An Aborted Medical Mission Trip

Oaxaca Mission

In 1984 Cathy and I were very excited to prepare for and take our family on a medical mission trip to the southern tip of Mexico. We were not prepared for the events which followed. Brother Tommy  Freeman, a wonderful pastor friend had been telling us for years about a medical mission team from Shreveport, Louisiana who had been doing missions in Oaxaca for the previous fifteen years. We made the decision to join them this particular year.

Dr. Charles Black a well-known and respected surgeon in Shreveport was the trip coordinator. He and his wife Mercedes had hearts of love for the people of Oaxaca and had been making the 2000 mile trip to Niltepec with their team since 1969. Brother Tommy had earlier served in a Shreveport church, and he and his wife Joyce had a close relationship with the Blacks. As a result of their friendship they made several trips to Oaxaca with them. One of my surgical associates Dr. Bill Scurlock and his wife Barbara also decided to join the team. In preparation both the Scurlocks and Cathy and I attended an organizational meeting at the Black’s home in Shreveport where we got to meet most of the team members. There were surgeons, anesthetists, nurses and other volunteers who were present at the meeting. The excitement was building for the trip which included not only surgical procedures for one hundred patients, but also Bible studies for adults and children along with distribution of Bibles and tracts to people in the area.

Our family prepared months in advance for the trip, and since we had no experience in what to take we probably took too much. Our son John was seventeen years old and was planning to assist in the surgical area without actually having to be at the operating table. He had been in the OR once to observe an appendectomy, and it was not a good experience for him. He was also going to be available to Brother Tommy to help wherever needed. Mary Kay was fourteen while Ginny was twelve and they would be assisting Cathy and Joyce in doing backyard Bible studies with the children of the town. We rented a van large enough to transport all the Bibles and supplies for their part of the ministry, and when we finally departed El Dorado the van was completely full.

We followed the Freemans and the Scurlocks in route to Brownsville, Texas where we connected with the remainder of the team and spent our first night there. There were five other vehicles including a large trailer which contained the surgical equipment for the scheduled procedures. Dr. Scurlock and I would be doing hernia repairs and some gynecological procedures. A surgeon skilled in cleft palate repair was making his fourth trip, and Dr. Black was skilled in club foot repair. We were also prepared for emergency procedures such as appendectomy or unexpected trauma.

The next morning which was Friday the team drove across the border to the customs office at Matamoros. We thought the crossing would be routine and would take about an hour or so for clearance. Dr. Black had all the documentation and letters of need from the proper officials in Oaxaca which stated they had been well served for all those prior fifteen years. Mercedes and several other team members were fluent in Spanish, so there was no problem with communication with the border officials. As time lagged on and we all waited in the huge parking lot we suspected something was amiss. After about three and a half hours Mercedes came out and told us, “Unfortunately, they are not going to let us into Mexico.” The excuses ranged from the fact we did not have the proper documentation, to a border war in progress in Nicaragua which made it too risky to allow us to enter. They said since it was  Friday we could wait until Monday and communicate with officials in Mexico City. Perhaps they would grant us clearance. We knew this was simply a delaying tactic, and we would not be allowed to cross the border at all.

We were crushed and heart-broken. We joined together in prayer for the people of Niltepec, some of whom had traveled miles on foot to have the needed operations and would now have to wait at least another year. We cried and called out to God, “Why this disappointment?” and “Why now?”

One member of the team was a reporter from The Dallas Morning News, and he planned to document and publish a day by day account of this mission in his newspaper. Instead he wrote of the refusal of the customs officials to allow us to enter Mexico, thus thwarting the humanitarian effort for their own people. The article was printed on the front page the following day and was picked up by the Associated Press. It then appeared nation-wide. Above is a partial reprint of our church bulletin and the headlines of the Dallas Morning News article.

We know God is sovereign and could have changed the border official’s ruling which kept us from our planned mission. I believe He protected us from dangers ahead of which we were unaware and ultimately accomplished His purposes in us and in the people in Niltepec. Thanks be to God who daily fills us with His riches and leads us in His paths of righteousness!

Dr. John

The Tuxedoed Preacher

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In the course of my spiritual journey I have had the privilege of hearing some of the best preaching in the world delivered by some of the most wonderful men. I wish I could testify I have always sought to obey the challenges and heed the warnings of these great men of God. There were times I listened with a hungry heart, but also times when I was either a seeker living in disobedience or a believer with a cold and uncaring attitude. The first thirty-six years of my life I was definitely in the seeker category.

