Death on the streets of Calcutta changed many lives

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary

He had the flashy sports car and the luxury apartment in midtown Atlanta, befitting a professor of neonatology at the Emory School of Medicine.

If his life were an open book, observers would say Dr. Anthony Lazzara, a graduate of Jesuit High School in Tampa, Spring Hill College in Mobile and the Tulane University School of Medicine was doing his Catholic thing very well – teaching medical students in the 1970s and early 1980s how to care for the most vulnerable patients imaginable.

At that time, babies born prematurely at 25 of 26 weeks gestation might have a slim chance to survive if offered the most technologically sophisticated care.

Some babies could not survive, of course, which was the worst part of Lazzara’s job – deflating the hopes and prayers of parents by delivering the sobering news that they had to let go because there was nothing he humanly could do to keep their tiny infant alive.

Lazzara also loved doing  neonatal research, which might help expand the timeline for survival. Today, some neonatologists have pushed the survival window back to as early as 22 or 23 weeks, but even then the chance for survival is still “very slim.”

In 1982, Lazzara and some doctor friends decided to travel to India for vacation, which included a side trip to Calcutta, not really a tourist hub. The trip had nothing to do with meeting Mother Teresa. But then, on a muddy sidewalk in Calcutta, Lazzara met the silent person who would change his life.

“It was a child covered totally by a blanket and who was not moving,” Lazzara said. “I didn’t know if it was a he or a she. Here were two pediatricians, looking at the child, and I asked my friend, ‘What if she were alive, what would we do? What if she were dead, what would we do?’ We did like everyone else. We walked right past the child.”

The encounter began to gnaw at Lazzara’s conscience to the point that he began to question openly his good-enough, Catholic lifestyle.

“I loved my work caring for children, teaching and researching, but when I saw the extreme poverty of the children on the streets of Calcutta, I began to vacillate,” Lazzara said. “I thought, ‘Maybe this is  not where I should be. Maybe I should be somewhere else.’”

Lazzara said it took him some time to make a final decision to sell his sports car and the condo and become a medical missionary in Peru, but, in the end, he figured if he didn’t jump into the deep end right away, “I would regret it later on.”

His colleagues at Emory were stunned.

“Some of my older professors who had trained me asked me why I was doing this, and they couldn’t understand,” Lazzara said. “In some ways, I didn’t understand either. It was something I had to do. I did have the backing of my family, even though they were taken aback and surprised.”

Since 1983, Lazzara has directed Hogar San Francisco de Asis (House of St. Francis of Assisi) in the foothills of the Andes Mountains about 25 kilometers east of Lima.

It is more than a medical mission. Lazzara now houses 36 children – ranging in age from 5 months to 17 years old – offering them not only medical care but room and board and schooling.

He started a newsletter a few years into his tenure in Peru, and the mission survives on the kindness of strangers.

Not that this would be easy.

“Have I had moments of true doubt? No,” he said. “Have I had moments of ‘what am I doing here?’ Yes. Daily Mass and the Eucharist is the only way I could do it.”

When Lazzara was in New Orleans last week to receive the Integritas Vitae (Integrity of Life) Award from Loyola University New Orleans – where his brother Richard graduated from law school in 1967 – he could not stop talking about the children he has met and cared for – and who have cared for him.

“We had one child who was born with no arms and had one good leg – the other was short and truncated – who came to us when he was about 3 years old,” Lazzara said. “All he could do was grunt. His mother brought him to me. I almost didn’t take him.

“At the moment, he is 18 years old, a permanent resident of the United States, hosted by a family in the Tampa area. He is home-schooled and goes to high school for his English and math. He is cruising toward his green card – that kid who I thought had no chance. I didn’t have anything to do with it. It was his host family who loved him. I don’t look at this as my work. God is using everyone to do his work.”

For information on supporting Lazzara’s work, go to www.villapazfoundation.org.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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