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, but were not prepared for the subsequent events that transpired. Brother Tommy Freeman, a pastor and one of my best friends had been telling us for several years about a medical mission team from Shreveport, Louisiana that had been doing missions in Oaxaca for the previous 15 years, and we made the huge decision to join them that particular year. Dr. Charles Black, a well-known and respected surgeon in Shreveport was the trip coordinator, and he and his wife Mercedes had hearts of love and compassion for the people of Oaxaca, having made the 2000 mile trip to Niltepec with their team since 1969. Brother Tommy had previously 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 had 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 and in preparation, both the Scurlock’s and Cathy and I attended an organizational meeting at the Black’s home in Shreveport where we got to meet many of the team members. There were surgeons, anesthetists, nurses and other volunteers that were present at the meeting. The excitement was building for the trip which included not only surgical procedures for about 100 patients, but also Bible studies for adults and children along with distribution of Bibles and tracts to people in the area.

Our family began making preparation months in advance of the trip and since we had no experience in what to take, we probably took too much. John was 17 years old and was planning to assist in the surgical area without 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 14 while Ginny was 12 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 we were taking,and when we finally departed El Dorado, the van was packed with no spare room.

We followed the Freeman’s and the Scurlock’s en route to Brownsville, Texas where we connected with the remainder of the team from Shreveport and spent the first night there. There were 5 other vehicles including a large trailer which contained the surgical equipment for the 100+ surgical procedures that were scheduled to be done. Dr. Scurlock and I would be doing hernia repairs and some gynecological procedures. A surgeon who was skilled in cleft palate repair was making his 4th or 5th trip and Dr. Black was skilled in club foot repair so there were a variety of planned procedures. We were also prepared to do any necessary emergency procedure such as appendectomy or trauma surgery.
The next morning which was Friday, the entire 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 our clearance. Dr. Black had all the documentation and letters of need from the proper officials in Oaxaca that had served them well for all the prior years. Mercedes and several others on the team were fluent in Spanish so there was no problem with communication with the officials at the gate. As time lagged on and we all waited in the huge parking lot, we suspected something was going wrong. After about 3 1/2 hours, Mercedes came out and told us, “Unfortunately, they are not going to let us into Mexico.” The excuses given ranged from the fact that we did not have the proper documentation; to there was a border war in Nicaragua and it was too risky to allow us to enter. They said since it was already Friday, if we wanted to wait until Monday, we could then communicate with officials in Mexico City and perhaps could get clearance from them. We all knew this was simply a delaying tactic, and we were not crossing that border. The next morning which was Friday and with the full team together, we drove across the border to the customs office at Matamoros, and we thought it would take about an hour or so for our clearance. Dr. Black and his team had made the same trip for the previous 15 years, and they had all the documentation and letters of need from the officials in Oaxaca that had served them well for those years. Mercedes Black and several others on the team were fluent in Spanish and had no problem with communication. As time lagged on and we were all waiting in the huge parking lot, we suspected something was going wrong. After about 3 1/2 hours, Mercedes came out and said to us, “Unfortunately, they are not going to allow us to come into Mexico.” The excuses given ranged from the fact that we did not have the proper documentation; to there was a border war in Nicaragua, and it was too risky to allow us to enter. They said since it was already Friday, if we wanted to wait until Monday, we could then communicate with officials in Mexico City and perhaps get clearance from them. Those prospects were dim and we all knew that we were not going to be allowed into Mexico at this time.

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 asking “Why this disappointment?” and “Why now?” A member of our team was a reporter from The Dallas Morning News and he was planning to document a day by day account of this mission, and it was to appear daily in that large paper. Instead he wrote of the refusal of the customs officials to allow us to enter Mexico, thus thwarting the humanitarian effort to their own people. The article was printed on the front page the following day and was picked up by the AP and then appeared nation-wide. Above is a partial reprint of our church bulletin and a copy of that Dallas Morning News article.

We know that God is sovereign and He could have changed those official’s ruling which prevented us from carrying out our planned mission. We have to remember the passages that God will direct our paths and sometimes will block those paths to accomplish His will. I believe that He protected us from dangers ahead of which we were unaware and ultimately accomplished His purposes in us and in those people in Niltepec as well. Thanks be to God who daily fills us with His riches and leads us in His paths of righteousness!

Dr. John

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The Tuxedoed Preacher

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In the course of my spiritual journey, I have had the privilege of listening to some of the best preaching in the world delivered by some of the most wonderful men I have ever met. I wish I could testify that with my hearing, I have always sought to obey the challenges and heed the warnings of these great men of God. There were certainly 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 36 years of my life I would characterize myself as being in the seeker category.

When I was 12 years old on Easter Sunday, I walked down the aisle at First Baptist Church, El Dorado and asked to be accepted into membership of that great church. While it is true that I wanted to please my parents which I did; it was more significant for me at the time that I do exactly what my good friend Richard (Bussey) Crawford had just done. I was soon baptized which to my understanding at the time, forever sealed my standing as a Christian and gave me the assurance that I would spend eternity in heaven with all the saints before me.

