Lions Club honors a family of eye doctors at award dinner

Ophthalmologist Dr. Deborah Ristvedt received the Melvin Jones Fellow at the Alexandria Lions Club annual award dinner on Monday, June 14, for her generous and pioneering eye care work within the community. Ristvedt and her family attended as guests of honor.

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Three generations of ophthalmologists stand with 5-4 District Governor of the Lions Club after Ristyvedt received Melvin Jones Fellowship award. From left, Dr. Timm Gess, Dr. Deborah Ristvedt, Dr. Lowell Gess, and Governor Kelly Knutson. (Thalen Zimmerman / Echo Press)

Dr. Deborah Ristvedt, Alexandria native and ophthalmologist at Vance Thompson Vision, had no idea she was to receive the Melvin Jones Fellow award when she attended an annual dinner hosted by the Alexandria Lions Club on Monday, June 14

When newly appointed 4-5 District Governor of Lions International Kellie Knudson announced, “It is my honor to present a Melvin Jones Fellow to Dr. Deborah Ristvedt,” the room filled with smiles, clapping, and a standing ovation as a look of sheer surprise came over Ristvedt.

“I am so surprised and honored,” said Ristvedt, “I thought we were here to honor my grandfather.”

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Doctors Deborah Ristvedt and Lowell Gess share smiles of surprise and joy after Ristvedt was awarded the Melvin Jones Fellowship award at the Alexandria Lions Club dinner. (Thalen Zimmerman / Echo Press)


Her grandfather, Dr. Lowell Gess, an honorary club member, and her father, Dr. Tim Gess, are both ophthalmologists known as pioneers in their field. Both have practiced eye treatments in Alexandria since the 1970s.

The Melvin Jones Fellow, named after the founder of Lions International, is the highest form of recognition within the Lions Club and is presented to outstanding individuals who embody humanitarian values consistent with the nature of the Lions Club.

Ristvedt received her award for her generosity given to a patient. After the patient reached out to Lions International Chicago for help with a much needed cataract surgery, International contacted the Alexandria Lions Club to see what they could do.

“We reached out to Dr. Deb, and she did the surgery for nothing, pro-bono,” said Bob Dahlheimer, secretary for the Alexandria Lions Club.

Since she was a young girl, Ristvedt always knew she wanted to be a doctor.

“When I saw the work my dad and grandpa were doing, helping to treat blindness caused by cataracts,” said Ristvedt, “I knew I wanted to be an ophthalmologist.”

“Since she was 3 years old, I remember her saying she wanted to be a doctor like her dad,” said Joanne Gess, Ristvedts mother.

Ristvedt has been an ophthalmologist in Alexandria for the past eleven years. Currently, she is researching the use of MIGS, micro invasive glaucoma surgery, with her father, who came out of retirement to be her understudy. Ristvedt can use MIGS to treat glaucoma and cataracts simultaneously.


“My daughter has way eclipsed me. She is just amazing,” Tim Gess said. “You can’t imagine how proud I am of Deb.”

Dr. Lowell Gess, who turns 100 years this July, was also honored at the dinner. He received the Helen Keller Award for providing outstanding service within the community. Lowell has been a doctor since 1951. He has worked as a pastor, crossed the ocean 194 times, wrote six books (currently working on a 7th), and helped establish the Lowell and Ruth Gess United Methodist Eye Hospital in the west African nation of Sierra Leone. “The largest and best-equipped eye care facility in the country,” according to Global Ministries .

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Dr. Deborah Ristvedt pins her grandfather, Dr. Lowell Gess after he received the Helen Keller Award. (Thalen Zimmerman / Echo Press)

“I am so proud of her. She is doing such great work and pioneering,” said Lowell when asked about his granddaughters’ accomplishments, “She is a wizard.”

The Lions Club has been doing its part to find a cure for preventable blindness after Helen Keller called on the club to be her “knights for the blind” in 1925.

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Dr. Lowell Gess sticks an award pin on his granddaughter Dr. Deborah Ristvedt after she received the Melvin Jones Fellowship award at Alexandria Lions Club dinner as fellow Lions members look on. (Thalen Zimmerman / Echo Press)

Thalen Zimmerman of Alexandria joined the Echo Press team as a full-time reporter in Aug. 2021, after graduating from Bemidji State University with a bachelor of science degree in mass communication in May of 2021.
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