The Night The Band Went Down

High School Marching Band

High School Marching Band

The year Cathy and I moved to El Dorado in the fall of 1971 I was approached by Dr. Paul Henley, a local surgeon and also president of the school board. He told me he had been the El Dorado Wildcat team doctor for over twenty years and was ready to step down. He said he was going to appoint me as the new team doctor with the intent of later appointing me as a member of the school board when he retired. I was definitely interested in the team doctor position, but was skeptical of serving on the school board. At the time I didn’t understand despite Dr. Henley’s good intentions he did not have the authority to appoint me to the school board. He did however, have the authority to appoint me as team doctor, so I accepted. I later discovered no other doctor in town wanted the responsibility of what I thought was a coveted position!

There were several good reasons I wanted to serve as team doctor. I am a sport’s enthusiast and wanted to use this opportunity to spend time with our son John who was five years old when we moved. I knew we would be able to make some of the away games together, and for all the home games he could be down on the sidelines with me. On one of the early out-of-town games we rode in the team bus, but I soon realized we were taking two seats for players who otherwise might travel with the team. I drove my car on all subsequent trips which gave John and me more time together without distractions.

Over the next twenty years I really enjoyed my relationships with the coaches, the players and all the ancillary people involved in the high school sports scene at El Dorado. I got to know quite a few of the parents who regularly attended their sons’ games and had to answer more than a few questions concerning injuries their sons might have had and the long-term consequences. Two men with whom I developed an excellent relationship as a result of my position were the Superintendents, Dean Tommey and later Bob Watson. For the last few years of my service Bob Watson and I would ride together to many of the out-of-town games, and this was a special blessing for me.

The most unusual and potentially serious situation which very few team doctors have ever faced occurred one Friday night when we were playing an unnamed state school at home in Memorial Stadium. The weather was miserable as there was a constant drizzling rain throughout the entire game. Fortunately there was no lightning so the game could be completed, but in hindsight it would have been better in all respects had the game been cancelled. Our team was soundly defeated, and there were several players who sustained injuries which caused them to miss several subsequent games. The real problem occurred at the end of the game and didn’t involve the football team at all. It involved about one half of the visiting team’s band!

When the final buzzer sounded and I was preparing to go into our dressing room to evaluate any injured player someone shouted I was needed on the south end of the field at the twenty-five yard line. There was so much rain and with players and fans mingling on the field I couldn’t see what had happened. While hurrying there someone said a visiting band member had fainted on the field. As I arrived at the student she was lying on her back with her band marching cap still on and had her eyes closed. With the rain beating on her face, she still had a blink reflex so I knew she was conscious. I felt her carotid pulse which was elevated giving me more confidence her condition was not life threatening. When I asked her what had happened she said, “I think I have been poisoned.” I asked, “How do you think that happened? to which she responded, “Maybe it was the chips and queso I ate.” It began to sound phony, because she was not complaining of stomach pains and had not vomited.

While talking with her someone shouted, “There’s another one down, and another, and a whole bunch!” I saw at least twelve to fifteen band members down on the ground some rolling and moaning while others were lying quietly holding their stomach as if in pain. I hurriedly moved to three or four students, all band members, and found the same findings with nothing appearing serious. While kneeling and talking to one student in this mass of confusion there was a gentleman standing upright, quietly looking down at this one. He seemed to be in control of his emotions, and I asked him who he was. He identified himself as the Principal of the visiting school. I asked him what he thought was happening and he said, “I think this is an hysterical bunch of n******.” My response to him was, “The only thing I know is you need to be responsible for getting everyone who claims to have been poisoned to the emergency room of our hospital.” We certainly didn’t have ambulance space for this large number of students on the field, and they did have a band bus.

I went to the dressing room and alerted the emergency room there might be as many as fifty students who were coming to the ER all claiming to have been poisoned. I told the ER nurse to call every available physician to come provide care for this mass casualty situation. By the time I arrived Dr. Jacob Ellis, an internist had arrived and had taken charge of the emergency situation. There were at least ten other physicians who had responded and were beginning to assess the students. After questioning the first student I took Dr. Ellis aside and told him I believed I could solve this problem.

I asked if he would allow me to choose one student who was complaining the loudest, and I would insert a large gastric lavage tube into his stomach and pump all the contents from his stomach. It would empty his stomach within sixty seconds, but would be associated with much retching and gagging. When the other students saw this they would quickly exit the emergency room unless they were truly sick. He declined saying medico-legally we were obligated to treat each one as a possible poisoning, which included blood work, toxicology screening and observation for increasing symptoms. It took over three hours, but eventually all the students were deemed healthy and released. It had all been a giant prank!

The ER bill for all this work was sent to the visiting high school, but I never learned how it was settled. It was probably in the range of $10-15,000 for a prank these students devised. We later learned they had done the same thing in another town about a month earlier. I can only imagine the disciplinary action the school principal took on these band members.

