Gift Honors Lifetime Commitment to Eye Care in the Philippines

Alumni News // Featured News // News // Mar 08 2016

“[FREC was] witness to countless happy tales of sight restoration. There was the old couple, both blind from cataract, seeing again after twelve years upon initial treatment of one eye. When the bandages were taken off they beheld each other, speechless, then walked away hand in hand a bit wobbly yet sure of new beginnings.” —Jarius Bondoc, The Philippine Star, December 11, 2009

A Lifetime of Dedication

By Robert Castrovinci, MD University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences Ophthalmology Residency Class of 1977

When Dr. Guillermo (Guil) and his wife, nurse Marta de Venecia, started their journey of providing eye care in the Philippine Islands in 1978, they never realized that 36 years later they would still perform the same work and much more. They had the vision and the energy to bring sight-restoring surgery to the Filipino rural community, where thousands of people are needlessly blind from cataracts because of limited access to health care. “If surgery could be performed in Madison, why not the same in the Philippines?” Guil repeatedly asked. All that was needed was Guil’s vision, and Marta’s skills at organizing.

Dr. Guillermo de Venecia examines a patient’s eye at the Free Rural Eye Clinic in the Philippines. The Eye Clinic was a labor of love for De. de Venecia and many residents trained there. The gift to the Department will continue his work.

Dr. Guillermo de Venecia examines a patient’s eye at the Free Rural Eye Clinic in the Philippines. The Eye Clinic was a labor of love for De. de Venecia and many residents trained there. The gift to the Department will continue his work.

Guil grew up in an occupied Philippines during World War II. Early on, he knew his deep desire to help others was his life’s calling. He became a medical doctor and was attracted to Madison, Wisconsin where he completed his ophthalmology residency training with Frederick A. Davis, MD, the first chair of the Department, and Peter Duehr, MD. Guil studied eye pathology at the prestigious Armed Forces Pathology Program in Washington, DC, and returned to Madison to study retinal diseases and serve as a professor at the University of Wisconsin. Before long he opened the first Ocular Pathology Lab in Wisconsin at the University of Wisconsin- Madison Department of Ophthalmology, and ran an active medical retinal disease clinic- rising quickly to the rank of Professor. He also started the first Donor Eye Bank in Wisconsin. Guil used all of his vacation time to travel to the Philippines. Initially he developed a mobile, traveling system to provide free eye care in various parts of the Philippines. Before long patients started seeking him out, and Guil and Marta- along with friends, built the Free Rural Eye Clinic (FREC) in San Fabian near Guil’s hometown.

It is estimated that more than 300,000 people in the Philippines are blind from cataracts. As FREC evolved, people from all walks of life volunteered to help in the many tasks that needed to be completed. The volunteers were young and old, friends and family, retired and actively employed, medical professionals and non-medical volunteers, Americans and Filipinos. They all came together to be part of this ‘larger than any one individual’ medical-mission project. You can’t be part of one of these mission trips and not feel changed. When you make a part of someone’s life better you are changing the world, one person at a time.

If the people who work with FREC are the “life blood” then the “heartbeat” of FREC are the many generous donors that make it possible to give sight to blind people. The constant donations from our friends and family, and from the Wisconsin Lions and Lioness Clubs have made so much of the project possible. The dollars contributed to FREC went only to one thing – examining and treating blind Filipinos. Our estimate is that for every $15 donated, one blind person was able to see after surgery at FREC.

After 36 years of providing free eye surgery in the Philippines, nearly 250,000 patients were screened, and over 26,000 cataract operations were completed. That’s over 740 cataract surgeries each year. Guil de Venecia was an active director of FREC for those 36 years. In the early years, he spent weeks in the Philippines working, and after retirement spent half of each year. The enormous impact that Guil made over the 3½ decades is incalculable.

A gift of saving sight in perpetuity

The de Venecias, through the Free Rural Eye Clinics Corp. recently donated a significant gift to the University of Wisconsin Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences – The Guillermo and Marta de Venecia Fund of $422,000. This fund will be used by the Department to provide free eye care and surgery to indigent patients of the Philippine Islands, and to train tomorrow’s eye doctors and vision science researchers from both sides of the world with transformational overseas learning opportunities. The de Venecia’s dedication, generosity, and compassion manifested through their work and with this gift leave an indelible legacy. This Fund will touch the lives of many.

This extraordinary gift is accepted with deep gratitude by the Department’s Division of International Ophthalmology and the educational teaching programs for residents, fellows, and young researchers.