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 move to join The First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks in Largo, Florida. I was confident God had clearly directed us here, but Cathy was less certain. She believed it was God’s will for her to be supportive of me and thus consented to this major life change.

Upon arrival we began the search for a suitable home with the help of a real estate agent and found our perfect home in Clearwater, which was a 20 minute drive from the church. The house was a short walk to the beach, and we felt blessed to find our home so quickly. Upon applying for a Florida state medical license we would face our first major obstacle. I had been assured by a physician on the Indian Rocks Medical Center board I could get a license by reciprocity because I was board certified in general surgery. Unfortunately I had not fact checked the information. Florida issues reciprocal medical licenses to all board certified physicians if they have been re-certified within the previous ten years . Because I was initially certified in general surgery in the early 1970’s I was not required by the surgical board to take a re-certification exam. The result was I did have to take the Florida state medical examination.

I had to spend the next two months studying for an exam which many doctors right out of  training are not able to pass. I studied and prayed while Cathy prayed because our future in Florida hinged on the result of this exam. I took the exam in December in Tampa, there was an agonizing wait of almost three weeks before I received the result. Praise God I passed. I had to appear for an interview before the full State Medical Board in Orlando in January, 2000 and was then granted a license to practice in Florida. It seemed all of our major barriers had been removed.

Throughout this time I was working as a church a staff member, having been ordained by the church as a pastor in November during the Thanksgiving week. I was allowed to preach  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 from five people initially to over sixty in a matter of a few months. We were 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 had moved from other states, and it was unusual to find someone who was born and raised there. Consequently many are craving friendships and solid Christian principles on which to build and maintain their lives. This part of our experience at Indian Rocks 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 minor office surgical procedures. As a general surgeon I was qualified to handle these problems. In addition I would be the team physician for the Christian school and have some teaching responsibilities at the school. The clinic concept began evolving to become more of a family medical clinic in which I would be responsible for treating 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.

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 everything in our lives changed. The change in our hearts was instantaneous, but the visible changes in our lives were progressive. The quality of our relationship with each other skyrocketed, because we more clearly understood our marriage was made in heaven, and God had made us into one flesh. The commitment to raise our  children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord escalated.

In my professional life I understood it was God who had given me the skills to become a surgeon, and now He gave me the desire to use those skills to minister the life of Christ. My brother Berry Lee (Bubba) had ten years of ministry experience through his medical practice, and he began pouring those experiences into me. The early years of witness were awkward, because I had never worked with any physician who had such a passion to serve Christ. I knew there were others, but I had never been associated with one. The sad reality was the spiritual drought in which I lived for the fifteen years of post-graduate medical training and seven years of private practice.

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

Approximately seven years after these meetings I placed a telephone call on a Monday morning to Brother Charlie Martin a pastor friend in Largo, Florida. I was curious if he had any interest in making a mission trip to South Africa with a mutual pastor friend, Brother Bill Stafford. Brother Bill headed an international ministry there to pastors and their wives, and they met annually near Johannesburg. 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.  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 back within a week to discuss it further.

For Cathy and me to move to Florida would mean leaving family, life-long friends, a great church, a town in which we had invested twenty-eight years of our lives, and a very successful surgical practice. Largo, Florida was much larger than El Dorado, and we had only been there once. The church also was much larger, and the only person we knew there was the pastor. Although Cathy grew up in Florida her closest relative to Largo was her sister Nancy who lived in Kissimmee a two hours drive away. In accepting the director’s position my income would be significantly less. On the surface it seemed such a move made no sense. However, I had the distinct impression God had just opened this door, and He was testing our level of obedience. After Cathy and I spent many hours discussing and praying together and separately, we agreed to allow Brother Charlie to schedule a visit for us to Largo.

The First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks in Largo, Florida is a conservative Southern Baptist church, and Brother Charlie had been their pastor for over fifteen years. The church was so large they had twelve pastoral staff members, and I would become the thirteenth if I accepted the position. Everyone on the staff and all the church members we met were very supportive of the 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 their large, adjacent 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 our separation from family; the ongoing care of my elderly, invalid mother and a Florida medical license.

On returning to El Dorado and continuing to seek God’s will, Cathy met a Godly care-giver named Minnie Springer, who had only recently become available as a full time care-giver. Mom really liked Minnie and seemed to immediately bond with her. Additionally a member of the Medical Clinic board at FBC Indian Rocks gave us very encouraging news. His investigation 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 license based on reciprocity. The two major hurdles now seemed to be resolved.

Following many hours of agonizing prayers, discussions with family, and the tears and anxieties of making such a move, we 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 moving with the confidence this was the will of God for us. It has been our experience and one shared by many thoughtful believers, it is much easier to discern the will of God than to obey it. Cathy and I were in for some rough waters ahead.

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