When I was twelve years old on Easter Sunday I walked down the aisle at First Baptist Church, El Dorado and asked to be accepted into membership of this great church. While it is true I wanted to please my parents which I did, it was more important for me to do exactly what my good friend Richard (Bussey) Crawford had just done. I was soon baptized which I thought at the time forever sealed my standing as a Christian and gave me the assurance of an eternity in heaven.

My church attendance was regular when I was living at home because I wanted to be with my buddies most of whom were members of First Baptist. During the college years my attendance was very sporadic, and I was not at all satisfied with First Baptist Church in Fayetteville. I thought the pastor was too harsh in his attitude towards the sinful behaviors so common among college students. I was more comfortable with the First Methodist Church, but was still only an occasional attendee there. It was important to me to report to my parents I was attending church somewhere. In medical school in Little Rock I was even less inclined to receive any spiritual training at church with the oft-repeated excuse, “I’m just too busy.”

When I moved to Atlanta to begin my internship I had drifted so far from any spiritual enrichment I never considered church attendance. This was before I met a beautiful young woman named Cathy Young from Fort Lauderdale. On my first date with her she told me how important faith was in her life, and I decided to take her to church the following Sunday. I definitely wanted her to believe faith was also important to me despite the fact my actions proved otherwise. I can’t remember the church we attended, but it was probably a Baptist church. My attention and focus were on her and not on any preacher.

At some point in our dating relationship it was suggested we might enjoy attending the Second Ponce De Leon Baptist Church on Peachtree Street because of the unusual preacher there. His name was Dr. Monroe F. Swilley, and we discovered he had been pastor of the church for over 20 years. There were two things unusual about him. He had the courage of his convictions because in 1957 when racial tensions were escalating all over the South he joined with 80 other Atlanta ministers to sign the Manifesto on Racial Beliefs. This document clearly stated their collective opposition to racial segregation and violence and admonished all Atlanta residents to obey the civil rights laws implementing integration. This was a brave action for these men in those times. The second thing unusual about him was he preached wearing a cutaway tuxedo. I had never seen a pastor wear such elegant attire. As I recall, he had grey spats on his black shoes.

My parents were eager to meet Cathy when she and I became serious in our intentions to marry, and they scheduled a weekend trip to Atlanta from El Dorado. One of the activities  Cathy and I planned for all of us to do was to attend church to allow them see and hear this extraordinary preacher that “wears a tuxedo.” As we took our seats at the beginning of the service and the pastor appeared, Pops said, “Why that’s ole’ Monroe!” I said, “Pop, do you really know him?” “Of course I know him, he’s one of the Swilley boys from El Dorado!” I was stunned at this revelation but not too surprised since I already thought Pop knew just about everybody. Following the service, we made our way to the front and Dr. Swilley immediately recognized Pop, and they had a reunion of sorts. Of course Dr. Swilley had no way of previously connecting me to my El Dorado heritage.

Knowing Dr. Swilley was from El Dorado perhaps caused us to attend church  more regularly following our meeting and introduction, but a real and lasting spiritual change came to Cathy and me years later. We now know and understand faithful church attendance does not make one a Christian. Salvation is based entirely on a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. One doesn’t need to have a pastor who wears a tuxedo, although it is unique. One does need a faithful preacher of the Word of God, and also one who has the courage of his convictions to tell everyone including college kids how to act and live rightly.

Dr. John

An Unusual Appendectomy

Infected Appendix

The two years I spent on active duty in service to our country was in the US Air Force from 1969 to 1971. Those were good years for me professionally, because I had just completed my training as a general surgeon and was a good transition into private practice. I was the only surgeon assigned to Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Georgia, and it was perfect for Cathy and me. The war in Viet Nam was raging and surgeons were needed and were continually being sent there. I was fairly certain the Air Force was not going to suddenly move me from Moody to Vietnam.

I had the total flexibility of arranging my work schedule to suit my needs, but because I was eager to gain needed experience I was aggressive in doing as many operative cases as possible. I developed a close working relationship with Dr. Bill Retterbush, a local Valdosta surgeon who had a large and growing private surgical practice. When I wasn’t busy at the base the Hospital Commander gave me permission to assist Dr. Retterbush with his operative cases, and the extra pay to assist him supplemented my Air Force salary. Our Hospital Commander saw the benefits of my gaining additional operative experience and enhanced judgments which I could learn from a more experienced surgeon. It was a  beneficial arrangement for Dr. Retterbush, the Air Force and for me.

