Saturday, May 12, 2007

Passion for Missions Leads Memphian to Open Vision Clinic in Africa

Dr. Cathy Schanzer knew from an early age that when she grew up she wanted to do some kind of mission work.

As early as the fourth grade, she was planning for the day when she'd be able to put her talents to use outside the United States. That passion rubbed off on her future husband, Tom Lewis, when they first met. It was so contagious Lewis said he soon felt he was destined to help his wife make life just a little easier for people in third-world countries.

"There's no doubt that this dream of mission work originated with my wife," he said. "It's something that was contagious and I kind of caught on to."

Schanzer is the medical director at Southern Eye Associates at 5350 Poplar Ave. Lewis is the executive director of the nonprofit organization created to support their missionary work in Africa, the Southern Eye Institute.

Quick trips become big commitments

Schanzer, an ophthalmologist, completed her residency in 1985. Shortly thereafter the couple took their first missionary trip to Nigeria.

But back then, as new parents, their time could not be solely devoted to missionary work. So they took what Schanzer called "quickie mission trips."

"But now we are totally committed to this," she said.

Symbolic of that commitment is a little clinic that sits in the village of Serabu, Sierra Leone in western Africa. The clinic, Southern Eye Clinic, Serabu, was opened in January 2006 by Schanzer and Lewis.

The clinic in Serabu is staffed with an ophthalmic nurse, optician, operating room supervisor and support staff. Schanzer and other volunteer surgeons alternately travel to the clinic and spend from a couple of weeks to a month there seeing patients.

Schanzer will take her next trip in June. She visits two times a year, with the other being in January.

In the immediate weeks before her visit, word will be spread through the village and some nearby villages that a surgical ophthalmologist is coming to Serabu.

And once either Schanzer or one of the other surgeons arrives, there's usually a line of potential patients snaking out the door.

The work is performed for free. The only stipulation is patients must get to the clinic on their own. And sometimes that means walking for days. But, for some, it's a chance to finally be seen.

Minor issues here, major concerns there

The majority of surgeries Schanzer performs are on people who have gone blind because of cataracts, a condition they might have suffered from for as long as 10 years.

"These cataracts are so bad that their pupils are white," Schanzer said. "You could make the diagnosis of a cataract without having a medical background."

Another prevalent condition in the village is called river blindness. River blindness comes from parasites in the river water attaching to people. The parasites travel up villagers' bodies and end up behind their eyes. The parasite destroys the retina of the eye and causes blindness.

"They're incapacitated by their blindness," Schanzer said. "That means that someone else now has to care for them. Well, that person can't be working if they've got to care for a blind person, and so you get the whole poverty trap where there's two people who can't have any source of income."

Villagers' "jobs" are unlike typical American jobs. In order to eat, people have to be able to farm.

Faith-driven work

Schanzer and Lewis, who have been making trips to Africa since 1988, were asked by an acquaintance originally from Sierra Leone, Archbishop Ganda, if they would consider doing some work there.

"The war was winding down and the country was devastated and they just needed all the help they could get to rebuild," Lewis said.

Remembering her childhood passion, Schanzer agreed to help.

From 1991 to 2002, Sierra Leone was embroiled in a civil war. And by the end of the war, most of Sierra Leone's infrastructure had been destroyed.

So, when Schanzer and Lewis arrived in the war-torn country, they were confronted with a village of people living in refugee camps, many orphaned children, a dire lack of clean water and minimal electricity.

But Lewis also said they came face to face with people who were full of humility and grateful for the services the Americans were bringing to them.

"The people are so appreciative, they're so faith-filled and prayer-filled, and it's really humbling to be around a community that has nothing and they're happy," Lewis said. "And they have this wonderful relationship with each other and with God."

Faith in a higher power seems to be the thread that ties all the people involved in the mission trips.

At the Memphis clinic, with one sweeping glance around the waiting room, it's easy to see a strong belief in God is what guides Schanzer's work. On the walls are numerous religious works of art featuring angels.

And Schanzer is quick to point out that she's living out God's purpose for her life.

"There's no doubt in my mind that this is God's calling for me; this is the right thing," she said.

Once operations at the Serabu clinic are running smoothly, Schanzer said she plans to open another clinic in one of the nearby villages.

To learn more about the team's mission work in Africa, contact Lewis at 569-3939 or tlewtlew@hotmail.com.

Link to Memphis Daily News - Passion for Missions Leads Memphian to Open Vision Clinic in Africa - 5/11/2007