My church attendance was regular when I was living at home because I wanted to be with my buddies, most of whom were also members of First Baptist. During my college years, my attendance was very sporadic, and I was not at all satisfied with First Baptist, Fayetteville because I  thought the pastor was too harsh in his condemning attitude towards the sinful behaviors 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 that I could report to my parents that I was attending church somewhere. In medical school in Little Rock, I was even less inclined to receive any spiritual training with the oft-repeated excuse that “I was just too busy.”

When I moved to Atlanta to begin my internship training, I had drifted so far from any spiritual emphasis in my life, that I never considered church attendance until 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 that faith was also important to me despite the fact that my actions to this point were just the opposite. I can’t remember the church we attended, but it might well have been 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 to us that 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 that 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 in implementing integration. This was a very brave action for these men in those times. The second thing unusual about him in particular was that he regularly 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 that 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 that 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 that 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 both Cathy and me years later. We now know and understand that faithful church attendance does not make one a Christian. It is based entirely on a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. One doesn’t need to have a pastor that wears a tuxedo, although that is unique. One does needs a faithful preacher of the Word of God, and also one who has the courage to tell everyone, even college kids how to rightly live.

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 of medical practice for me because I had just completed my training as a general surgeon, and this was the beginning of my surgical career. I was the only surgeon assigned to Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Georgia, and that was perfectly alright with Cathy and me, because the war in Viet Nam was raging and surgeons were continually being sent there.

I had the total flexibility of arranging my work schedule to suit me, but because I was eager to gain needed experience, I was aggressive in seeking out and 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 I was given to assist him supplemented our meager Air Force salary. Our Hospital Commander saw the benefits of my gaining additional operative experience and enhanced judgments and techniques that I could learn from a more experienced surgeon. It was simply a  beneficial arrangement for 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, and after my examination I was certain of the diagnosis. He was a 10-year-old dependent of an active duty airman, and his parents had not delayed in their seeking medical care. I was confident that he had an early case of appendicitis and was not in immediate danger of perforation which severely complicates the treatment and increases greatly the complication rate. I scheduled him for operation later that afternoon. I asked Dr. Parkhurst, the referring pediatrician if he would like to assist me in the procedure, because he had earlier told me if I needed an assistant, he would really enjoy the opportunity. He had never seen an appendectomy but in past years had referred many patients with that infection.

The time was late July and the south Georgia weather was especially hot and humid that summer. 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 patients. I had been told that the air conditioning unit in the OR had been malfunctioning, but the use of fans in the operating suites had made the situation more bearable. I was confident in my ability to do the appendectomy quickly and be out of the OR in forty-five minutes or less. I would have been much less likely to schedule a longer case that weekend because of the heat, but thought I could do this one quickly. That was mistake number one!

By 4 PM on a Friday afternoon, most of the hospital personnel had gone home for the weekend, and 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 always did an excellent job. She was usually very verbal and in addition to keeping me aware of the patient’s condition on the OR table, she would engage in some light-hearted chatter which was not distracting and helped lessen the usual tension in such a setting. At the beginning of the procedure I noticed that she had decided to simply mask the patient rather than place an endotracheal tube which is routine for every major operation. She knew that I was able to do an uncomplicated appendectomy quickly and rather that traumatize the child unnecessarily, she could keep him asleep safely by mask for the 15-20 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 deftly removing it. All the while I was showing Dr. Parkhurst some anatomical landmarks that he had only been able to palpate externally. He seemed to be really enjoying the experience and the teaching. Within 10 minutes of beginning, I was ready to close the wound and realized we had not heard a word from Captain Coleman since we began. With my eyes still fixed on the wound, 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, so she could be treated. I was pretty certain she had simply fainted from the heat but was still not sure if she might have had a cardiac event.

When I finally looked at Dr. Parkhurst, he had the most startled look at what had just unfolded before his eyes! I had never seen 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 confidence, because if I would begin to waiver, Dr. Parkhurst might even faint. After what I had just seen, I wasn’t sure what might happen next!

Just as Bob began to follow my instructions, Captain Coleman recovered and even though still a little groggy, she insisted she could take over her duties long enough for us to finish. Much to Bob’s relief, I rescrubbed my hands; donned a new, sterile gown and finished the procedure. Despite the unbelievable event, we still were able to finish in under 45 minutes.

Thankfully, the boy recovered quickly and was able to go home with grateful parents the next day. They never knew what had happened that afternoon in the OR. We all learned valuable lessons that day at Moody Air Force Base, and we carefully stored them in our experience bank. I am certain that I have used some of those lessons in my decision making processes since. I just don’t remember whether Dr. Parkhurst ever asked to assist me in the OR after that.

Dr. John