I still wish I had been allowed to pump out that student’s stomach. It probably would have saved the visiting school a lot of money. At least we learned the chips and queso sold by our stadium concessions were safe to eat and did not contain some serious bacteria!

Dr. John


Ministering in the El Dorado Jail

PrisonerJail ministries are tough because the ones incarcerated in jails and prisons are tough. Very few prisoners are willing to admit their guilt for the crimes which caused their imprisonment, and many will say or do whatever is necessary to be released immediately. I have not been involved in an ongoing prison ministry except when Cathy and I provided support and encouragement for a young man who was an inmate in our county jail. There was not a designated jail or prison ministry of which I was aware sponsored by a church in El Dorado, Arkansas during the thirty years we lived there. My initial experience of visiting the local county jail for the express purpose of witnessing Christ occurred as a result of an emergency surgical procedure.

As a surgeon with the Surgical Clinic of South Arkansas my responsibilities included taking weekend ER surgical call one weekend per month. There were some weekends which were extremely quiet and no emergency surgeries were required but those weekends were rare. In a small town like El Dorado it was possible to hear the siren of most of the emergency vehicles as they travelled to the hospitals. Whenever I heard a siren while on call I  wondered if a close friend or even a family member was being transported to the ER, and it would create in me a level of anxiety. For at least ten years after I stopped taking emergency room call I felt the same anxiety upon hearing a siren.

On one particular weekend late on a Saturday night I received a call from the Warner Brown Hospital emergency room. A forty year old woman had been admitted with multiple, severe knife wounds to the face, neck and shoulders. They reported she had lost a lot of blood but was conscious and alert. I arose from bed, dressed quickly and was in the ER in less than ten minutes. The nursing staff had done all the preliminary lab work and had called the OR team to come to the hospital in preparation for an emergency operation.

Without being too graphic she sustained major disfiguring lacerations to her face and multiple stab wounds to the neck, right shoulder and upper abdomen. Her right arm was totally paralyzed. When I asked her how all this happened her answer was, “My husband had been drinking heavily tonight, and when we began arguing about it, he went completely berserk and attacked me with his hunting knife.” She said, “While he was hurting me, his eyes were fiery red and he looked just like Satan.” In all of my years as a trauma surgeon, I had never seen such extensive knife wounds, and along with the entire emergency team had great compassion and sadness for this innocent woman. We gathered around her and prayed for her before taking her to the OR.

My surgical team had the reputation for the ability to operate quickly and efficiently, but for this particular patient with the nature and severity of her wounds, it took us in excess of six hours to complete the repairs. Throughout much of our time in the operating room many comments were made such as, “How could anyone do such a thing?”, and “I hope he has to go to jail for a long time.”, and one person even said, “If he looked and acted like Satan, I hope he joins him in hell!” The comments were made by the women present in the OR, and I could understand their indignation on behalf of this poor woman who would be forever scarred and disabled. I remained quiet most of the time, but did say, “Since they have  arrested him, I wonder what he is thinking now that he has sobered up?”

I finished all of my hospital responsibilities by 6:30 A.M. and decided to go to the jail before returning home to shower and shave in preparation for church. Usually one had to have special permission from the sheriff to visit an inmate in the County Jail, but I thought the jailer on duty might be sympathetic to my request and not require prior authorization. When I told him I had a report for this inmate on his wife’s medical condition he consented to my unauthorized visit. I was not allowed into the cell which contained at least five other inmates, but I stood outside the bars speaking as quietly and privately to the man as possible.

He had mostly sobered up from the previous night’s bout of excessive alcohol, and as far as I could tell he was lucid and very sorrowful. I told him I had spent the night in the operating room repairing the damage he had inflicted on his wife, and her life had been spared. He immediately fell on his knees crying out, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry!” I did tell him the injury to her right arm resulted in complete paralysis, and it could be months or even years before she could use her arm again, if ever.

In the midst of his sorrowful weeping he asked the question, “What can I do to make up for this?” I responded by saying, “There’s a lot which needs to be done, but the best starting place is for you to repent of the shameful life you have been living, and invite the Lord Jesus into your heart.”  “I’ll do whatever you say I need to do,” he cried. “If you are serious and you really want to change and have a new life you must confess, repent and ask the Lord Jesus to save you,” I told him. I helped him pray a tearful prayer of repentance while still on his knees. When he stood I could only shake his hands through the bars and told him I would be praying for him and would continue to medically assist in his wife’s healing process.

The following day I contacted the pastor of a sister church in El Dorado whom I knew would follow-up on this man and his decision. There is no way I could discern this prisoner’s heart motives, but I witnessed and heard his prayer. I also know our Savior told us in His Word, He came to set the prisoner free, and from the moment this prisoner asked for mercy, he received it in full measure. It is wonderful to know we can never fall so far down we are out of reach of our Father’s hand.

Dr. John