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From Chile to Africa with the gift of sight

An eye infection meant his grandfather couldn't emigrate to the US, and ended up in Chile. Now Nathan Schwartz is part of a medical team which saves the sight of people in Africa. Cari Rosen reports.

    Nathan Schwartz
    Nathan Schwartz Photo by Geoff Oliver Bugbee

    In some families it’s a secret chicken soup recipe, others a Seder tradition or an aptitude for kalooki that’s passed down through the generations. In ours it’s being an eye surgeon...first my Dad, then my cousin and then...well I guess I have to take full responsibility for breaking the line, what with me being so squeamish that the one time I managed to insert a contact lens I had to call my father to extricate it as I gnashed and wailed.

    Nonetheless, the fact that I need smelling salts every time someone mentions the words cornea or vitreous humor has not dampened my esteem for the talents of my stronger-stomached forebears, nor the admiration for the work they have done at home and abroad in the advancement of eye care.

    When I needed eye surgery myself, the process could really not have been simpler. But then for those of us living in the first world, with free access to healthcare, hospitals and clinics, it is pretty straightforward and it’s so very easy to take all of this for granted. To get bogged down in the minutiae of logistics (who will collect my daughter from football if my husband comes to pick me up from the hospital? How long until I can do Zumba again?) rather than reflecting how very lucky we are that the treatment we need is both accessible and available. It’s all too easy to forget that for the majority of the global population this is not the case at all.

    It was only when I was invited by the charity Orbis to visit their flying eye hospital in Cameroon that this was brought home to me with startling clarity and the opportunity to visit Central Africa and see what’s being done there has given me a new appreciation, both for what we are lucky enough to have here and for the work that the charity’s amazing volunteers do to help those who would otherwise have no access to healthcare of this kind.

    One of those volunteers is Nathan Schwartz MD, a 70 year-old anaesthetist who practices in Philadelphia. This is his seventh worldwide programme for Orbis.

    Nathan grew up in Chile, “an awesome experience. My memories are of a very happy childhood in my traditional secular Jewish family and large mishpucha.” He attended the Chaim Nachman Bialik school from elementary through high school, where some classes were in Hebrew. “Chile was indeed a heaven for Jews. Although a small minority, we were welcomed into this young country with open arms.”

    Eye surgery wasn’t part of his family history, but eyes played an important role nonetheless. “My beloved grandfather worked as salesman, walking the hills of Valparaiso (a Chilean port city). He was eventually able to enter into his old family business by investing all his savings in a fox farm in the most southernmost city of the world, Punta Arenas. He was reportedly the first Jew to live in this city, the entry into Antarctica. Both of my Zeide and Bubbe’s children became professionals. My father a successful physician, my aunt the first Jewish pharmacist in Chile.”

    The family’s arrival in South America, however, was more by chance than choice.

    “My grandfather and his older brother were fortunate to escape the pogroms in Bessarabia (Moldova) after being shipped to safety by their parents. They never saw their mother and father again.

    “They arrived at Ellis Island in 1916. My zeide’s brother, Max, was admitted and became a furrier on 45th Street in New York City. However, my grandfather had contracted ‘pink eye’, or conjunctivitis, in Egypt, one of the stops on their journey. This was enough to prevent his entry into the USA and resulted in my grandfather’s separation from his brother and his shipment to Argentina. He was just 17.

    “He met my Ukrainian grandmother on the same ship. Once he arrived in Buenos Aires he worked in the port of La Boca as a wheat inspector before moving to Chile in search of a better life. After he arrived in Valparaiso he was a house-to-house peddler selling candies and minor household items at credit. He invested all his savings in the fox farm and eventually become a furrier, like his brother and their father before them. He never saw his brother again.

    “When I was growing up he often lamented the separation from Max and the fact he had been unable to enter the US alongside him. I promised him that one day I would do what he had not been able to. Shortly after my graduation from medical school, in 1973, I was able to get into a residency in Paediatrics/Neonatology in New York City. One of the proudest moments of my life was telling him that I had done what he had always dreamed of… to live and prosper in the USA.”

    Fur was the family business, but since then it’s been medicine all the way.

    “Every male in our family, for the last two generations, has become a physician. One of my brothers is an oncological surgeon, the other an infectious disease specialist. Our four male children are all physicians.

    “Medical school in Chile was my first experience outside our community, which I found tolerant, engaging and of a high educational level. I thrived in the challenge of working in a limited-resource, third-world country where we learned the classical French-style medicine. Examinations by feel, smell and taste, not laboratory studies or X-ray. Having a well-rounded, “old style” medical training with strong basic sciences has served me very well during the next stages and specialties I have accomplished.”

    There is, perhaps, a sense of irony that a man whose family was fractured by a simple eye infection now gives his time to help save the sight of others. But why, at 70, with a hugely successful career, does he continue to volunteer his time and skills to perform training and surgery for Orbis? His answer is immediate.

    “It’s an amazing group of people and we are able to make a real difference. What is not to like about joining the Dream Team?”

     

    More information about Orbis and the work they do is available at www. orbis.org.uk

     

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