SALT LAKE CITY — A potential presidential candidate will join the University of Utah's John A. Moran Eye Center on a medical mission to Guatemala after Congress adjourns in August.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., owned his own ophthalmology practice and performed eye surgery for 18 years before being elected in 2010.
The trip came together at his request through the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery, for which Paul was the keynote speaker at a conference this past spring. The group's lobbyist put him in touch with the Moran Eye Center, which does extensive humanitarian work in South America, Africa and Asia.
Paul will receive no compensation for his work, and he has asked friends and donors to contribute about $20,000 to help the Moran Eye Center pay for the costs of the trip, including the transportation of advanced microscopes and other equipment into the Guatemalan mountains.
"His staff called and asked if we would be willing to put together some type of outreach work for him and he did specifically request Guatemala," said Julie Crandall, a Moran outreach coordinator and ophthalmic technician who has been on more than 30 medical missions.
The center has assembled a 15-member team, including four Moran surgeons, to travel to the city of Salama, about 37 miles northeast of Guatemala City, for a week in mid-August. Paul invited two more surgeons along with members of his staff and media, she said.
Moran acknowledged it would not be an ordinary trip. It creates logistical and safety challenges and takes cooperation between the U.S. and Guatemalan governments.
"We're great with eyes, but we're not great with security," Crandall said.
The son of former Texas congressman and two-time Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, the senator has talked openly about his own possible run at the White House. Paul attended former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's retreat for 2016 Republican hopefuls in Deer Valley last month. He spoke at GOP conventions in Iowa, Texas and Idaho and has visited South Carolina, an early presidential voting state.
Paul told the Washington Post that the trip doesn’t play into his political future "in any conscious fashion."
"I’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s what my first passion has been — medicine and surgery — and I figured I spent a long time learning how to do it, and I wanted to give back something," he told the Post.
Crandall said the team hopes to do 200 cataract surgeries in Salama during the week. But she said the center never goes into an area without making a five- to 10-year commitment to the local medical facility and doctors. In this case, she said there is only one ophthalmologist serving about 800,000 people.
Cataracts are a leading cause of blindness, accounting for 47 percent of eyesight loss worldwide.
"What is really positive about the senator joining our trip is that it brings attention to the need for doctors from privileged countries to be helping in the developing world," said Lynn Ward, Moran executive director for external relations.
While having Paul on board shows the need in Guatemala, the center hopes it will raise awareness for sustainable eye care and its commitment to reversing preventable blindness, Ward said.
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