I was able to treat or assist in the treatment of a number of unusual patients during those two years. One patient I remember well was referred to me on a Friday afternoon by the base pediatrician with suspected appendicitis. Following my examination I agreed with the pediatrician and was certain of the diagnosis. He was a ten year old dependent of an active duty Airman, and his parents had not delayed in seeking medical attention. I was confident he had an early case of appendicitis and was not in immediate danger of perforation which severely complicates the treatment. I scheduled an operation for him later in the afternoon. I asked Dr. Parkhurst, the referring pediatrician if he would like to assist me in the procedure.  Earlier he told me if I needed an assistant he would really enjoy the opportunity. He had never seen an appendectomy but in the past year had referred several patients with the infection.

The time was late July, and the south Georgia weather was especially hot and humid. The air-conditioned hospital provided much-needed comfort for the patients and hospital personnel, but I was soon to discover just how essential a cool environment is to the treatment and recovery of surgical patients. I had been told the air conditioning unit in the OR had been malfunctioning, but the use of fans had made the situation more tolerable. I was confident in my ability to do the appendectomy quickly and be completed in forty-five minutes or less. I would have been much less likely to schedule a longer case because of the heat and humidity. This was mistake number one!

By four PM on Friday afternoon most of the hospital personnel had gone home for the weekend. The only people left in the hospital were the emergency room staff, the inpatient staff and a few laboratory and x-ray technicians. Our anesthetist was Captain Coleman, who was career military and very skilled in her profession. She was very verbal, and in addition to keeping me aware of the patient’s condition during procedures she would engage in light-hearted chatter which helped lessen the usual tension in the OR.

At the beginning of the procedure I noticed that she had decided to simply mask the patient rather than insert an endotracheal tube which is routine for every major operation. She knew I was able to do an  appendectomy quickly and rather than traumatize the child unnecessarily she could keep him asleep safely by mask for the forty to forty-five minutes needed. That was a mistake number two!

With Dr. Parkhurst ably assisting me I located the diseased appendix quickly and placed the needed sutures securely before removing it. All the while I was showing Dr. Parkhurst the anatomical landmarks which he had only been able to palpate externally. He seemed to be really enjoying the experience and so was I. Within fifteen minutes of beginning I was ready to close the wound and realized we had not heard a word from Captain Coleman the entire time. With my eyes fixed on the operative field I asked her if everything was ok, to which I heard only a garbled response. I looked up to see her seated on her stool just at the moment her eyes rolled back in her head, and she began to topple backwards off the stool. I moved quickly behind her and caught her between my knees while grabbing the mask she had just released and kept it on the boy’s face. I didn’t miss a beat in the administration of the anesthetic gas that was keeping him asleep. I told the circulating nurse to quickly move a gurney into the OR and get someone to help her get Captain Coleman on it. I was pretty certain she had simply fainted from the heat but was not sure whether or not she had a cardiac event also.

When I finally looked at Dr. Parkhurst he had the most startled look at what he had just witnessed. I had never experienced anything like it, but knew we had to get this operation completed and awaken this child as soon as possible. I said, “Bob, have you ever closed a surgical wound?” He said he had not. I told him I could talk him through it easily enough, and was sure I could keep the child asleep while he did it. I wanted to show strong leadership and confidence, because I thought if I got rattled Dr. Parkhurst might faint. After what I had just seen anything could happen.

Just as Dr. Parkhurst began to follow my instructions Captain Coleman recovered and even though still a little groggy insisted she could take over long enough for us to finish. Much to my assistant’s relief I rescrubbed my hands, donned another sterile gown and finished the procedure. Despite this unbelievable turn of events we still were able to finish in under forty-five minutes.

Thankfully the young man recovered quickly and was able to go home with his grateful parents the next day. They never knew what had happened in the OR other than we had removed his appendix. We all learned valuable lessons in the hot OR that afternoon at Moody Air Force Base, and we carefully stored them in our experience bank. In my forty- plus years of operating on thousands of patients I never had another anesthetist faint during a procedure. It was quite a challenge for me and for Dr. Parkhurst. The experience was enough for him, because he never again asked to assist me in the OR.

Dr. John