The Free Medical Clinic of the Ozarks – Part 2: The Death of a Vision

Free Clinic


On October 1, 1999 I assumed the position of Medical Director of Indian Rocks Medical Center. The pathway to the position began in the spring of that year, and now Cathy and I made the decision to move our lives and our ministry to join The First Baptist Chuch of Indian Rocks in Largo, Florida. I was confident God had clearly directed me to this position, but Cathy was less certain. She said she believed it was God’s will for her to be supportive of me, and thus she consented to this major life change.

Upon arrival we began searching for a suitable home and with the help of a real estate agent found the perfect home for us in Clearwater, which was a 20 minute drive from the church. After we had our household goods moved into this lovely home which was not far from the beach, we at least had this part of our mission secured. Upon applying for a Florida state medical licence we would face our first major obstacle in Florida. I had been assured of getting a licence by reciprocity without taking the Florida board examination, because I was board certified in general surgery. What I didn’t know was the information was correct if I had been re-certified within the previous 10 years. Because I was initially certified in the early 1970’s I was not required by the surgical board to take the re-certification exam, so the result was I did have to take the Florida state medical exam.

I had to now spend the next 2 months intensively studying for an exam that many doctors right out of training are not able to pass. I studied and prayed while Cathy prayed because our remaining in Florida hinged on the result of this exam! I took the exam in December in Tampa, and it was an 8 hour computerized exam with which I had no prior experience. There was an agonizing wait of almost 3 weeks before I received the result; but praise God I passed. I had to appear for an interview before the full State Medical Board in Orlando in January 2000, and then I was finally granted a license to practice medicine and surgery in Florida. It seemed at this point all of our major barriers had been scaled.

Throughout all of this time I was working for the church as a staff member, having been ordained as a pastor by the church in November during the Thanksgiving week. I was allowed to preach on several occasions and was responsible, along with the other pastors for baptisms and hospital visitation. Cathy and I were teaching a School school class for senior adults, and that class grew quickly from 5 people to over 60 in a matter of a few months. We were both ministering to them in home visits, class fellowships in homes and restaurants, hospital visitation and just loving on them. The majority of people living in Florida have moved there, and it is unusual to find someone who was born and raised in the state. Consequently these folks from every part of the country are craving friendships and solid Christian principles on which to build and maintain their lives. This part of our church life was fulfilling, but the medical part which had brought us there was beset with problems.

Initially the concept of the clinic was one of a minor emergency facility treating patients with injuries, minor medical problems and those needing minor surgical procedures. As a general surgeon I was qualified to handle those types of problems. In addition I was to be the team physician for the Christian school and possibly teach a hygiene class and perhaps biology at the school. The clinic concept began evolving to become more of a family medical clinic in which I would be responsible for treating  chronic problems like hypertension, diabetes, heart problems and pediatric illnesses. These problems were outside my area of expertise and would be placing the clinic and me in a vulnerable position given the medical liability environment of Florida. The structure of the governing board of the clinic included 2 physicians both of whom were specialists, and neither had any primary health care experience. From a medical standpoint they were not beneficial to me in an advisory capacity. The chairman of the board was not a medical professional, and I was an ex-officio member who was not given a vote on any board action. After the clinic opened in February with the usual snags associated with a new clinic, I found this practice model was not going to work for me or for the clinic. I tried for 2 months to work through the barriers but became more frustrated the harder I tried. In early May with the counsel of Cathy and Bubba for his medical expertise, I made the decision to resign immediately from the clinic, and we began the process of re-ordering our lives and ministry.

Cathy and I decided to move to Fayetteville, Arkansas where our daughter Ginny and her husband John Luther lived. I would explore the possibility of working as a wound care physician or possibly as an ER physician. I felt like a failure in terms of what I believed God had clearly spoken to me regarding a faith-based medical clinic. I could not allow myself to be paralyzed with self-pity but was willing to begin the re-building of a medical practice and the re-structuring of our lives in another city. This re-location process represented 2 major moves within an 8 month period, but Cathy is very resiliant and we were excited to move back closer to family. It was very disappointing and a little intimidating for a 60-year-old unemployed physician who had never experienced a major professional life failure, to begin looking for a job. I could not have made such an emotional transition in life without the love, prayers and support of Cathy.  I assumed that a faith-based medical clinic was not to be in my future and I stopped praying about such an idea.  ——–to be continued.

