Dr. David Gaus grew up in the pews at Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Milwaukee, where he saw the immense importance of faith, set by the example of his mother and father.

Milwaukee native Dr. David Gaus (left) started Andean Health and Development in Ecuador in 1994. (Submitted photo)

“Our world was a Catholic world,” he said, remembering fondly that his family never missed a Mass. “We’d even go to midnight Mass and get up a few hours later for Mass on Christmas day.”

At Marquette University High School, Gaus spent countless hours on the field playing soccer but his love of the sport made room for what would become a lifelong devotion to giving his time volunteering wherever he saw a need. He said, “We all pitched in during high school and started to see what a difference it could make.”

The day before Gaus left for college at Notre Dame, he asked his father, who spent his career working as an accountant, what he should study.

“He told me, ‘Accounting, of course,’” Gaus said. “Because when companies close, the last guys to leave are the accountants.”

He took his father’s advice and declared his major but by the time he was a junior, he knew his heart wasn’t in it and his soul searching began.

At Notre Dame, a notoriously social service-oriented school, he was surrounded by students and teachers who were involved in effecting change where they saw a need. Gaus remembered how much it had meant to him during high school and started to get involved in small projects on campus. He said it was then he got the bug. When he began to read about liberation theology, he got excited and his desire to go do volunteer work in Latin America sprouted.

In high school, Gaus had a classmate whose mother ran the Working Boys Center, a development organization in Quito, Ecuador, that’s committed to reducing child labor. As he began to think and pray, the idea of Ecuador was something that kept coming back to him.

After listening to an inspiring commencement speech his junior year, Gaus decided to talk to Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame, to see if he might be able to help get him to Ecuador. His mind was made up; all he needed was help figuring out how he would make it work.

Fr. Hesburgh took him under his wing, and encouraged him to follow God’s call wherever it took him.

“He taught me so much,” Gaus said. “You don’t make a decision because it’s easy, or it’s cheap, or someone told you to. You make a decision because it’s the right decision.” Gaus knew that for him, Ecuador was the right decision.

For two years, he put his education on hold and volunteered at an orphanage in Ecuador. He set up a boxing program where his days began at 5 a.m. and finished after 10 p.m. He said he’d get into bed exhausted every night but with the satisfying feeling of having done something useful and good. As he looked around and saw the overwhelming poverty and a deep need for accessible health care, he knew he had to go home and study medicine so that he could get back to Ecuador and make a change.

Gaus wrote a long letter to Fr. Hesburgh and told him how the experience changed him and deepened his faith and resolve; he knew what he had to do but he didn’t know how to make it work. Fr. Hesburgh quickly wrote back and told him to come home to Notre Dame, take the required pre-med science classes, and work as an assistant rector in one of the dorms. “We can take it from there,” Fr. Hesburgh wrote.

In a stunning execution of Divine Providence, Fr. Hesburgh mentioned David Gaus to his good friend, the famous columnist Esther Pauline Lederer (Ann Landers), who read Gaus’ letter on a long flight to Iowa. After she read it, she asked if she could help him get back to Ecuador. Knowing student loan debt would keep the eventual Dr. Gaus in America after he graduated from medical school, Lederer paid his tuition for two years so he could finish his pre-med and later helped arrange a scholarship for him to go to medical school at Tulane University to study tropical medicine.

“She was another person who took a chance, just like Fr. Hesburgh did, on this kid with a half-baked idea about doing something,” Gaus said. Their belief in his mission inspired him and gave him the motivation to strive for greatness. “To have people like that behind me was the only reason I did.”

In 1992, he earned his M.D. and master’s in public health and tropical medicine from Tulane and headed back to Ecuador. Unsatisfied with the idea of working for an established organization that wouldn’t be actively working to improve the lives of Ecuadorians, Gaus focused on building something that was sustainable a few hours outside the capitol, where the population didn’t have access to healthcare. Seeing up close that the centralized public system in Ecuador wasn’t working well, his goal was to create a financially self-sustainable healthcare model that would provide service to even the poorest Ecuadorians.

Thus, Andean Health and Development was born in 1994. What started as a small municipal project became a hospital in Pedro Vicente Maldonado (PVM). It opened in 2000 and, by 2007, it was financially self-sustaining. Now the hospital serves more than 80,000 people in the surrounding communities. The Hesburgh Hospital opened in Santo Domingo in 2014 and achieved the same self-sustainability as the first in 2018. Both now function as teaching hospitals and have partnerships with the government and its social security system that allow them to offer healthcare to all.

“I spent the first several years trying to modernize the community and bring healthcare standards up to a different level,” Dr. Gaus said. “They’ve pulled us into their pre-modern world just as much as we’ve pulled them to us, and that’s how it has to be.”

Gaus has a deep respect for what he calls the path to the cure, knowing that in Latin American culture, traditional medicine has a great importance. He’s learned the importance of figuring out the local context and resisting the urge to superimpose western medicine onto people who have survived generations without it.

He recounted a story of a man coming to him and saying, “You know, doc, it’s OK that you came here, but before you got here we were living just fine, but you came here and now we have all these diseases and medications.” His goal is to train physicians to understand that.

Over the past 10 years, ADH has graduated 70 Ecuadorian physicians who now continue their work in rural Ecuador and alongside Gaus as he does research and writes medical manuals and co-manages the Saludesa online journal, Practica Familiar Rural.

The list of awards he’s received is long, among them are the Social Entrepreneur for Latin America by the World Economic Forum and the Humanitarian Award by the American Academy of Family Physicians, but Dr. Gaus doesn’t mention one. His greatest concern is that he makes his life useful, that through his work he’s able to act as a conduit between the resources from an industrialized country and the Ecuadorian physicians who provide excellent healthcare for needy communities. “It’s not me,” he said more than once. “What I do, what I’ve done, it’s all because I was helped by very generous supporters and found really smart Ecuadorian physicians to get involved. It’s all because God asked to use me, and I said ‘Yes.’”

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