April 2020


COVID-19 News you can use
Medical missionary shares insights on practicing amid epidemics

by Liz Hillman Editorial Co-Director

Lowell Gess, MD
Alexandria, Minnesota

“This world has faced problems of great magnitude before, but there has always been some who have persisted. We’ll come through this, too, and there may be a great trauma involved, but we will come through it.”
—Lowell Gess, MD

Lowell Gess, MD, practiced for more than 50 years as a medical missionary in West Africa, at times amid civil wars. In 2015, at then 93 years old, he voluntarily went to Sierra Leone to help in the Ebola epidemic. Dr. Gess, the ophthalmologist selected for the ASCRS Foundation 2020 Chang Humanitarian Award, has some unique insights for those practicing in the current pandemic with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), which causes the disease known as COVID-19.
“This is new,” Dr. Gess said. “The other epidemics, even when they were reaching toward pandemics, were of a different nature. For example, with Ebola, you had to touch the patient in order to get it. With COVID-19, you just have to be near the patient, because it is respiratory. If there is a droplet with a virus, it’s going to infect.”
Dr. Gess cited the infection and mortality numbers of the Ebola epidemic a few years ago compared to this novel coronavirus, which was first identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, and has since been identified in hundreds of thousands of cases around the globe. “It’s a different picture,” he said.
Dr. Gess, who established a practice in Alexandria, Minnesota, in 1975, began his medical missions to Africa in 1952, traveling back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean several times a year since then. When Ebola hit West Africa between 2014 and 2016, his calling as a medical missionary drove him again to serve.
“I knew the country well. They knew me, and I knew what facilities they had, and I could do what some others couldn’t do because of my background,” he said. “In the 2.5 months that I was there, we were able to really make strides. As an ophthalmologist, being that I was on the scene, I was able to impart some treatment that would save sight.”
Practicing in that situation is much like the atmosphere for medical workers around the globe today: no touching, social distancing, careful preparation of food and medical equipment.
“I had bleach and I would put 4 teaspoons in a quart of water and use it to rinse food items and my hands,” he said. “I didn’t touch another person for a total of 3 months. When I got home, I still had to be in isolation for 3 more weeks because I had been in the zone. Can you imagine not having touched another human being for 3 months?”
Dr. Gess knows something about being in precautionary isolation. It was similar to what many—including himself—are doing around the world now.
“You get used to it. I was able to get food, but it was mostly in cans,” he said of his time in West Africa during the epidemic. “I love baked beans as prepared by those in England—I just can’t get that same tomato sauce here in the States—with bread. I would put bread in the sun and turn it after half an hour. The sun was effective against the Ebola virus.”
Once home and in quarantine, Dr. Gess would see his family when they stood in front of the window.
“During those 3 weeks, entirely alone morning to night, I sat down and wrote a book called Ebola’s Den,” he said.
Dr. Gess feels for his colleagues in medical specialties, like ophthalmology, who have slowed or shut their doors during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.
“I commiserate with the ophthalmologists at the present moment because they’re facing such a shutdown in their practice,” Dr. Gess said. His granddaughter is among them.
While he acknowledged that it’s not easy to face patients when the breath they are exhaling could be carrying infectious particles, the need for ophthalmologists is still great.
“Even though we have developed telemedicine, there are cases of infection and trauma … that still need to have one on one,” he said. “You can decide not to do any elective surgery, but the ophthalmologist is still so desperately needed for all these other cases.”
Dr. Gess accepts that he’s likely going to get COVID-19, though he doesn’t know when, he said. Estimates are that a large portion of the global population (possibly 40–70%, according to Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch1) will become infected.
While the future is murky at this time, Dr. Gess said we will get through.
“This world has faced problems of great magnitude before, but there has always been some who have persisted. We’ll come through this, too, and there may be a great trauma involved, but we will come through it,” he said.
Ultimately, Dr. Gess said his hope is scriptural.
“I lived in Africa one time, in the midst of civil war, suddenly bullets flying all over and the only safe place
was in bed, so I went to bed and remembered Psalm 91,” he said.

About the doctor

Lowell Gess, MD
Alexandria, Minnesota


1. Coronavirus may infect up to 70% of world’s population, expert warns. CBS News. March 2, 2020. www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-infection-outbreak-worldwide-virus-expert-warning-today-2020-03-02/. Accessed March 23, 2020.


Gess: gessla@charter.net

Medical missionary shares insights on practicing amid epidemics Medical missionary shares insights on practicing amid epidemics
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