There are thousands of excited folks moving to Florida every year and tens of thousands more who would love to move to the Sunshine State. Cathy and I were very excited to move to Largo, Florida in October, 1999 with visions of beginning a new health care ministry there.
The First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks had been working for over a year on plans for a church-based health clinic when they contacted me in the spring of 1999 to consider becoming their first medical director. Initially I was intrigued with the concept and fully believed health care and healing should be part of the ministry of the church. However, I didn’t think a clinic like this would be a good fit for a surgeon. The organizers at the church had proposed the clinic to be a minor emergency room clinic with walk-in patients needing treatment for various acute and sub-acute problems. It was not planned to be a family practice clinic for treating chronic illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease or chronic pediatric problems. I felt confident in my medical abilities to manage such a walk-in clinic.
In addition the physician would function as the sports medicine doctor for the large Christian school which was part of the church and would have the privilege of lecturing in the school on health related issues. I was also told the church wanted to ordain me as a minister with full ministerial duties such as preaching, hospital visitation and baptism along with marrying and burying privileges. This would authenticate to the church body the clinic was a ministry of the church and not simply a free standing medical clinic.
In my early discussions with Pastor Charlie Martin I told him there were 2 major obstacles for our coming; the care of my aged Mom who was 89, and the requirement in Florida for taking and passing the Florida state medical exam. When I graduated from medical school thirty three years earlier I didn’t think then I could pass the extremely difficult exam. A physician member of the FBCIR (First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks) Clinic Board reviewed the requirements for physician licensing and reported to Pastor Martin a board certified physician in surgery could receive a Florida medical license by reciprocity and was not required to take the exam. I did not fact check the state medical laws of Florida which was a serious mistake. In the meantime Cathy had found a wonderful, sweet Christian named Minnie Springer who agreed to be the full-time care giver for Mom. It seemed the obstacles for us to make the move had been removed.
Following a visit to Largo and interviewing with the people associated with the clinic, we accepted their offer and planned our move in the fall of 1999. Cathy and I had spent hours together in discussion and prayer before coming to such a life-altering decision. We would be leaving home, family, church family and countless friends we had made for the previous twenty-nine years in El Dorado. I was convinced this was the will of God, and although Cathy was not as convinced, she chose to go willingly while honoring my decision.
No sooner had we settled into the home we purchased in Clearwater (a few miles away) in October of 1999, I discovered the information I was given concerning the Florida Medical Board was only partially true. A board certified physician requesting a reciprocity license must have taken a re-certification exam in his specialty within the previous ten years. I had never been required to take such an exam in general surgery. My only option at this point was to begin studying for the exam which was to be given in Tampa in early December.
I immediately began spending six to eight hours daily studying for the exam. I tried not to think of the consequences for failing to make a passing score. In the meantime Cathy and I immersed ourselves into the ministry of the church by agreeing to teach a senior adult Bible class. On our first Sunday five people attended, and only two of those sweet folks were able to walk without the use of a cane or walker. One required a wheelchair. We began loving on our class members by having fellowships and dinner meetings, and within six months the class attendance increased to over seventy. The rapid growth of the class was one of the highlights of our time in Florida.
I began my additional ministries to the church family by attending weekly church staff meetings and became acquainted with the twenty plus staff members. I made hospital visits, baptized at least six new believers and even preached the sermon one Sunday evening. Pastor Martin scheduled my ordination into the gospel ministry for the last week in November. The process required sitting for two hours before an ordination council of fifteen ministers and answer all their questions concerning my understanding of Biblical theology and Baptist church doctrine. They also asked me to describe my spiritual journey to this point.
The ordination service was a spiritual high for Cathy and me. All of our children and grandchildren were able to be present which was especially wonderful. My sister Marilyn and husband George Berry from Austin, Texas were able to attend. Cathy’s brother George and wife Dawn came from Fort Lauderdale along with her nephew Clay Selfridge from Kissimmee, Florida. My brother Berry Lee (Bubba) and one of his daughter’s, Rachel Uth from West Monroe, Louisiana also attended. Our good friend and evangelist Bill Stafford from Chattanooga, Tennessee came and both he and Bubba delivered the ordination sermons. The ordination was held on the Sunday following Thanksgiving which was helpful in allowing so many of our family members to travel to Florida. The weekend was a definite highlight of our Florida experience, but the the dreaded medical board test lay ahead the next week.
The first week in December I drove to Tampa and took the eight hour computerized test which was another first for me. In the previous fifty-five years of test taking I had never used a computer to take an examination. For the next three weeks our anxiety level was extremely high awaiting the test results, but I finally received written notification I had passed!! The final requirement for licensure was an interview with the full Florida Medical Board in Orlando one month later. To be continued ……