Dr. Emilio Justo at his Sun City West office.

Dave Martinez/Daily News-Sun

His family’s great escape changed Emilio Justo’s life forever. 

As the medical director of the Arizona Eye Institute and Cosmetic Laser Center, Justo will play host to an open house and patient appreciation day Friday at his Sun City West office.

It’s his way of saying thanks to the Sun Cities, which has helped provide him with a successful career.

However, none of it would have been possible if his family hadn’t decided to flee Fidel Castro’s Cuba in 1964.

“I was only 3 years old,” Justo said. “I don’t have any personal recollections of the escape, but I learned details from my parents.”

The 1960s represented dangerous times in Cuba.

The failed CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion occurred in 1961, followed one year later by the U.S.-Soviet showdown known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Paranoia and martial law had Cuba in a stranglehold, and no family went untouched by the long reach of the Castro regime.

Justo’s father watched helplessly as a cousin was gunned down by soldiers in a Cuban town square. Shot without warning, the cousin had violated a decree banning gatherings of three or more people.

Cuba had also implemented a mandatory currency exchange program, forcing citizens to turn in their money for the new and less valuable Castro-backed currency.

That’s when the Justos decided to act.

“My dad decided to bury our money in the backyard,” Justo said. “Later, he made friends with a Canadian diplomat, who took the money and used it to buy airfare for us to Mexico.”

Months later, the Justos arrived in northwest Indiana, relocated refugees in a new world.

Justo embraced his new home and immersed himself in academics. He graduated as the valedictorian of Andrean (Ind.) High School and then attended the University of Michigan, where he obtained his M.D. as well as his B.S. degrees.

Originally considering a career in obstetrics, he became drawn to opthalmology.

“We would frequently have guest lecturers and the opthalmologists always seemed like down-to-earth guys,” Justo said. “Plus, I liked the idea of a profession where you could touch a wide range of patients, from pediatrics to geriatrics.”

Tired of Midwest winters, Justo decided to move to Arizona in 1989 and joined a practice in Sun City.

“I came out here in March, stepped off the plane, and saw all the palm trees,” he said. “I knew this was the place for me.”

More than 22 years later, the Arizona Eye Institute and Cosmetic Laser Center has offices in Sun City, Sun City West and Wickenburg.

Justo, 49, has developed a reputation as a perfectionist when it comes to his patients.

Hours before he arrives at work, Justo pores over emails in his Paradise Valley home. The married father of two sons eats lunch at his desk each day and is usually the last person to leave the office at night.

“His attention to detail makes everyone a better person and worker in the office,” said Hersh Garrett, the office’s practice administrator. “If I were a patient, he’s the opthalmologist I would want.”

Justo also has dedicated time to tackle humanitarian causes.

He has participated in projects that provided ophthalmic care to indigent communities in Mexico and Cuba, and provided eye glasses and eye care to underprivileged schoolchildren in Phoenix.

The Arizona Eye Institute has annually collected used eyeglasses for the Lions Club and also conducted an office food drive which raised more than 1 ton of food for St. Mary’s Food Bank.

“I’ve been back to Cuba on a couple of occasions,” Justo said. “The first time I went back, my mom went with me and we visited the village where we used to live. We even knocked at the door and met the people who now live in our old home.”

The desire to give back to the community also has been the driving force behind the Arizona Eye Institute and Cosmetic Laser Center open houses, which began in 2009.

The event runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday at the the Sun City West office, 19052 R.H. Johnson Blvd.

There will be food provided during the event and prize drawings throughout the day. The day also will include live patient demonstrations and a question-and-answer session with Dr. Justo.

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