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Memphis Daily News
Memphis Ophthalmologist’s Journey To Help Others Takes Her, Husband to Africa
July 11, 2018
By Dr. Mary C. McDonald

The positive habits we form during our lives are the foundation of self-control, will power and our life’s purpose. Having a vision of what you want to do is the easiest part. Having the perseverance and courage to bring that vision to life, and following it where it leads you, is the difficult part. Living your purpose is the reward.

Thirty years ago, Dr. Cathy Schanzer, an ophthalmologist in Memphis, wanted to take time off from her practice to volunteer at a clinic in Nigeria performing cataract surgery. She contacted the American Association of Ophthalmologists, which sponsored the trip. She was told to bring all the medical supplies she would need. It wasn’t easy, but she collected 40 boxes of donated medical supplies, $1,000 and started her journey.

Her husband, Tom Lewis, not quite sure what his wife was getting into, accompanied her on that first trip to Nigeria. “We were young and naive. We just showed up at the airport with our suitcases, and 40 cartons of medical supplies, much to the surprise of the airlines,” she said. “They were so helpful, and even shipped the supplies at no charge.” That was the beginning of their habit of doing good for others.

That first year, 1988, Cathy performed 28 surgeries, and Tom volunteered to do just about everything else. They were both moved by the overwhelming poverty in that part of the world and committed to this mission.

They have returned to different clinics in Africa every year since then and choose the sites of greatest need with the least resources. In the 1990s they volunteered at clinics in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. They went to areas of even greater need in Sierra Leone in the 2000s, and in 2005, to the very desolate area of Serabu, Serra Leone. While Cathy performed surgery, Tom used his organizational and administrative skills to address the other needs of the people, such as wells for clean water, food distribution, clothing, replacing thatched roofs with tin, and providing hospitality for the patients and their families, many who walked for days to receive medical care.

In 2006, Cathy and Tom started their own medical-mission team for Serabu, Southern Eye Institute, and opened a permanent eye clinic to perform free cataract and other eye surgeries for the people of surrounding towns and villages. Through their partnerships with other professional organizations, churches, pharmaceutical companies, doctors, and hospitals the work has expanded, and more needs addressed.

Cathy, medical director of the Southern Eye Institute, and Tom, executive director, travel to Serabu each January and June. Supported 100 percent by donations and personal funds, the free clinic treats thousands of patients each year, and provides diagnostics, medicines and glasses daily, and eye surgery periodically.

This year Cathy performed 642 surgeries. And, through the efforts of many volunteers, has served thousands of meals and sent food and clothing home with patients. Life has changed for the better for thousands of people because of the couple’s habit of doing good for others.

Contact Dr. Mary C. McDonald, a national education consultant, at 574-2956 or visit

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