Dr. Anthony Lazzara: Healing Peru's ChildrenCatholic Online - Featured Today
...Dr. Anthony Lazzara: Healing Peru's Children
1/23/2004 - 6:11 AM PST
On a sunny, warm day in April 1983, Dr. Anthony Lazzara
stepped off a plane in Lima, Peru.He
had left behind in the United States a tenured post at Emory University
, in Atlanta, Georgia, where he
supervised high-tech children's wards at two of the university's hospitals.He'd given up his
job security and salary, his
three-bedroom condo and his
Datsun 280Z. Dr. Lazzara
carried a bag containing some medical literature, a few Spanish books and three basic medical instruments-a stethoscope, ophthalmoscope and an otoscope, a doctor's desert island kit for simple checks of hearts, eyes and ears.He
spoke not a word of Spanish, the language conquistadors brought to Peru, nor Quechua, the surviving tongue of the Incas. He
came to work at a clinic for poor and abandoned children.And he's
lasted 20 years.
Why did he
work in the United States to go to a country he
had never seen and knew very little about?"I felt an unease," he
says."A feeling that I was not where I was supposed to be.That the Lord would have me elsewhere."
A native of Tampa, Florida, Dr. Lazzara
is the son of a self-made oil millionaire, the oldest of four boys.His
younger brothers found their niches as a federal judge, a businessman and a heart surgeon.They all grew up in Tampa in the 1940s and '50s in a tight-knit Catholic family.
At Jesuit High, Lazzara
described himself as an "indifferent" student at best, a "party guy."But he
wanted to be a doctor.After all, doctors had money and big houses and fancy cars.And to that end he
enrolled in Alabama's Spring Hill College
slid by with a 1.7 grade point average the first semester, his
father told him to come home.He
was wasting his
time and the family's money.
"You can drive a fuel truck," he
son."We'll put your name on the side of the truck."
As a child, Anthony Lazzara, Sr.
, had sold fruit from a pushcart in Ybor City, Florida.He
started Lazzara Oil with a single delivery truck, building it into a million-dollar business.His
boys remember him coming home late every night, smelling of oil.
Tony's father had done well for himself and his
family, and while he
meant the offer seriously, it wasn't the life the oldest son had dreamed of.Tony
hit the books and didn't look up for four years.He
graduated at the top of his
did the same at Tulane Medical School
in New Orleans, graduating in 1968.
In just 15 years he
built a reputation in cutting-edge pediatrics.As an associate professor of pediatrics at Emory, he spearheaded research on brain hemorrhaging in premature infants, supervised the 100-bed infant ward at Grady Memorial Hospital and ran the neonatal intensive care unit at Egleston Children's Hospital.
"We left it there," Lazzara
That's when he
might do something else with his
life."I thought what I was doing in the States, anybody could do, really."
Deeply religious and a secular Franciscan, he'd been studying the life of Mother Teresa.When a Franciscan priest visited his Atlanta parish
to speak of the need for missionaries in Third World countries, Dr. Lazzara
felt as though God was speaking directly to him.He
sent letters around the world to charitable agencies, asking if there was a place where he
was truly needed.
Six months later, he
found the place.Franciscans offered him a room in a clinic for the poor in Chaclacayo, located in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, 30 miles from Lima, Peru's capital.
started selling his
possessions and handed in his
letter of resignation to Emory
colleagues were appalled.His
family feared for his
safety.But they knew he
had to go.
"I never heard, ‘Why are you doing this?'" Lazzara
In 1987, Dr. Lazzara
bought a three-story house with pink walls and bars on the windows and founded his
own clinic in a more modern, middle-class section of town.He
furnished much of it with donated furniture. His
own bedroom has a plain wooden bed and a single rack of clothes.
With beds full of terrified kids, Lazzara
doled out as much reassurance as medication and learned to insert an I.V. and read charts by flashlight. His
worried family often couldn't reach him by phone."They were killing missionaries down there," says his
brother Mike."They were slaughtering priests and nuns."
Stubbornly, Dr. Lazzara
ignored the problems and forged ahead with his
That was until the Peruvian Medical Society-for reasons unknown-demanded Lazzara
obtain a Peruvian doctor's license to continue practicing.To comply meant the veteran physician must return to medical school in Peru.To refuse meant jail. Lazzara
was emotionally and physically exhausted.His
father had died earlier that year, and, after nine years of struggling with the problems and politics in Peru, he
"It might have been different if I'd been fresh," says Lazzara
."It was just too much to ask of me at that point in time."
Going Home Lazzara
donated the house to the mission and went home to Tampa, where he
moved into his
bought a new car and got a job with the Hillsborough County Health Department
, treating the children of migrant workers.Their brown skin reminded him of the children he
had left behind.
"It was clear his
heart was breaking," says a childhood friend.
"I wasn't at peace," Lazzara
says."I felt I was living the high life and it wasn't what I was meant to do." He
also felt as though he
should be taking care of his
mother now that his
dad was gone.But his
mother knew his
heart was elsewhere.She
told him not to worry about her
, that he
should go back to his
After struggling with the feelings for two years, he
wrote to a friend in Peruvian medicine, explaining his
dilemma with Peru's Medical Society
.The friend forwarded Lazzara's American transcripts to one of Lima's top medical schools.Lazzara soon held a degree from the school. He
bought a plane ticket, said good-bye to his
family and headed back to Peru.His
brother Richard, a U.S. district judge, drove him to the airport.
To do the work God has led him to, Dr. Lazzara
puts in a day beginning before dawn.From his
room on the third floor he
can hear the children stirring below, waking, complaining, some crying.There are four rooms on the second floor, separating the infants, the younger boys, the adolescent boys and the girls.The nurses dress the children, bathe them and get them ready for the day. Dr. Lazzara
way through the infants' room, assessing how each child fared during the night.He
then heads for the first floor to unlock the doors, open windows and turn on the well pump.
The next order of business is to clean the house.With between 40 and 50 (currently 54) children, the house is in constant need of cleaning, especially the bathrooms.The children who are able are assigned a specific task, such as cleaning a bathroom or sweeping a bedroom.
"It's organized chaos," says Dr. Lazzara
, but it is usually done by 7 a.m., when the children eat breakfast.The children who are able attend school at the local public school.The remaining children are taught by a visiting teacher who comes in each morning. By 8:30 a.m., Dr. Lazzara is making rounds with the nurse in charge, going over each child's chart.
life might take many turns.He
might climb into his
Toyota minivan and bump down dirt roads to pick up donated milk and vegetables.He
might head into Lima to buy medicine or equipment or visit a child in the hospital.Or he
might need to remain at the home to receive admissions.
Patients have been coming this way since Lazzara
arrived here.Staring at the newest arrival, Lazzara
will forget that he's
60, that his
bones ached when he
crawled out of bed this morning, that he's
very far from home in a country that often treats him not as a savior of its poorest children but as an outsider.
A couple times a week, Dr. Lazzara
manages to find time to sit down with a strong cup of coffee at a local café.He