Ebola has killed more than a thousand people in Sierra Leone, including several doctors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to warn against any non-essential travel to the country. But that’s not stopping Lowell Gess, a 93 year-old retired ophthalmologist in rural Minnesota, from heading to Sierra Leone Jan. 3.
“When you’re at a certain age, you just keep your fingers crossed you won’t have a stroke or heart attack before January 3rd,” he says.
Once in Sierra Leone, Gess won’t be a front-line Ebola responder. But the virus is present in body fluids, including tears, so he could risk exposure when treating patients with eye disease. For Gess, it’s a worthwhile risk.
“Just being there with them facing this terror every day is encouraging because they feel abandoned,” he says.
Gess’s love of Sierra Leone and its people goes back more than half a century. He and his wife Ruth, a nurse, spent two decades in Sierra Leone as medical missionaries, raising their six kids there. After moving back to the Midwest in the 1970s, they regularly returned to Sierra Leone to help out at an eye hospital they established in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown.
Even Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war didn’t keep Lowell Gess away. During one trip, rebel fighters invaded Freetown. It’s another dangerous situation Gess just laughs off.
“It continued after dark,” he recalls. “And when bullets were flying around, I just went to bed.”
Dr. Lowell Gess and his granddaughter, Dr. Debby Gess Ristvedt, walk back to Lowell’s house from the Alexandria Eye Clinic where Debby, and her father Dr. Tim Gess practice.
Gess’ wife died a few years ago. So these days, he usually makes the arduous 36-hour trip to Sierra Leone by himself, as he did earlier this year. In January, he will be lugging extra baggage with him – about $100,000 in donated eye medicines and equipment.
His adult children and grandchildren say there’s no point in trying to hold him back. By now, they’re used to his annual pilgrimages to Sierra Leone.
His granddaughter, Debby Gess Ristvedt, is also an eye doctor and wishes she could accompany him, as she did once before, she says. With two young children at home, she says that’s not practical.
“I’m excited for you, Grandpa. And I’m proud of you,” she tells Gess.
“They’re hurting there,” Gess responds. “And if we can help a little bit, that will be nice.”
Lowell Gess says if he does contract Ebola while in Sierra Leone, he won’t seek treatment in the U.S., even if that means dying in the country he regards as his second home.