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Dr. Anthony Lazzara: Healing Peru's Children
By Judie Gulley
This doctor left a prestigious medical career in Atlanta to serve the needs of children in the foothills of the Andes.

Q U I C K S C A N

'Party Guy'
Turning Point
A Ministry Begins
Facing Challenges
Going Home
All in a Day's Work
Meeting the Challenges
Looking to the Future
Villa la Paz Foundation


Dr. Anthony Lazzara: Healing Peru's Children

Photo courtesy of Dr. Anthony Lazzara

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 leave his 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 knew 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.

After he slid by with a 1.7 grade point average the first semester, his father told him to come home. He said Tony was wasting his time and the family’s money.

“You can drive a fuel truck,” he told his 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 class. He 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.

A 1982 trip to Calcutta, India, changed everything.

He and another doctor came out of a restaurant in Calcutta to find a shape under a filthy blanket in the street. They hesitated. An animal? A child? Either way, what could they possibly do about it?

“We left it there,” Lazzara said. “We left.”

That’s when he decided 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.

When Lazzara started selling his possessions and handed in his letter of resignation to Emory, his 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 says.

“We all told him,” says younger brother Mike, “if you need to go, go.”

Patients streamed into the clinic to be treated by the American doctor. Bodies  were crippled not only by terrorist attacks, but also by all the afflictions that go with children trying to survive poverty and shantytowns: tuberculosis, chronic diarrhea, leukemia, malnutrition and cleft palates, to name only a few.

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. The room overlooks a wall topped with shards of glass, which a previous owner installed for protection.

The doctor hung a plaque next to the front door: Hogar San Francisco de Asís—Home of St. Francis of Assisi—after the much-loved saint who cherished the poor and lived as one of them.

His reception there was far from what one might expect. The neighbors immediately lobbied the mayor to run the new doctor and his clinic out of town. The burn patients being treated there were so disfigured, the neighbors feared it might be contagious.

A woman once removed her badly burned son from Lazzara’s care because she was afraid he might sell the child on the black market.

“This is the level of superstition,” says clinic volunteer Sara Kurtz. “They can’t understand why anyone would do anything so selfless as to take in a sick child.”

Peru’s politics created another obstacle. The Shining Path terrorists were carrying out massacres across the countryside. Throughout the 1980s, the electrical towers above Chaclacayo were a favorite bombing target for the Shining Path.

Detonations rattled the clinic windows and cut off the electricity. 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 mission.

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 was through.

“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.”

Lazzara donated the house to the mission and went home to Tampa, where he moved into his mother’s condo. He 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 clinic.

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.

“He was grinning all the way,” Richard says. “He’s basically sacrificed his own personal life to save those children. That’s his family down there.”

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 makes his 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.

Then his 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.

Some admissions are planned, but many arrive at the door unannounced. Sometime during the day his phone might ring and there will be a voice saying, “We have another one.” And on the clinic doorstep, there will be another small, brown-skinned child, dark eyes huge with pain and fear, staring up at him.

The child may have a tumor that has gone untreated for years, or tuberculosis that has chewed away most of a lung.

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. The child is held, comforted, taken in to be treated.

There are only two requirements for a child to receive admission to the clinic home: The parents must be destitute—unable to buy medication or doctor’s care to help their child—and the child must be too ill to be cared for at their own home.

If they are able to receive care at home, the clinic treats them on an ambulatory basis. Both the outpatient children and those who live at the clinic receive all necessary medication and care without charge. Once they’re well, they are returned to their families.

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 also attends Mass every day, but there’s little time for fun or friends.

“Not with all this chaos going on,” he says. From time to time, medical students or doctors volunteer at his clinic. Other volunteers come and go on a regular basis.

But it’s Dr. Lazzara who bears the brunt. Major problems are everyday occurrences. A six-year-old boy in the clinic is blind, tumors on his eyes. Dr. Lazzara hopes to take the tumors off and find corneas from the States. He’ll have to get them past Peruvian customs, then pay for the boy’s surgery at a Lima hospital, as well as arrange for bandages, pillows and spare blood. He doesn’t know how it will happen, but he’s determined that it will.

Does it all ever seem like more than he bargained for?

“I think that every day,” he says. Even after all these years, he still feels like an outsider.

But these days Lazzara has a bigger worry: Who will take his place? Even though his health is good, he’s 60 years old and he knows he’s not getting any younger. Someday soon, he’ll have to hand over the reins to another person willing to make a lifetime commitment. So far, that person hasn’t surfaced. No one has stepped forward to inherit the extremes of heartbreak and exhilaration and grace.

The long day has drawn to a close and, with a small reading lamp beside him, Dr. Lazzara sits in his tiny, third-floor room, next to a picture of his parents and a modeled likeness of St. Francis. On the floors below, this Home of St. Francis is quiet.

The whole house is asleep and he walks downstairs into the infants’ room. He stands quietly in the darkness, listening to the sounds of babies breathing.

“In some places, the children dance to the happy music of life,” he has said. “And in others, only cling to existence. All are ours.”

He smiles. All around him, his children are healing.

It’s now that his life makes sense to him. He knows he’s where God wants him to be.

Dr. Lazzara and his brother Michael have established the Villa la Paz (Home of Peace) Foundation to provide funding for the center for destitute and abandoned children in Chaclacayo.

“We are the only hope these children have,” Dr. Lazzara says.

Every dollar donated is used for medical care and food. No foundation money is spent on administrative overhead or expenses.

Those wishing to donate to the foundation may send contributions to Villa la Paz Foundation, 5000 Gulf Boulevard, #503, St. Pete Beach, FL 33706. Or they can visit the Web site at www.villalapaz.org.

 

Judie Gulley is a freelance author from Orion, Illinois, where she is also a massage therapist. Her writing has appeared in a number of magazines, including Woman’s World, Family Circle and Quarter Horse Journal. Her article “‘Lissie’s Luv Yums’ Fight Fetal Alcohol Syndrome” appeared in our November 2001 issue.


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