Dr. John

The Free Medical Clinic of the Ozarks – Part 1: The Birth of a Vision


Free Clinic

In 1977 when Cathy and I  attended the Bill Gothard seminar in Dallas and were transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit by receiving Jesus Christ as our personal Savior, everything in our lives changed. The change in our hearts and minds was instantaneous, but the visible changes in our actions were progressive. The quality of our relationship with each other skyrocketed, because we more clearly understood our marriage was literally made in heaven, and God had made us one flesh. That foundation enhanced our commitment to raise our 3 children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

In my professional life as a surgeon I understood more clearly it was God who had given me the skills to become a surgeon, and now He placed in my heart the desire to use those skills to minister the life of Christ through my professional life. My brother Berry Lee (Bubba) had 10 years of experience of ministry through his medical practice, and he began pouring his life and  those experiences into me. The early years of witness were awkward in many respects, because apart from Bubba, I had never worked with any physician who had such a passion to minister. It was not the fact that there were none; I just had never been associated with one. The sad reality was the spiritual drought I had experienced in my 15 years of post-graduate medical training and then 7 years of private practice.

A specific vision God gave me very early was the idea of a medical clinic as a designated ministry arm of the local church. Since Jesus Christ is The Great Physician, it seemed a logical step for a church to offer the healing of Jesus Christ in the form of a clinic dedicated to excellent medical science. In addition to Bubba and me, there were 2 other like-minded Christian doctors in our church in El Dorado, and we met with our pastor on 3 or 4 occasions over a 1 year period to discuss and pray about such a clinic. An undertaking of this magnitude needed the leadership of one physician, and none of the four of us at that time were willing to assume that leadership role.

Approximately 7 years after these initial meetings with our pastor, Brother Tommy Kimball I placed a telephone call to Brother Charlie Martin, a pastor friend in Largo, Florida. I was inquiring if he would be interested in making a mission trip to South Africa with a mutual pastor friend, Brother Bill Stafford, who had an international ministry there to pastors. Brother Charlie said he had a conflict with the dates of that particular trip, but then said, “Brother John, I have something to ask you. We have been planning for over a year to open a medical clinic as a ministry of our church. We had a physician designated to be our director, but just last night he said he had to withdraw for personal reasons. We didn’t know where to turn, but prayed God would show us the man, and now you call. Would you be interested in becoming our first Medical Director?” I was stunned at his offer but began to wonder if perhaps God was opening a door. I got more details from him, and told him I would call him back within a week to discuss it further.

For Cathy and me to leave El Dorado we would be leaving family, life-long friends, a church we loved and where we both had leadership responsibilities, a town in which we had invested 28 years of our lives, and a very successful surgical practice. In going to Largo, Florida we would be going to a city we had only visited once, a church where the only person we knew was the pastor, an area where the closest family was Cathy’s sister Nancy who lived in Kissimmee, a 2 hours drive away, and we would be living on a significantly reduced income. On the surface, it seemed such a move made no sense, except the distinct impression God had opened this door for us, and He was testing our level of obedience. After Cathy and I spent many hours discussing and praying together and separately about the matter, we agreed to allow Brother Charlie to schedule a visit for us.

The First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks in Largo, Florida is a conservative Southern Baptist church and Brother Charlie Martin had been pastor for over 15 years. The church was large enough to need 12 pastoral staff members, and I would become #13 if I accepted the position. Everyone on the staff and all the church members we encountered were very supportive of this new medical ministry, and it was well-planned with all the necessary legal and medical pieces in place. The clinic was located in one area of the large Christian school, and as Medical Director I would also serve the school in a variety of ways. There were two major obstacles to our move apart from separation from family; the ongoing care of my elderly, invalid mother and a Florida medical license.

On returning to El Dorado to continue seeking God’s will, we were introduced to a Godly care-giver named Minnie Springer who had only recently become available to care for Mom full-time. Mom really liked Minnie and seemed to immediately bond with her and with her sweet spirit. Additionally a member of the Medical Clinic board at FBC Indian Rocks said his investigation concerning licensure revealed since I was board certified in general surgery, I would not be required to take the Florida board examination and could be issued a licence based on reciprocity. Now the two major hurdles seemed to be solved.

