Optometrist Cathy Schanzer has been fulfilling her lifelong goal of being a medical missionary for nearly 25 years. Schanzer travels to Serabu, Sierra Leone, twice a year to perform optical surgery, but her mission work didn't always have such a clear focus.
"In 1988, I found a program that would let me go to Abak [in Nigeria] a couple weeks at a time, but when I asked the preacher in charge who else was going he said, 'You're it,'" said Schanzer, the chief surgeon at the Southern Eye Institute in East Memphis. "In the beginning, I had no idea what I needed. I was borrowing supplies, and my husband and I were unsure if we could make a difference. But once we got to our destination, I was immediately bitten by the mission bug."
That bite left a lasting impression on Cathy and her husband, Tom, as they organized various mission trips to Africa over the next 15 years. In 2004, the Schanzers faced their largest task as missionaries, when the archbishop of Sierra Leone asked the couple to construct and operate a permanent eye clinic in his home village of Serabu, a place without running water or electricity.
Because Serabu had been devastated by civil war, many of its citizens could not receive the medical attention they desperately needed. Weary of trying to build a modern surgical clinic in a third world country, Cathy Schanzer called on donations and her husband's experience in construction to build the clinic. In 2006, the Southern Eye Clinic of Serabu was finally opened.
While the clinic is open year-round and staffed by local workers, twice a year Schanzer and a team of around a dozen people travel to Serabu for a three-week blitz of eye surgeries. The next trip is scheduled for January 3rd.
Schanzer most commonly treats patients with cataracts, an extremely common problem in Serabu that can be directly related to poor nutrition. Upwards of 100 clinical patients and 20 surgical patients are seen by Schanzer each day, with an average surgery time of eight minutes per patient.
"In 10 days, I normally perform around 200 surgeries. But because we only have one generator, the time for surgeries is limited," Schanzer said. "Everything has to be set up and ready to go when I get there so things can run smoothly. Normally, we send all the supplies we need three months in advance so the workers have a chance to set everything up."
Because Schanzer is also the chief surgeon at the Southern Eye Institute, her work in Memphis directly affects what she is capable of doing in Serabu. Quite simply, more money going into the Southern Eye Institute means more money going out to Serabu. And while the citizens of Serabu are grateful, Schanzer said the male-dominated society has a way of keeping her mission work in perspective.
"Every time we get there, the locals turn to my husband and say, 'Thank you, Mr. Tom. You have brought a very good woman to our village,'" Schanzer said. "But I know that's just God's way of keeping me humble."