Grateful couple wants to give back for ‘million-dollar’ education

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Sometimes the worst tragedies can turn into the biggest positives, UNMC graduate says

The trees were tall, some over 100 feet high.

The loggers who climbed them wore spikes on their shoes and chainsaws strapped to their waists. One of them was Dave Fritch’s dad. He was a fit and healthy 40-year-old when, one February day, long ago, he was cutting the base of one of those trees.

Its top was partially cut. He didn’t know that though. The vibrations from his chainsaw must have knocked it loose.

It fell on his head.

Knocked him down.

The other men rushed Dave’s dad to the closest hospital, which was in Atlantic, Iowa, but his condition grew worse and he had to be transferred to the Veterans Hospital in Omaha. Dave stayed by his side. He watched doctors do everything they could over the next two weeks to fix his dad’s hemorrhaging brain.

Dave could tell they cared, especially a neurosurgeon from the University of Nebraska who helped Dave through the process and was the one who informed him that they couldn’t save his dad.

Dave was just 21 when he had to sign papers to take his dad off life support.

“That was a very difficult time,” Dr. Charles “Dave” Fritch says this day decades later, in a phone interview from his California home. “But that really changed my life – in wanting to do more things for other people.

“Sometimes, the worst possible tragedies can turn into the biggest positives.”

It changed his career path, too.

Before the accident, Dave had his mind set on becoming a history teacher and coach. He’d been a big-deal baseball player – one recruited at 17 to a Yankees training camp – and was playing ball at a small Nebraska teachers college on a full scholarship.

After the accident, he decided to become a doctor – one who not only takes care of his patients but also cares about them. He wanted to be a doctor like the University of Nebraska faculty who treated his dad so well at the VA hospital.

Dave notified the teachers college that he no longer would be playing baseball, forfeited his scholarship and transferred to Creighton University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha for pre-med classes, and then he went on to med school at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

He’s now an ophthalmologist, one considered a pioneer in the field. He’s the founder and owner of Fritch Eye Care Center, one of the largest cataract and refractive practices in California. He’s helped develop modern surgical techniques in cataract and retina/vitreous surgery and holds patents for surgical advances in lens implantation and endoscopic laser surgery.

And he’s given back to his alma mater for all it’s given to him.

He and his wife, Judy, are major donors for what will be the Dr. Charles and Judy Fritch Center for Surgical Innovation at the Truhlsen Eye Institute. The center will be located on the UNMC campus, across the street from the new Truhlsen Eye Institute. It’s expected to be built by the fall of 2016.

The Fritch Center will make the Truhlsen Eye Institute a “one-stop” place for clinic appointments, surgeries and follow-up care. It will have several ophthalmic suites equipped with state-of-the-art technology, and it will be dedicated to teaching the latest surgical techniques and eye procedures.

Long ago, if you’d told Dave he’d be part of all of this, he might not have believed it.

He didn’t know back then how he’d even afford his dream to become a doctor.

He started pre-med studies at UNO with maybe $400 in his pocket. A woman in the admissions office let him know that he’d be able to pay much less if he were a resident. She told him how to become one quickly, by going down to city hall and registering to vote. That helped a lot. So did scholarships.

So did his work ethic, which he had learned from his dad, who was a farmer and, in the winter months, also ran that logging crew.

Dave worked his way through school, often with two jobs at a time. He worked for Wilson Packinghouse in South Omaha, lugging beef. He worked in construction for Kiewit. One hot summer, he shoveled cement for a crew helping to build the interstate between Omaha and Lincoln.

Each night, Judy would clean that cement from his jeans.

“We barely had enough money to stay in school,” he says.

Judy worked hard, too. The summer before her first year of nursing school, she cracked eggs all day at a factory in Malvern, Iowa. (She set a record on her last day – cracking enough eggs for 200 gallons of egg whites.)

After med school, Dave spent two years in the Army as a flight surgeon and then completed his ophthalmology residency at UCLA’s Kern Medical Center.

They’ve been philanthropic for many years.

Judy, an exercise advocate who founded Lifetime Fitness in Bakersfield, is a lifetime member of the board of directors of California State University of Bakersfield.

“When you’re in philanthropy for a while,” she says, “it turns into one of the biggest joys in your life.”

Even though they both grew up in western Iowa, both feel like Nebraskans, too. The values are alike. Iowans and Nebraskans grow up knowing that you have to help people.

“If a neighbor was injured and couldn’t get out to the field, you helped harvest the corn,” Dave says. “Everyone pitched in, and it made a difference.”

You have to care for people.

Says Dave: “Our philanthropy is based on the understanding that God doesn’t always work as we expect, but God continues to whisper and guide us. It is an honor to hear and see all the opportunities He is providing. All that was required on our part was to open our eyes and ears.

“The University of Nebraska School of Medicine has played a large part in that process.”

One of Dave’s favorite professors in med school was a man named Stanley Truhlsen. It was clear to Dave that the professor knew ophthalmology. But it also was clear to him that he truly cared about the patients.

One day a few years back, Dave received a letter from his old professor, inviting him to a groundbreaking ceremony for a new eye clinic at UNMC. He and Judy decided to come back and visit campus. They were impressed.

They knew they wanted to give back to the Truhlsen Eye Institute, he says, which now is becoming “world-class.”

“And that comes by you taking good care of the people who walk in the door, doing the best job you can and looking to solve problems either through research or surgical intervention,” he says.

“That comes by making sure the minute they come in the door that they are our No. 1 interest and that comes by giving top quality care to that patient – not just for their eye problem, but by looking at them holistically and seeing what kind of problems they have and knowing as much as you can about them so that you can make good decisions for them.

“And that means that when you come with unusual problems that we can’t solve yet – like my father’s – you let them know that you’re going to work even harder to find solutions.”

Dave and Judy feel blessed for their lives, their health, their faith, their three grown children and spouses and three grandchildren.

They bring their grandchildren to tour UNMC when they’re back to Omaha (Dave and Judy live in Bakersfield, Calif., but they also love Omaha and its people and so they recently bought a condo in the Old Market).

Says Dave: “I’m hoping all of our grandkids will go to the University of Nebraska.”

The University of Nebraska, he says, gave him “a million dollar” education for very little money out of his pocket.

“And Nebraska helped us through a very difficult time, which doesn’t seem that long ago.”

The Dr. Charles and Judy Fritch Center for Surgical Innovation at the Truhlsen Eye Institute is one of the major fruits of the Campaign for Nebraska, now in its final year.

If you also would like to help UNMC and the Truhlsen Eye Institute, please consider giving online to the eye institute’s Excellence Fund  or to the Charles and Judith Fritch Fund , or contact the foundation at 800-432-3216.

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