Without going into the agony of the hours of prayers, discussions, tears and anxieties of such a move, we finally decided to accept the offer. I would close my medical practice in El Dorado on August 31, and we would begin the move to Largo, Florida by October 1, 1999. It was both an exciting and scary time, but we were going with the belief this was the will of God for us. It has been our experience and one shared by most, it is much easier to discern the will of God than it is to obey it. Cathy and I were in for some rough waters ahead.     —–to be continued.

Dr. John

Never Sign Anything You Haven’t Read


Signed paper

Our son is a gifted attorney, and we are very thankful for his accomplishments, not only as a lawyer, but as a Christian, a husband, a father, as well as a son. He has given us wonderful advice on legal matters and in many areas of family and faith. One particular piece of advice from him that I usually try to follow is this; “Never sign anything that you haven’t read and understood.” Excellent advice for a time in our culture in which a simple handshake does not have the significance it once had. I have a special friend who is an evangelist, who was prepared on one occasion, to sign his name to a document that he had not read and certainly didn’t understand.  God’s grace and mercy prevented him from making that grave error.

Brother Bill Stafford lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee and has been a Southern Baptist evangelist for the greater part of his 55 year ministry. Cathy and I have grown to love Brother Bill and his wife Sue for more than 20 years, and have served with them on the board of The International Congress on Revival for almost 15 years. We have travelled overseas and served in that ministry to pastors and their wives, to encourage them, pray for them and help strengthen their ministries. All of their expenses were paid to come to a central place and to stay in a nice hotel where the annual conferences were held. That ministry was a spiritual highlight for Cathy and me, and especially wonderful in allowing us to know Brother Bill and Sue on a deep friendship level. Brother Bill trusted my counsel in spiritual matters, and he sought advice and counsel on health issues as well. In several instances, he allowed me to schedule medical tests and evaluations by other specialists, who were colleagues in my hometown. Bill’s home was at least 500 miles away, so appointments had to be scheduled well in advance.

For this particular appointment, Brother Bill had been experiencing some gastric problems requiring medications, and I thought it best that he have an endoscopic procedure on his stomach. This required preliminary preparations prior to, and the use of strong sedatives during the procedure. The only physician in our town qualified to do this procedure was an excellent doctor with lots of experience, but was not a professing Christian. I made him aware that my friend was a well-known Baptist preacher, and had travelled a great distance to have this procedure done.

On the scheduled day for the procedure and following the introduction of the two men, I decided to remain in the procedure room, in case anything unexpected might occur. I was feeling the responsibility for the safety of my friend, since I had recommended this colleague to him, and he could have had it done more easily in his own home where there were 20 or 30 equally qualified specialists. As the intravenous line was quickly inserted, and the sedative was being slowly given, I was feeling a little more calm, even though I was not receiving any of the sedative.

Prior to the insertion of the scope, the physician began asking  questions that are routine, but I could tell from the inflections in his voice, there was also some sarcasm. He asked, “Mr. Stafford, do you drink whiskey, beer or wine for special occasions?” Brother Bill chuckled a little with his answer, “No sir, I never have.” I could tell the sedation was beginning to work, because Bill’s words were slower than usual and his tongue was a little thicker. The doctor then asked, “Well, you probably use tobacco in some form. Do you smoke an occasional cigar or take a chew of tobacco when you go out on a fishing trip?” As more of the medicine entered his vein, Bill very slowly said, “No sir, I never cared for any of it.” Seemingly a little frustrated with the answers he was hearing, the doctor then said, “Well, I know when someone really makes you mad, that you will use cuss words! You occasionally cuss when you get mad, don’t you?” The doctor was certain that the amount of sedation Bill had received  would act like a truth serum, and he would discover how a preacher really acted and talked in private. I was thinking I might have to put my hand over Bill’s mouth just in case he would say something he would not want heard. Then in Brother Bill’s typical manner, he said very slowly and with a tongue so thick, it hardly sounded like his voice, “Well sir, if a man makes me mad enough, you could write some of those words on a piece of paper, and I would sign it!!” The skeptical doctor was astonished at Brother Bill’s candor, and even laughed at the response. I was greatly relieved that I didn’t have to intervene and Brother Bill didn’t have to sign anything that he had not read, and certainly didn’t understand at that moment.

