By Shawn D. Lewis / The Detroit News
A ramshackle building in the middle of a Guatemalan jungle is hardly the sterile environment required to perform eye surgery.
Despite the 12 hours it took to reach the makeshift clinic, it was like paradise for Dr. Walter J. Cukrowski, a Southfield ophthalmologist.
He looked past the windowless building and into the eyes of patients whose sight he was helping to restore during a medical mission performing free eye surgeries. He has participated in several similar missions across the globe, in places like India and Nigeria.
“Patients came 50 miles on foot through the Guatemalan jungle, some with their families,” said Cukrowski, a partner in the Michigan Eyecare Institute. “We didn’t have the best equipment, and volunteers would spend 14 hours scrubbing the building. But God gets done what he’s got to get done.”
Cukrowski, 37, of Birmingham comes from a family of eye specialists. His father is a pediatric ophthalmologist and his brother also is an ophthalmologist.
The doctor also repeatedly invokes the name of God in his conversations. He became what he calls a “born again Christian” in 1986 while an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. He also is a graduate of the university’s medical school.
“It is just a blessing to be part of this,” he said. “I always get more out of whatever I put into it.”
Cukrowski travels with a team of doctors who pay their own airfare and lodging. They also bring their own surgical instruments.
In one part of Nigeria, the microscopes were very old with no focus,” he said. “So doctors in the area in private clinics brought a portable microscope for us to use.
“Electricity is provided by a generators we brought with us. And we ask our reps to help us with supplies, like needles.”
During the Guatemalan mission, Cukrowski treated close to 100 patients in a week.
In Peru, he provided primary eye care on a floating medical boat.
“People there had TB, leprosy and malaria,” he said. “The Christian people of the town would send their kids to come and get us and guide us through the jungle. When we got to the end of the town, they were singing songs of praise.”
The doctor shuns accolades.
“I’m just a common guy trying to be of some use,” he said.
But others do praise the doctor.
Dr. Jaime Aragones of Rochester, an ophthalmologist and president of the Oakland County Medical Society, also travels on the medical missions with Cukrowski, most recently to Lagos, Nigeria in June.
“I have known Walter for six years, and he is one of the most altruistic human beings I know,” he said. “He has done so much for other people, restoring the gift of sight.”
Cukrowski also traveled to Nigeria with Dr. Chukwudi Okonmah of Clarkston, who practices emergency medicine at Crittenden Hospital in Rochester. He also is the outreach chairman in the Oakland Medical Society.
Okonmah, originally from Nigeria, has known Cukrowski for about a year.
“I had spoken with some doctors about having a health mission to Nigeria and Dr. Cukrowski was one of those who did wonderful work,” said Okonmah. “He is a good friend and the epitome of humanity. He worked very hard and restored sight to as many people as possible — some who were born blind.”
Cukrowski said the patients he treated were the “poorest of the poor.”
“They would let their children come before themselves,” he said. “Many of the children had cataracts because of malnutrition and not enough prenatal vitamins.”
One of Cukrowski’s patients when he returned to the United States was Archbishop Patrick Ekpu of Benin, an African country that shares a border with Nigeria. The archbishop is a childhood friend of Okonmah’s and when he visited him in July, Okonmah introduced him to Cukrowski.
“I had cataract surgery 28 years ago in Chicago,” Ekpu said. “But over the years, I developed glaucoma and I lost part of my vision. Dr. Cukrowski performed surgery on my eye on Aug. 2. I am very grateful and happy about it. I haven’t had any problems with my eye since then.”
You can reach Shawn D. Lewis at (248) 647-8825 or firstname.lastname@example.org.