Garwacki remembered as staple of medical community

By Savanna Gregg

Burnet Bulletin

Dr. Janusz “John” Garwacki was a fixture in the medical community in Burnet for 40 years, and his memory still holds strong throughout the many lives he touched – and saved – during his 75-year career.

Karen Litterer, chief nursing officer of Seton Highland Lakes in Burnet, began working alongside Dr. Garwacki when she and her husband John moved to Burnet in 1984. 

“Dr. Garwacki was one of the more advanced physicians that we had at that time,” Litterer said.

Garwacki was a man of many skills, putting his talents and trainings to use in more than one task at Shepperd Memorial Hospital.

“He was the main anesthesiologist, but he could be that one day, then the surgeon the next day, and the family practitioner the next,” Litterer said.

Litterer worked as the circulator RN, working close with Dr. Garwacki during surgeries.

“He taught me many things, like how to intubate a patient,” Litterer said. “And not only would he operate on the patient, but he would see them to recovery in the ICU afterwards; he would take care of them.”

Though Litterer said he was known for talking abruptly to patients and “telling them like it is,” the care he had for every patient was evident in his work.

Between patients, Garwacki spent his free time speaking with the nurses at their station, tellings stories of his medical adventures which occurred decades before he began practicing in Burnet.

Garwacki's daughter, Kristina Garwacki, provided a riveting account of her father's life, in which every event led, one way or another, to his success as a doctor and philanthropic person.

“He was very interesting individual,” Garwacki said.

Garwacki had a very unique history, growing up and living in Poland for a large portion of his life. He was born in 1927 in Brześć Kujawski to Janina and Jan Garwacki; Janina was one of the first female dentists in Poland, and Jan worked as a mechanical engineer, specializing in turbine design. Garwacki met his future wife, Wanda, at 10 years of age. The two married at 18 years old and stayed side by side for 71 years until she passed away in 2015.

Garwacki was a teenager during World War II, and did forced labor for the Nazi forces occupying his country. During this time, he had a dispute with a German officer and was hit in the head by a shovel and left in a ditch for dead.

Escaping the looming possibility of being sent to a concentration camp, he managed to return home to his village and was whisked away to Warsaw, where he had the opportunity to work as an orderly in a hospital which was run by his aunt, one of the first female doctors in Poland. During his time working at the hospital, Garwacki was thrown into the world of medical care as the facility was bombed multiple times and he stepped up to pull people from the ruins to provide immediate care, as untrained as he was at the time.

With medical care running through his veins, Garwacki enrolled in medical school at Poznan University of Medical Science after the war and served two years in the military after graduating. After his term in the military was finished, Garwacki worked as a doctor on a medical rescue team in a mining area in lower Silesia, a region shared by Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic. During his time in that area, he was awarded a medal for his brave rescues in various mining disasters.

In 1960, Garwacki joined the Polish Peace Corps and worked as a doctor in West Africa until 1967, helping establish hospitals in Ghana to provide better health care experiences for its people, and in Zimbabwe as a regional doctor in Masvingo, holding clinics and overseeing vaccination administrations under the African sky.

“He told us stories about practicing in Africa and other places overseas, doing surgery on kitchen tables, and delivering babies out in the bush,” Litterer said. “He would share with the nurses how he practiced in all those remote places and helped people. He could practically do everything because he had to.”

When the discussion did not focus on foreign places medical procedures unheard of in Central Texas, Garwacki enjoyed talking with the nurses about philosophy.

“He really was a very intelligent and good physician,” Litterer said. “He could do anything that needed to be done.”

Garwacki renounced his Polish citizenship and his family were awarded asylum in the United States after the Jewish purges in Poland, which occurred in 1967 and 1968, and relocated to Rochester, New York, where he did an internship to acquire his American medical credentials.

“Rochester was very cold, and although the family enjoyed the winter sports of ice skating on the Erie Canal, the cold was too much after years of the African heat,” Kristina Garwacki said.

After working for a time in a Washington State hospital, Kristina Garwacki moved to Austin and began practicing at the Austin State Hospital.

“It was soon apparent that Texas was to be his permanent home,” Kristina Garwacki said. “The weather was warm and the locals were friendly.”

John Garwacki began working in Burnet in 1972 doing emergency medicine on the weekends, and joined the Shepperd Memorial Hospital in 1978. For the remainder of his time in the medical field and years after, Dr. Garwacki continued to put to work the skills and experience he acquired throughout his many adventures at home and in foreign lands alike, making a difference on the community he eventually called his home.

The public is invited to a memorial service and reflection of Dr. John Garwacki's life in Burnet, which will be held on Friday, Aug. 10, at 5:30 p.m. at Seton Highland Lakes, 3201 S. Water St., Burnet.

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