It was a sea of desperate faces filled with hope. And once again, the man standing before them knew why he had been given the gift.
“I visited Assisi, Italy, and while I was there, God made it clear to me that the gift I’ve been given was not for me alone,” said ophthalmologist Dr. James Guzek, remembering the 1985 heartfelt moment that sent him seeking.
The young eye doctor couldn’t help but puzzle over the meaning of this spiritual experience. Already he had worked for three years in a flagship hospital in Saudi Arabia after a plea from a fellow doctor had brought him there.
But was his life purpose beyond the typical way of administering eye care?
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“I went back to the U.S and started looking for groups who sent out doctors to developing countries,” the Kennewick cataract specialist said. “I wanted to go as a Christian, and I finally found a German group that asked me to go to Sri Lanka.”
What the untried missionary doctor couldn’t know was how much he would learn about himself in his three years on the island off the tip of India.
“The shooting started a little bit,” Guzek said about the early days of the civil war where there was no western community for camaraderie. “God spoke to me and said, ‘Stay where you are.’ Two days later the war broke out, there was a curfew and all work stopped.”
With the country in turmoil, Guzek was asked by his sponsor to come home, but he felt compelled to stay another six months amid the 1989 chaos. Shootings and bus bombings were daily companions.
“I learned a lot about who I was through that, even though it was traumatic,” the doctor said as he recalled returning home shell-shocked and ill with malaria. “I was at my eighth-grade weight. I looked like a concentration camp victim; a couple more days and I would have died.”
Through it all, Guzek gained a sense of what it is to suffer, to be deprived. And even though he took time out to teach at California’s Loma Linda University, train residents at the VA hospital and marry, thoughts about “the gift he had been given” were never far from his mind.
By 1993 he and his wife, Roberta, and their son were in Ghana, prepared to use the gift for others. But nothing prepared them for the relentless eye care need and the lack of staff.
“The missionary hospital told me, ‘We’ll give you two hires,’ and then I added three villagers we could train and paid for them out of my own pocket,” Guzek said about a cool reception and their worry he would be a financial drain. “In four months I was seeing over 100 patients a day — more than the whole other side of the hospital. There was no eye care in the region and the lines kept growing.”
While there, he secured a teaching job with the West African College of Surgeons where he volunteered — an avenue to train more people. During the four years in Ghana, Guzek trained 10 African resident ophthalmologists to continue the unending work.
In time, he and his family returned to the U.S. and settled in the Tri-Cities. But the distance couldn’t separate Guzek from his God-given calling. Eight years later, it resurfaced.
“One Loma Linda guy had been out doing aid work with nuns in western Ethiopia,” said Guzek about an email he received from his former boss and a subsequent letter. “They said, ‘We can’t find anyone to do cataract surgery.’ ”
The words spoke to his heart.
Thus began a ministry he would conduct with his own money and the support of others in Tri-Cities, particularly Tri-Cities Sunrise Rotary Club. During his vacation days from Pacific Cataract and Laser Institute, Guzek returns overseas to perform cataract surgeries. One memory encapsulates the need he continues to see.
“Dr. Gerry Wotley and I were able to do a lot of good, but we couldn’t get to the end of the blind people,” Guzek said as he recalled the crowd that had gathered in Dembi Dolo. “There were 13 more, but we didn’t have enough supplies and eight more had shown up. One local staff member said, ‘Send them away,’ but I said, ‘No.’ ”
Then something heart-wrenching happened.
Walking out to the line of new people who had come, Guzek noticed a woman in her early 30s who was blind and sobbing. Through an interpreter, he learned the sightless mother of four had walked every day to the clinic, returning home each night to care for her little ones. But every morning, the men had pushed in front of her, continually forcing her to the back of the crowd — each of the five days.
“So I took her to the front of the line,” Guzek said, “and after surgery, she was able to walk home.”
Certainly on that day, the blind could see God still heals — through the gifts he has given.
Lucy Note: To support this nonprofit work, send tax deductible donations to Gifting the Gift of Sight, P.O. Box 2652, Pasco, WA 99301. Or visit www.giftingsight.org.