cleared fields of stubble behind the houses. Once the monsoon rains started to fall, the fields would be planted with teff, a millet-like grain indigenous to Ethiopia.
The sky darkened as we neared Dembi Dolo. Soon rain began to fall as a big tropical thunderstorm broke with lightning flashing and torrents of warm rain falling to the ground. It was a welcome rain because the highlands were still locked in the dry season, which lasts from October to early May.
The storm was an early harbinger of more numerous storms to come and lasted less than an hour, with only a few drops falling as we pulled into Dembi Dolo. We went directly to the Daughters of Charity convent, which would be our welcome and secure nest for the next seven days. We met the indefatigable Sister Evelyn, who would be like a Fairy God Mother to us seeing that we were well fed, well rested and even provided with entertainment during our all-too-short stay.
She also showed us a giant Wanza tree that she called her “Avatar tree.” It thrust upwards just outside the walls of the convent and was home to a pack of monkeys that jumped from one sinuous branch to another in the early evening hours.
After the initially dusty then muddy and cramped four-hour road trip to Dembi, we were all pretty tired and didn’t spend too much time talking after a hot meal that featured vegetable soup followed by spicy meat dishes, flat-bread and rice as well as fresh bananas and mangos for dessert.
There was also dark Ethiopian coffee from nearby plantations and even a cold soda or beer if you wanted. The Daughters of Charity for all intents and purposes were angels as far as we were concerned, but that didn’t stop these angels from knowing what goes down awfully well after the end of a long African day on the road.
I slept like a baby that first Dembi Dolo night. The next morning I tucked into a great breakfast with a bowl of creamy African porridge, flatbread pancakes, mango jam and that marvelous aromatic coffee. Then we jumped into the Land Cruiser again and drove past a long line of boisterous children walking to school as we proceeded to the clinic.
By the end of that day I began to appreciate what this dedicated team of physicians, optometrists and volunteers from America were accomplishing in one of the most undeveloped parts of the world.
FROM CHAOS COMES THE GIFT OF SIGHT
And suddenly there we were, facing a milling crowd of at least 250 blind people and their helpers at a Rotary eye camp in Dembi Dolo, a small town on the far west side of Ethiopia where eye care hardly exists and the anxious people we met regarded us as their only hope to regain their vision.
You could cut the anticipation in the air with a knife.
But, truth to say, some of us were pretty anxious ourselves. At least I was. The scene was chaotic. Just squeezing up the stairs past the patients to get inside the concrete clinic took some delicate maneuvering.
Once inside, I found myself in a small bunker of a room that turned out to be the sterilization unit next door to the small operating theatre. Meanwhile, the other volunteers fanned out to do a variety of duties including crowd control, sight assessments, putting drops in eyes and separating surgery patients from optometrist patients as well as testing visual acuity with an eye chart on the side of a building outside and somehow keeping everything orderly and the patients happy as they waited hours in the muggy, Ethiopian heat.
No small matter.
On that busy opening day, we didn’t get a surgery done until close to noon and only 26 for the day (later close to 50-a-day). But slowly the chaos began to subside as ophthalmologist surgeons Dr. James Guzek from the Tri-Cities and Dr. Samuel Bora from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia began to hit their stride. The crowd outside remained unruly most of the first day, which was to be expected, because not everyone could be seen right away and there were some whose problems were inoperable.
But even in situations like this they still wanted “to see the doctor,” and if nothing else, “just be touched,” says Guzek. And “touched” they were every day no matter how long it took.
On the second day, an armed guard was called in and his uniform, more than his automatic weapon, did more to calm the crowd than anything else. Just the same until nearly the end of the clinic a week later, there were always lots of people milling about, clutching the banister of the stairway, inching their way closer to the front of the line until they paid around 15 birr (about a dollar American) for a procedure that would cost thousands on this side of the globe. However, even by Ethiopian standards, where the Gross National Income is $859 annually, the 10th poorest in the world according to the International Monetary Fund, this is still a considerable amount of money and helps people to appreciate what’s being done for them
Ethiopians tend to be very stoic people and they had to be for a Third World clinic like this to succeed. Even when the bandages were removed from their eyes the next day, the reaction was more subdued than expected. Often it was no more than a shaking of the head, a suppressed gasp and then their faces would light up when they recognized a loved one they hadn’t seen in years. I tried to interview one, which was difficult considering the language barrier and the trauma of surgery. All the 50-year-old lady would say was she felt “o.k.” and she said it over and over again finally adding what was translated as “God bless the doctor.” Ethiopia is a religiously diverse country and spiritualism runs deep.
I’ll never forget an experience I had about the fourth day when I decided to walk the dusty road back to the convent instead of taking the Land Cruiser. I passed the tin-roofed shacks that most of the people live in as well as many small shops with electrical wires dangling from them connected by Christmas style lights that would light up intermittently when the power came on and reflect off the ubiquitous, corrugated, tin roofs.
Suddenly, I felt I was being followed and I turned around to see a girl in a bright orange T-shirt following me.
She was 10-years-old at most and smiled shyly and kept following until the next thing I knew she had slipped her hand in mine. A little flustered I kept walking and we met several other children and before I knew it we were all holding hands, almost a dozen of us, and walking down that dusty, red road like the Pied Piper leading his merry troupe. It was near dusk and I didn’t even have my camera with me, but when I finally pulled away from the children there was a lump in my throat that would have choked a horse.
We have so much; they, so little.
That experience will remain with me forever and so will many other memories and feelings that we all experienced. I couldn’t help but feel proud that I played a very small role in an endeavor that’s literally helping the blind to see thanks to some dedicated professionals as well as volunteers who traveled half-way around the world to help them and the Rotary movement with its credo of “service above self” and all those who donated to the cause.
Gerry Warner is a retired journalist and city councilor in Cranbrook, B.C.