Lowell A. Gess, MD, selected for 2020 ASCRS Foundation Chang Humanitarian Award
When you ask Lowell A. Gess, MD, for interesting stories from his career, make sure to be seated in a comfortable chair. The anecdotes roll by so quickly it can be hard to catch them all. Dr. Gess once paused performing cataract surgery to deliver a baby, was one of the earliest adopters of the IOL, his medical education and training took more than 25 years to complete because he couldn’t stop charitable work in Sierra Leone and Nigeria, and one of his earliest surgeries involved saving the life of a man who was injured by a spear in a wedding feast gone awry.
Dr. Gess’s career spans so many years and covers such a wide breadth of the world it can feel less like the story of one man’s life and more like the story of modern ophthalmology itself. It’s the whole of his story, the whole of his life dedicated to charitable eyecare, that makes the ASCRS Foundation so proud to name him the 2020 Chang Humanitarian awardee. Endowed by a generous gift from David and Victoria Chang, the ASCRS Foundation Chang Humanitarian Award was established to honor and recognize outstanding humanitarian work with a focus on cataract blindness and disability. The award will be given to him at the 2020 ASCRS Annual Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts.
Dr. Gess’s philosophy toward charity can be described in his own words: “I face a humanity too precious to neglect. ... I am experiencing an adventure too thrilling to miss.” With more than 50 years of work in charitable care, 18 of which were as a commissioned medical missionary and 32 as a volunteer eye surgeon, his thrilling adventure has spanned generations. His travel back and forth from the United States to Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Sierra Leone, where his namesake hospital stands today, combines to almost 200 trips across the Atlantic.
He discovered his true passion when, as a general surgeon in 1952, he encountered countless people who were blind and in desperate need of eyecare but with no ophthalmologists available. Over the next several years, Dr. Gess rotated between ophthalmic education and residency in the United States and charitable missions to Sierra Leone. Soon, he and his family moved there full time so they could continue serving this community so desperately in need. There seemed to be no roadblock that could slow Dr. Gess’s deep dedication to helping better the world. Even literal roadblocks were no obstacle; Dr. Gess traveled with ease through roadblocks during the Sierra Leone Civil War because he had helped so many people that he was well known. Eventually he and his wife, with support from the United Methodist Church, founded the Lowell and Ruth Gess (Kissy UMC) Eye Hospital to serve the eye needs in Sierra Leone. When the Ebola epidemic struck, Dr. Gess volunteered to help and was the only fully trained ophthalmologist present to attend to the post-Ebola survivors.
John Berdahl, MD, who nominated Dr. Gess explained, “At age 94, he bought tickets to Africa without the knowledge of his family to help those stricken by Ebola. His rationale was: ‘Who better than me?’” Since his arrival in West Africa in 1952, Dr. Gess has participated in more than 20,000 eye and general surgery procedures, changing countless lives.
Dr. Gess’s quiet and gentle spirit along with the persistence of his commitment have made him beloved in Sierra Leone. His determination to see past cultural difference has allowed him to connect with and train hundreds of local medical practitioners. His ophthalmologist son, Timothy Gess, MD, said, “Dr. Lowell Gess’s passion and compassion has led him through all these years of service, and real sacrifice has been made to help people in Africa. Civil war and the Ebola crisis could not keep my father away.” He has seen ophthalmology through from its earliest stages to its modern iterations. There is no other career quite like Dr. Gess’s, and his determination to give the whole of his life to charitable care is unparalleled.
Dr. Chang said that the nominating committee was awestruck by Dr. Gess’s career as a volunteer ophthalmologist in West Africa for more than 60 years. “He was an early adopter of IOLs and one of the earliest members of ASCRS,” Dr. Chang said. “But he would annually take 3 months off from his Minnesota private practice to volunteer in Sierra Leone, where he established and supported the country’s main eye hospital,” he said. “His most recent trip to Sierra Leone to help Ebola survivors was this past summer—at the age of 98.”
“It was good fortune to get into eyecare,” Dr. Gess said. “With renewed sight, the patient walks without being led, resumes a productive life that provides for food, shelter, and family needs and assumes a new dignity. You can understand that their first words following cataract extraction with intraocular lens implantation often are ‘Thank God!’” Dr. Gess’s lifelong work is extraordinary and truly inspirational, and the ASCRS Foundation is incredibly pleased to honor him with this year’s Chang Humanitarian Award. Dr. Gess has earmarked the $50,000 grant to the Lowell and Ruth Gess Eye Hospital to help expand facilities and provide a more complete eyecare program in Sierra Leone.
About the Award:
For more than 18 years, the ASCRS Foundation has fostered programs to alleviate the worldwide backlog of cataract. The ASCRS Foundation’s work is only possible because of the many individuals and partner organizations who volunteer their time, expertise, and financial support to treat cataract blindness around the world. “David and Victoria’s generosity and leadership is deeply appreciated because it allows us to highlight and perpetuate the noble volunteer efforts of our colleagues within ophthalmology who are trying to alleviate treatable global blindness,” said Stephen Lane, MD, past co-chair of the ASCRS Foundation.