Dr. John

A Divine Appointment

Brother Bill Stafford

Years ago at a weekly Bible study that I was attending, one of my good friends, Dr. Jim Weedman handed me an audio tape and said he thought I would enjoy it. It was a monthly tape sent to him by an evangelist of whom I had never heard. The evangelist was Bill Stafford from Chattanooga, Tennessee. The message delivered in Brother Bill’s unique preaching style was loud, compelling and convicting. I had never heard a preacher say “Amen” more times in one message. He interlaced Biblical truths with such force and humor that I re-played the tape 3 or 4 times to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I asked Jim to allow me to listen to the tapes each month after he was finished with them, and I looked forward with great anticipation to receiving them. I listened to each tape multiple times and practically had them memorized by the time I returned them.

Months later on one of the tapes, Brother Bill said that he would be preaching a revival meeting in a local Baptist church in El Dorado within the next 6 weeks, and I was very excited to finally hear him in person. I also anticipated joining his monthly tape club, so I wouldn’t always have to depend on Jim giving me his tape each month. I planned to attend the Monday evening service, because I had commitments at my own church for both the morning and evening Sunday services.

On the Monday afternoon clinic schedule in my surgical office, a good friend, Johnny Beebe had a minor procedure scheduled for 3 PM. As I was prepping the surgical site, I asked him if he was going to hear Brother Bill preach that evening since I knew they were good friends. He said, “Yes, I’ll be there tonight. In fact Brother Bill is staying at our home, and he came with me for this appointment!”  I said, “Johnny, you mean he is in my waiting room?” “He sure is,” he said. “Would you mind waiting a few minutes while I go out  to meet him?” Johnny was lying on his stomach with a sterile surgical drape over the operative site on his back and he said, “I’m comfortable, so go ahead and meet him.”

I walked to the waiting room and called Brother Bill back to my office suite. Following the usual introductory remarks, I told him how I had heard about him, and how much I had been blessed by his tapes each month. We had a lively conversation that lasted at least 20 minutes, and it seemed as if we had known each other for years. I lost track of time and had completely forgotten that Johnny had been lying on my exam table for over 20 minutes!  At that moment, I was thankful that he was a very good friend who would be forgiving for such a delay.

As Brother Bill and I walked to the door of the procedure room, I jokingly said to Johnny, “The reason it has taken so long, there has been an anointing, and the gift of healing has been transferred to Brother Bill. He is going to perform your procedure as his first act of service for the Lord!” Johnny said, “No sir; the only one doing this procedure is you, no matter how much anointing he has received!” Fortunately, despite the unusual delay, the procedure went well, and Johnny healed quickly.

A significant reason for the appointment that day was to allow me to meet Brother Bill and begin a life-long friendship. Over the next several years our relationship grew to the extent that he invited me to become a member of the governing board of the International Congress on Revival which he headed as President. This world-wide ministry to pastors and their wives, afforded my wife Cathy and me the privilege of travelling overseas for 15 years with Brother Bill, his wife Sue and the entire ministry team. We were able to invest our lives into the lives of hundreds of pastors and their wives, and to encourage them to remain faithful to the ministry which God had called them. The pastors attending those meetings represented at least 20 countries; including those in Western and Eastern Europe, England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, South Africa and several of the countries of the former Russian Republic. Our investment into those pastors lives was multiplied many times over through their ministry to the members of their congregations. As a result of Johnny Beebe’s introduction of Brother Bill to me, Johnny and his wife Martha Sue accompanied Cathy and me 12 years later in attending an ICR meeting in Newcastle, Ireland. It was a lively spirit-filled conference that ministered to 75 pastors and their wives, and gave the 4 of us the opportunity to spend a wonderful 2 weeks together. In addition to Ireland, we also travelled to London and spent time touring that city and a portion of the English countryside.

Brother Bill has had a profound impact on Cathy and me since that first meeting. He has encouraged and challenged us, and even rebuked me a few times when needed. On more than one occasion when there was a crisis situation in our family, Brother Bill was one of the first to respond with counsel, with prayers and with tears. Next to my brother who was my professional and spiritual mentor, Brother Bill has meant as much to me as any other man, and I thank God for him. I am so glad for those initial audio tapes from my friend Dr. Jim, which stirred my interest in a preacher known then as “Wild Bill”, and equally thankful for the appointment Johnny Beebe had that afternoon in my clinic. God used those two men to arrange for me to meet Brother Bill. Divine appointments are always perfect.

Dr. John