Guatemala City, August 21, 2014 — Senator Rand Paul had a busy schedule ahead of him when he arrived in Guatemala City on Saturday afternoon. He came with his son Duncan and niece Lisa Paul, who also is a medical doctor. Members of his staff, who had arrived a couple days before, greeted the senator as we walked off the plane and discussed some of the details planned for the trip.
“Today the senator will meet with some government officials before we travel up to Antigua for the night where we will have a private dinner party,” Sergio Gor, Paul’s communication director, told me as we briskly walked through the airport to the luggage claim. “Then on Sunday we will travel to Salama where the real purpose of the trip will happen.”
The private dinner party was held at a hotel in Antigua where doctors with the Moran Eye Center, the group that put the medical mission trip together, along with other officials and some members of the press. They shared a meal together with live music performed by traditional Guatemalan musicians singing and strumming guitars.
The John Moran Eye Center is located in Salt Lake City, Utah. Paul raised some $20,000 to pay for the expenses of the trip. No taxpayer money was used.
The next day, riding in an armed caravan with members of the Guatemalan president’s personal security detail, Paul traveled through the Guatemalan mountains to Salama.
The first cataract surgeries were performed on Sunday.
Paul said he misses his medical work and is glad he got the opportunity to use his August recess to return to his passion of restoring people’s vision.
“I am very appreciative of the Moran eye center group for putting this together,” Senator Paul told me. “We considered organizing the medical side of the trip ourselves but I’m very thankful to participate with Moran Eyes Center because they do this very well.”
Dr. David Chang, widely recognized as one of the top cataract surgeons in the world, and Dr. Jeff Pettey, who frequently travels with the group, also participated in the surgeries.
Dr. Pettey had returned from a similar trip in Micronesia only a few weeks ago.
“It’s like a dream,” Pettey told me. “To be able to travel around the world and help the poor see again is something that seems too good to be true.”
The first day in Salama consisted of organizing the medical equipment and people in order to efficiently serve the patients. Many cataract surgeries were also performed.
After an exhausting first day of work, Paul and a few doctors drank cold beer around an old table at the base hotel and casually discussed the events of day. You can’t help but notice the excited look on the senator’s face when the team talks about the next morning. That’s when the doctors will take off the eye patches of the first group of patients.
“Medicine is my first passion,” Paul said.
As the next day arrives, so do the patients for a follow-up evaluation. The excitement builds.
Tears of joy filled the room, including the eyes of some members of the press, when the eye patches were removed by the doctors. Some of the patients were able to see for the first time in decades.
“This is why we do it,” Dr. Alan Crandall exclaimed after removing an eye patch from one of the patients.
Some patients traveled over four hours for the chance to see again.
“What I like about medicine is you see the problem and everyone mostly agrees on the solution and you can go about fixing it,” Paul said later in the operating room where the surgeries were performed. “But in Washington there’s a problem because everyone thinks they have the solution but they never agree on how to fix it and the problem never gets resolved.”
It’s tempting to think that Paul’s Guatemala trip was for political expedience, but history shows otherwise.
Eighteen years ago the then-full-time ophthalmologist performed eye surgery pro-bono for two Guatemalan brothers, Juan and Andres Hernandez. The nonprofit group Children of the Americas brought the brothers, along with other children from Guatemala, to Kentucky so they could receive the vision-restoring surgery.
When Paul performed those surgeries, a Senate seat was the furthest thing from his mind. Now, over a decade later, Senator Paul was able to see the brothers again and check up on their eye health—with only politics being out of sight.
“It was truly an amazing experience to see him reunite with the Hernandez brothers,” said Lisa Paul, Rand’s niece, who also supported the medical team during operations. “The lives of these two brothers completely changed after my uncle gave them the gift of a clear vision so it’s really great to see them together again after all these years.”
In total the team performed 250 surgeries, and Paul performed 20 of them.
Before departing the country on Thursday the senator met with the president of Guatemala. The two discussed adoption and the difficulty involved in adopting children from abroad. Paul hopes the Guatemalan government will make it easier for Americans to adopt needy Guatemalan children.
The Moran Eye Center has more trips planned for the future.
“I would like to go to China,” Paul said. Yet, despite the possibility of his busy schedule should he choose to run for president, Lisa Paul had little doubt he would make room in his schedule.
“I think he will continue make room in his busy schedule to serve the poor,” Dr. Lisa Paul said. “My uncle not only offers a clear vision in Washington, but also to the needy around the world.”