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TAMPA — Tony Lazzara once enjoyed the lavish lifestyle of a single, successful doctor, including an expensive sports car and a posh three-bedroom condominium in Atlanta.
But the Tampa native gave it all up 30 years ago to open a home in Peru that cares for impoverished children who cannot get the medical attention they need.
Now, he dedicates nearly every moment to them.
Lazzara comes home to Tampa twice a year for routine health checks and time with family. He got to town March 1 and was to return March 24, but the Peruvian government closed its borders March 15 to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
There are at least two confirmed cases in the village of Chaclacayo where he established the children’s home.
The ban could be lifted at the end of the month, but Lazzara is worried it might not.
“This isn’t where I should be," said Lazzara, 77, who is staying with his brother, Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Lazzara. “I should be there.”
Thirty kids live in the children’s home, named Villa La Paz or “House of Peace."
Lazzara and his staff of 24 provide around the clock medical care and raise money to pay for complicated and expensive procedures. Six times, Lazzara said, he has flown children to Tampa for surgery.
It costs more than $30,000 a month to operate the home, primarily from donations, according to the Villa La Paz website.
“We have several children with a cleft palate, several with club feet, a child with leukemia who is very vulnerable, and quite a few with dislocated hips," Lazzara said.
The three-story house is “spacious and comfortable,” Lazzara said, and children now are now quarantined there.
He estimates they have enough food stored, mostly beans and rice, for up to two months.
The local supermarket is also donating but supplies may dry up, he said, as coronavirus spreads.
“I’m here raising money and doing what I can, but I could do more if I was there.”
He hopes the Peruvian government will grant him a waiver to enter the country. A social worker is staying at the home full-time until he returns.
Most of the children leave after a few months once they are well, but a few were abandoned and have lived there for nearly a decade.
These long-time residents are asking when Lazzara will return.
“I am their father. They are my children, all of them are. I should be there with them.”
Lazzara, a Jesuit High School graduate, is the son of Tony Lazzara Sr., who founded St. Petersburg’s Lazzara Oil.
The son went on to earn a medical degree from Tulane University, serve in the U.S. Navy for two years, then launch his career in pediatrics.
He was a tenured associate professor at Emory University, researching brain hemorrhaging in premature infants. He ran the neonatal intensive care unit at Egleston Children’s Hospital on the Emory campus and supervised the infant ward at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.
He spoiled himself with lavish possessions and loved a good party.
But visiting India as a tourist in 1982 changed Lazzara’s life. He witnessed levels of poverty he didn’t know existed. He decided he could do more with his medical expertise.
A year later, he moved to Lima to take a job at a medical center that needed a pediatrician.
In 1987, Lazzara ventured out on his own and founded Villa La Paz in Chaclacayo, 30 miles outside Lima in the foothills of the Andes mountains.
An American businesswoman in Lima learned of his home for children and paid to have a well dug. The American embassy contributed a freezer and stove. A Peruvian attorney gave Lazzara beds. Others donated money to build classrooms, administrative offices and a physical therapy room.
A documentary about Lazzara, Patients of a Saint, compares him to Mother Theresa.
The modest pediatrician brushes this aside.
“I just want to get home. My children need me.”
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